Parents start the year with the best intentions for lunchtime organization. This is going to be the year that we plan ahead, that lunches are healthy, that our mornings will be stress-free when it comes to getting out the door with well-rounded nutrition in hand. Then, about the third week in September, you find yourself stuck on a Thursday morning when your family has already eaten all of the week’s lunch supplies. You stuff Oreo cookies and Nacho chips in a plastic bag, make a jelly sandwich on the ends of the bread and throw a Hi-C juice box in the lunch box.

This is the year to turn it around. Get organized and skip the Lunchables and the pre-packaged chips and sugar-stuffed granola bars. Being organized can also mean saving money. By planning ahead, you can avoid resorting to expensive pre-packaged portions and instead fill reusable containers at the beginning of the week and have them at hand.

Organizing Tips

I recommend just planning one week at a time to keep things simple and lessen the chance of food spoiling or not getting eaten. Decide on what meals you want to have for the week, create a grocery list and go shopping.

Make lunches the night before. Please don’t save this task for the morning. You have way too much too much to do: dragging those sleepy-eyed kiddos out of bed, feeding them breakfast, brushing their teeth, gathering their backpacks and making sure you get them off to school on time!

Pick meals and snacks that are easy to prepare. Save the complicated meals for dinner time or for the weekends. The important thing is to make the lunches healthy.

Have designated containers that fit in the lunchbox, so you don’t have to dig around the Tupperware drawer at 6 AM trying to find a matching lid. After washing them, place them back in the lunchbox. Use BPA-free containers, to foster a more sustainable lifestyle for the whole family such as:

Organize your lunches

• Buy large packages of baked chips, baby carrots, low sugar canned fruit, cookies, etc., and create individual portions at home. Take time on Sunday to pack for the entire week.

• Use a shallow plastic storage container in the refrigerator to keep all your lunch supplies in one place — juice boxes, yogurt, cheese, fruit, cut vegetables, etc. These foods are off limits except for packing lunch.

• Try to cut down on sugar. Prepackaged foods like granola bars and some yogurts and drinks may seem like healthy choices, but you might as well be giving them cookies and ice cream. A healthy lunch sets the stage for a productive and successful afternoon. Plain yogurt has no added sugar, yet a 6-ounce container has about 12 grams of naturally-occurring sugar in the form of lactose. Fruit-flavored yogurt varies in the amount of sugar added, so it’s important that you read the Nutrition Facts panel. On average, the added fruit and sweeteners contribute about 14 grams of sugar, making the total sugars about 26 grams in a 6-ounce container.

• Let kids help! They are more likely to eat what they help prepare.

• Don’t worry about what anyone thinks. If your child loves the same lunch every day, give them the same lunch.

School Lunch Ideas                                                                                                                                                                                                   

As a former educator, I am well aware that nut allergies are a problem at most schools and nut products should not be sent to school. The majority of schools do not allow peanut butter, almond butter, nutella or any nut products or seeds. Here are some suggestions for school lunches that don’t include nuts or nut products:

  • Veggies – baby carrots, grape tomatoes and/or cucumber slices
  • Protein, such as, slices of lean ham, turkey or leftover meatloaf
  • Leftovers that taste good the next day, such as, pasta (especially if it has been prepared with pesto) or oven fried chicken from last night’s dinner
  • Fruit – apple slices + any seasonal or on-sale fruit, usually, grapes, kiwi, oranges, melon. Put some chopped fruit in a container with a lid and place it in the freezer the night before. It will be partially defrosted by lunchtime and will seem like a slushy.
  • Fruit combinations – mango and strawberries or watermelon with grapes
  • Bread -choose whole grain breads or crackers without nuts or seeds
  • Multigrain or whole-corn tortillas (for example, La Tortilla Factory) spread with reduced fat, flavored cream cheese and chopped peppers, or sliced turkey or chicken with thin slices of cantaloupe
  • Dessert – Homemade popcorn, pretzels, unsweetened applesauce or low fat chocolate pudding

Resource for more school lunch ideas: http://www.bentolunch.net/ which offers a collection of ideas from across the web, from simple embellishments on old standards — such as impressing pictures on sandwiches with cookie cutters — to elaborate lunch sculptures worthy of Food Network competitions.

Some Lunch Box Recipes

Alphabet Pasta Salad                                                                                                                                                                                                                       

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup uncooked whole wheat alphabet pasta, stars, orzo or any shape your child likes
  • 1/2 cup vegetables (whatever your child likes, such as peas, broccoli, corn or green beans
  • 1/2 cup reduced fat shredded mozzarella cheese
  • 1/2 cup diced fresh tomatoes
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon dried basil
  • 1/4 teaspoon dried oregano
  • 1/4 teaspoon powdered garlic

Directions:

Cook pasta in salted water according to package instructions (usually about 9- 10 minutes) and add vegetables during the last 5 minutes. Drain.

In a mixing bowl combine lemon juice, oil and seasonings with a whisk. Fold in pasta and vegetables carefully so as not to break up the letters.

Mix in cheese and tomatoes. Chill. Pour into individual lunch box containers.

Can be made up to two days ahead. Makes 2 cups.

Creamy Alouette Spread and Deli Turkey Wrap

Ingredients:

  • 2 whole wheat sandwich wraps or tortillas
  • 2 ounces light Alouette cheese spread
  • 2 ounces deli turkey slices
  • Cucumber, carrot and red bell pepper sticks

Directions:

Spread wraps with Alouette cheese. Place turkey on top of cheese. Place vegetable sticks on top of turkey. Roll up.

Pair mini muffins with yogurt or low fat cottage cheese, veggie sticks and cut up fruit. Store in the freezer and take one out for the lunch box when you pack the lunch.

Pumpkin Applesauce Mini Muffins

Ingredients:

  • 2 cups whole wheat pastry flour (you can use all-purpose flour also)
  • 1/2 cup brown sugar
  • 1 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1 cup canned pumpkin
  • 1/2 cup unsweetened applesauce
  • 1/2 cup canola oil
  • 1 tablespoon vanilla

Directions:

Preheat oven to 325 degree. Spray a 24 cup mini-muffin pan with non-stick cooking spray.

In a large bowl combine the flour, sugar, baking soda, cinnamon, and salt. Whisk together to combine. Set aside.

In a smaller bowl, combine applesauce, canola oil, vanilla, and canned pumpkin. Stir until all ingredients are combined.

Add wet ingredients to the dry ingredients. Stir until all ingredients are mixed through.

Using a small spoon or a melon ball scooper, scoop the muffin batter into the muffin tin. Only fill each cup 3/4 full.

Bake for 15-20 minutes rotating pan once halfway through cooking.

Banana Chocolate Chip Mini Muffins

Ingredients:

  • 1/2 cup mashed banana (2 small, ripe bananas)
  • 3/4 cup plain low fat yogurt
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 1/2 cups whole wheat flour
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon. baking soda
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/3 cup vegetable oil
  • 1/2 cup sugar or 1/4 cup light sugar alternative
  • 1/4 cup egg substitute
  • 3/4 cup mini chocolate chips

Directions:

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Spray a 24-cup miniature muffin tin with vegetable cooking spray.

Mix banana, yogurt, and vanilla in a small bowl.

Mix flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in a medium bowl.

Beat oil and sugar in a large bowl with an electric mixer at medium-high speed until light and fluffy. Add egg substitute and beat until smooth.

Reduce speed to low and beat in one third of the dry ingredients, then half the yogurt mixture. Add another one third of the dry ingredients, then remaining yogurt, and remaining dry ingredients, beating until batter is just smooth. Increase speed to medium-high and beat until batter light and fluffy, about 30 seconds. Stir in chips.

Completely fill each muffin cup with batter. Bake on oven rack adjusted to middle of oven until golden brown, 12-14 minutes.

Set pan on a wire rack to cool slightly. Remove muffins to a cooling rack.

Easy Low Fat Chocolate Cookies

Make a batch of these cookies and freeze them so they will be handy and fresh for lunch boxes. They will defrost long before lunchtime in the lunch box.

Ingredients:

  • 1/2 cup unsweetened applesauce           
  • 1/3 cup canola oil
  • 1/2 cup egg substitute
  • 3/4 cup sugar or 1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons light sugar alternative
  • 3/4 cup packed brown sugar
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 2-2/3 cups all-purpose flour or Eagle Ultra Grain flour
  • 1/2 cup unsweetened baking cocoa
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/3 cup miniature semisweet chocolate chips

Directions:

In a large bowl of an electric mixer, combine the applesauce, oil and egg substitute. Beat in sugars and vanilla.

Combine the flour, cocoa, baking soda and salt in a separate bowl. Gradually add to applesauce mixture and mix well.

Cover and refrigerate for 2 hours or until slightly firm.

Drop dough by rounded teaspoons 2 in. apart onto baking sheets lined with parchment paper or coated with cooking spray. Sprinkle each cookie with a few chocolate chips.

Bake at 350° F for 8-10 minutes or until set. Remove to wire racks.

Yield: about 3-1/2 dozen.

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