The Back-To-School Dilemma

February 11, 2014

It seems that summer just begins and suddenly, we are bombarded with ‘back-to-school’ ad campaigns designed to market as much stuff to our kids as they can absorb…and our kids? Well, they want it all.

One of the biggest challenges facing parents today is what to do about lunch at school…there has been a lot of news on the topic, what with some states creating strict guidelines for vending and soda machines…but very few concrete answers to the dilemma. As parents, how do we make healthy lunches for our kids…and have them actually eat them and not trade them for more ‘fun’ lunches the second they hit the playground? Or purchase their soda and snacks outside school?

School age children spend most of their day outside the home and out from under parental supervision. It is up to us as parents to create an atmosphere around food that is a healthy one…not an atmosphere around healthy food, but a healthy attitude toward food and eating…from there, it is a small step and not a huge leap to make healthier choices a regular part of the foods on your table. If children have a healthy relationship with food and eating, they will easily try new things and make healthy choices for themselves.

It all begins at home. We are all busy and do not live in the kind of society where families have hours to spend getting dinner ready. Those ‘Leave It to Beaver’ types of households are a thing of the past. However, there are ways in which healthy eating can be integrated into our busy lives. The result will be a calmer household with less chaos and drama, more energy and stamina for our days, more focus in and out of class. The quality of our lives changes completely with the quality of our food choices.

How do families create this seemingly euphoric atmosphere of healthy eating that carries over to when kids are by themselves? By integrating healthy eating into their lives in such a way children will want to participate in the choices, the eating and even the preparation. When I was a kid, the only ‘rule’ we had around food was that we could not say we did not like something unless we took a bite. After that, if we didn’t like it, we didn’t have to eat it. Cultivated from an early age, that simple rule resulted in all of us being a bit more adventurous at the table. There was no pressure, no food policing parents forcing anything on us. In that relaxed atmosphere, we would try things. Okay, maybe not me, but I claim to be the world’s fussiest eater.

Let’s say your kids are not used to natural foods and green living. Let’s say they are more used to dinner in a bucket? How do you make a change? Gently. Begin simply, perhaps by adding more vegetable dishes at dinner…just put them on the table and see how they go over, with everything else the family is used to. At first, a lot of your veggie dishes may become compost, but if your family sees that they are a regular addition to dinner and they see you eat them as an example, over time, you will see them change and try new things. Remember that it takes kids ten times of seeing a new food before they will be adventurous with it.

It is most important that the food be delicious and familiar to your kids. No one wants to be ‘weird.’ If your family likes spicy Mexican foods, liken your side dishes and veggies and healthier food options to that style of cooking. If Italian is their thing, let that style of cooking guide your hand…and so on.

Is it more work for already over-taxed parents to educate their kids to make healthier choices? Yes, it is. Will your kids still eat junk food when they are away from you? Most likely, yes. But when you create an atmosphere of respect for food, their bodies and yours, preparing and eating together, you lay the foundation for good health that will last all their lives.

You have choices here. You can either be the harried parent trying to read labels and make the best choice, while your child pulls at your pant leg, begging for the food they have seen on television, or you can be the parent who actively engages their child in what foods the family will choose to eat.

With just a little knowledge about food and nutrition; you can put together school lunches for your kids that will help them stay alert, focused and energetic all day long. Check this out.

Do your kids struggle with focus? Well, before you medicate them, try a few simple diet changes and see what happens. Chemicals, like additives and preservatives and simple sugars are the kiss of death to our ability to focus. Minimize any food that contains additives or artificial sweeteners; avoid processed lunch meats; avoid commercial crackers and cookies, choosing natural versions of their favorites. Minimize fruit juice (too much simple sugar…) and skip soda all together. Chemicals and sugar are a deadly combination for focus.

Do your kids struggle with post-lunch daze? Too much protein at lunch can make your kids feel tired as the afternoon wears on, so instead of meat for every lunch, try tempeh tuna salad, tofu chicken salad, veggie burgers or hummus. While still great sources of protein, they are easier for children to digest and will make them feel stronger and not leave them lethargic.

What about our kids’ desire for sweets? Not only kids love a sweet treat whenever they can get it. But simple, refined sugars have a devastating effect on our kids. (Us, too, but this is about the kids…). Not only do these sugars, found in commercial candies, cookies, snack foods, cereals, sodas and other soft drinks, rot out kids teeth and aid in the epidemic rise in obesity, but they deplete our children’s blood of essential minerals so essential to their vitality and well-being…like zinc, folic acid and calcium, to name but a few. On top of that, simple sugars cause glucose levels in the blood to spike and drop, giving kids a rush of energy (that in some kids can border on manic) followed by a ‘crash’ into lethargy and exhaustion. Excessive simple sugar consumption can cause moodiness in kids, temper tantrums, chaotic behavior…all resulting from wildly fluctuating glucose levels. One more thing about simple sugar…each ingestion of it suppresses immune function for several hours, so the more sugar your child eats, the more likely he or she is to catch whatever cold or flu that is going around…and to have it linger for far longer than it should.

So what do we do? Again, the change-over to healthier sweet options must be gentle. Once a child’s taste buds have grown used to the flavor of sugar, it is slow to change, about a month to be more precise. So patience is important. But try these gentle steps. If Oreo’s are your child’s favorite, find a substitute…my family will go for Newman’s Own brand…and while there is still sugar in these cookies, it is organic so I contains some of the minerals that refined sugar robs us of…and there are no preservatives, chemicals or preservatives.

With any sweet that your kids like, you can find a reasonable substitute for it in any natural foods store. From graham crackers to chocolate chip cookies to snack cakes, there really is no need for our children to eat poor quality sweets. And of course, you can always bake a batch of cookies on a chilly autumn afternoon for a real treat. Check out my chocolate chip cookies recipe video.

And then there’s fresh fruit…certainly better than any junk food snack I can think of, but you must keep in mind that fruit is an incredibly rich source of simple sugars, fructose to be precise…and sure, there are minerals, vitamins and fiber in fruit to help balance it all out, but the sugar can still be an enormous factor for some kids. So choose wisely for your own children. Avoid fruit juice as much as possible. If your child craves it, serve it cut with half the amount of water to cut back the intake of sugar.

And what to do when everyone at school is sick? This may surprise you, but if your child is strong and healthy, not eating a lot of sugar, then don’t worry. In fact, it might be a good idea for them to catch the cold or flu going around and get it over with. It will actually make them stronger for the season.

One thing you can do to help strengthen their immune function, however, is to give them daily doses of Echinacea for 6 weeks and then stop…(it loses effectiveness), but only after the age of 9…studies have shown that in children under the age of 9 (whose immune function is not fully developed yet), Echinacea has been shown to have no effect.

Most important, however, is that our children eat a diet rich in foods that keep them strong. There is enough in the world to weaken them. Their strong immune function needs to have its foundation in their daily diet, not so much in supplements.

Here are some easy-to-implement school lunch ideas to begin to incorporate into your child’s brown bag, to keep them strong, alert and vital…and that they might actually eat.

Sandwich ideas
Hummus wraps, in a whole wheat or vegetable wrap, rather than white flour tortillas, with lettuce and tomatoes, if your kids like them. Or pack hummus in a container with fresh vegetables or organic corn chips.

Baked tofu on whole grain bread (for the more adventurous child), with whatever condiments they like. Baked tofu comes in various flavors, ready to use in natural food stores and some supermarkets.

Veggie burgers, with your child’s favorite condiments, on a whole grain bun.

In place of lunchmeats, there are various lines of vegetarian lunchmeat options, made from soy and flavored to taste like the lunchmeats your kids are used to, with no saturated fats or chemical additives. On whole grain bread, from faux turkey to bologna, they will do the job nicely. Just look for the ones made from the least processed ingredients so you are getting the best quality.

Other ideas
Pasta salad in a container, with lots of their favorite vegetables.

Burritos made with whole grain wraps, canned organic beans and mild salsa.

Organic corn or potato chips on the side of lunch

Iced herbal tea, sweetened with brown rice syrup or coconut sugar, in a water bottle (if you freeze it, it will stay relatively cold until lunch time and be perfectly refreshing).

Fruit salad made from fresh fruit and a squeeze of lemon juice to help cut the sugar and increase flavor.

Nori rolls with brown rice and veggies (for the adventurous or older child).

Non-meat (vegan) hot dogs on a whole grain bun.

This will take some label reading, but begin to look at the options in a natural food store.

There are many fruit sweetened cookies which are better than sugar: chocolate chip cookies, peanut butter cups and even Fig Newton-type cookies…all made with better quality ingredients. And although they have some sugar, they come with no chemical additives and preservatives you will find in commercial brands.

Of course the best sweets for our kids are those made at home with whole grain flour and sweeteners like brown rice syrup and coconut sugar.

Once the kids get home from school, what to have for them for snacks? Again, the less sweets, the better. Try salsa and chips, hummus and veggies, pasta with tomato sauce, fruit and vegetable salads, sparkling water mixed with apple juice to break the soda habit, iced herbal teas, sweetened with brown rice syrup or coconut sugar.

However, you don’t want to deprive the kids of all sweets (many of them need the calories), so keep a few of the better quality ones on hand, organic dark chocolate, cookies, etc. to help keep everybody happy.

One last note, what is important for our kids is that they feel included in this process…and yes, that will be more difficult for you, more time-consuming, a more tedious process of choosing, but you must think of it this way: While we may be busy with demands on our time of work, home, scheduling activities…having a life…these are our kids, the future of our civilization, so you decide what takes priority.

Here are some recipes to get you started…

A great lunch or dinner for older kids. Rich, with just a touch of spice, this recipe is packed with protein to keep them strong and healthy and delicious enough to keep them satisfied.

Makes 3-4 sandwiches
3 cloves fresh garlic, finely minced
3 cups cooked or canned chickpeas
2 teaspoons cumin
2 teaspoons coriander
1 teaspoon paprika
1 teaspoon turmeric
2 teaspoons sea salt
1-2 fresh scallions, minced
2-3 fresh parsley sprigs, finely minced
sprouted whole wheat flour or whole wheat pastry flour

Sesame sauce
3-4 tablespoons sesame tahini
juice of 1 lemon
_-1 teaspoon sea salt
1 teaspoon brown rice syrup
spring or filtered water
8 ounces store bought hummus
shredded iceberg or romaine lettuce
2 ripe tomatoes, diced

Place garlic, chickpeas, spices and salt in a food processor and puree until smooth, adding a small amount of water as necessary to create a thick paste. Add scallions and parsley and pulse until well-combined. Adjust seasoning to your children’s taste. Transfer mixture to a bowl and add enough flour to create a dough that sticks together when formed, but not too dry. Shape into 1 _-inch spheres.

To cook, you can either bake the falafel, on a lined baking sheet at 375 degrees until crisp on the outside. You can also cook them more traditionally, by deep-frying them in avocado or light olive oil. Choose the method of cooking based on your child’s needs and health.

To make the dressing, simply whisk ingredients together until smooth, adjusting seasoning to taste and adding water to create a thick, creamy sauce.

To serve, lay a large whole wheat pita on a dry work surface. Lay 3 falafels on the center of the pita, with shredded lettuce and diced tomato. Spoon hummus over top and finally, sesame dressing. Roll, jellyroll style and wrap in foil for ease of eating.

Note: To deep-fry, heat 3-4 inches oil in a deep saucepan and place over medium-low heat. When the oil is hot (patterns will form, known as “dancing”), fry the falafel until golden brown and crispy.

Mediterranean Bulgur Salad
A great light grain salad that can be carried as a school lunch in a container. Delicious and not odd-looking, older kids will really enjoy this one, especially our girls, when they are conscious of calories.

Makes 5-6 servings

4 cups spring or filtered water
2 cups bulgur
pinch sea salt
1 cup finely minced parsley
_ cup finely minced fresh mint
2 ripe tomatoes, diced, do not seed or peel
2-3 fresh scallions, minced
1 medium cucumber, diced
juice of 2 fresh lemons
_ cup extra virgin olive oil
_ cup minced black olives (optional)

Bring water to a boil. Stir in bulgur and salt, cover and turn off heat. Allow to stand for 15 minutes, undisturbed. Fluff with a fork and transfer to a mixing bowl. Mix in balance of ingredients, seasoning to taste with salt. Chill completely before serving.

Note: You can make this salad with quinoa for a whole grain, protein-packed dish.

Chicken-less Salad
A yummy way to get your family to try tofu. This simple salad packs well in lunch boxes and is a great after-school treat as well.

Makes 3-4 servings

4 slices packaged baked tofu
3 ribs celery, diced
1 small red onion, diced
1 red pepper, diced
1 teaspoon each basil, sage, rosemary, oregano
2 teaspoons paprika
1-1 1/2 cup vegan mayonnaise

Several slices whole grain bread, cut into triangles

Shred the tofu slices with a sharp knife, creating irregular, angular pieces…reminiscent of shredded chicken. Mix with vegetables, spices and vegan mayo until ingredients are well-incorporated. Chill thoroughly before serving. This salad is great on a bed of fresh, crisp greens or served as a hearty sandwich. Or you can pan toast the bread with a little olive oil and mound the chicken-less salad on top for a great party food.

Tofu Bundles
This is a really yummy way to get your kids to try tofu. Easy to make, richly flavored, with plenty of calories from fat and protein to insure healthy growth and development, this fun dish is sure to please young ones.

Makes 2 servings

4 pieces baked tofu (store-bought)
2 tablespoons almond butter
2 tablespoons barley miso
_ teaspoon brown rice syrup
2 scallions, root trimmed, halved lengthwise, blanched for 30 seconds, drained

Lay tofu slices on a dry work surface.

Mix almond butter, miso and rice syrup together to create a thick paste. Spoon a thick layer on 2 pieces of tofu, covering completely. Lay 2 remaining tofu slices on top and press gently to seal. Tie one scallion strip around the tofu pieces crosswise and one strip around it lengthwise, tying like a bundle. Repeat with the other tofu bundle.

Note: If your child cannot have nut butters, try sunflower seed butter in place of the almond butter.

Sautéed Vegetable Focaccia
A great after-school snack.

Makes 6-8 servings

Extra virgin olive oil
2-3 cloves fresh garlic, thinly sliced
1 red onion, thinly sliced into half moon pieces
sea salt
generous pinch crushed red pepper flakes (optional)
1 zucchini, thin matchstick pieces
1 yellow summer squash, thin matchstick pieces
4-5 ripe tomatoes, thinly sliced, do not seed or peel
1 small bunch broccoli rabe, rinsed well, finely cut
1 store bought whole wheat focaccia

Place a small amount of oil, garlic and onion in a deep skillet and turn heat to medium. When the onions begin to sizzle, add a pinch of salt and the red pepper flakes and sauté for 2 minutes. Stir in zucchini and yellow squash, a pinch of salt and sauté for 2 minutes. Stir in tomatoes, broccoli rabe and season lightly with salt. Sauté until greens are limp and tender.

To serve, warm the focaccia in the oven for 5-6 minutes. Cut into squares and mound vegetables on each square.

Note: Vary the vegetables to your family’s taste and add non-dairy soy cheese to turn it into a veggie pizza

Hummus Wraps
Absolutely great for school lunches and after-school snacks. Protein-rich, delicious and easy to make, hummus can be served like this, or sent to school with fresh vegetables or organic chips for dipping. Yummy.

Makes 4-6 half wraps

2-3 fresh garlic cloves, minced
2 cups cooked or canned chickpeas
grated zest and juice of 1 fresh lemon
1/3 cup sesame tahini
1 teaspoon cumin (optional)
_ cup extra virgin olive oil
_-1 teaspoon sea salt
2-3 sprigs parsley, finely minced
whole wheat soft tortillas or pita halves
romaine lettuce leaves
alfalfa sprouts
sliced tomatoes

Combine all ingredients for hummus in a food processor, adjusting salt to your taste. Puree until smooth, adding water or olive oil if the mixture seems too thick for your taste.

To assemble the wraps, lay a soft tortilla on a dry work surface, lay lettuce, sprouts and tomato slices. Spoon hummus generously over top, roll, jellyroll style, securing with a toothpick. Slice in half crosswise to serve.

Note: You can use store-bought hummus and save some time and effort.

Fried Noodles with Tofu and Vegetables
An easy to make, and easy to present main course dinner idea. Most kids love noodles and more than you think, kids will try tofu, if it’s delicious. Try this well-balanced meal of complex carbohydrates, protein and vegetables to keep your young ones strong and vital.

Makes 4-5 servings

extra virgin olive oil
3-4 thin slices fresh ginger, finely minced
1 red onion, thin half moon slices
soy sauce
6-7 button mushrooms, brushed free of dirt, thinly sliced
1 carrot, fine matchstick pieces
4-5 baby bok choy, rinsed well, thinly sliced on the diagonal
2-3 slices packaged baked tofu, cubed
2 teaspoons brown rice syrup
8 ounces whole wheat udon noodles
juice of _ fresh lemon
2-3 sprigs fresh parsley, finely minced

Place a small amount of oil, ginger and onions in a deep skillet and turn heat to medium. When the onions begin to sizzle, add a dash of soy sauce and sauté for 1-2 minutes. Stir in mushrooms and sauté until mushrooms release their juices, about 2 minutes. Stir in carrots, bok choy and a light seasoning of soy sauce. Stir in baked tofu and rice syrup and season with soy sauce to taste. Sauté until bok choy is wilted and crisp-tender.

While the vegetables are sautéing, bring a pot of water to a boil and cook the udon al dente, about 12 minutes. Drain and rinse well.

Stir cooked noodles into sautéed tofu and vegetables, stir in lemon juice and transfer to a serving platter. Sprinkle with parsley and serve immediately.

Note: Vary the vegetables to your family’s taste. You can leave out the tofu if necessary, but you lose the protein punch.

Chocolate Chunk Cookies
Easy and yummy, these cookies will land on your most often requested list pretty fast.

Makes 30-36 cookies

1 stick Earth Balance or 8 tablespoons, softened
1/2 cup brown rice syrup
3 tablespoons coconut sugar
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 _ cups whole wheat pastry flour
_ cup semolina flour
Pinch sea salt
Generous pinch ground cinnamon
_ teaspoon baking soda
_ teaspoon baking powder
1 bar dark chocolate, coarsely chopped
_ cup coarsely chopped pecans or other nuts

Preheat oven to 350 degrees and line 2 baking sheets with parchment.

Place Earth Balance, rice syrup, coconut sugar and vanilla in a mixing bowl and whip until creamy. Add flours, salt, cinnamon and baking soda/powder. Mix by hand to create a soft dough. Fold in chocolate and nuts.

Using a spoon, place cookies on baking sheet leaving space between then for spreading. You will get about 12 to a tray. Press lightly on the cookie with your fingers to flatten them slightly.

Bake for 13-14 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack to cool completely.