School Lunch Redux – (+ tips for all new and picky eaters)

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Today I’d love to discuss some strategies I’ve learned over the past few years for feeding babies and kids. We’ll also explore taking school lunch to the next level with the health and enjoyment of your little one in mind. You’ll notice 3 days of School Lunch pictured above. The components are broken down as follows:

Top Left: Cascadian Farms Frozen Broccoli steamed and served room temp wth grated Pecorino. Carrot Sticks and Spinach Leaf (just to mess with him), Plainville Organic Turkey Cold Cuts, rolled, Avocado, Cypress Grove Ewephoria Cheese, cubed, and Raspberries

Top Right: Sausage Rollups — made from Organic Whole Wheat Bread, crusts cut off and bread flattened with a rolling pin, then rolled up with an Applegate Naturals Peppered Turkey Breakfast Sausage (I crisp it in the toaster over and send it to be eaten at room temp) along with a slice of Green Apple, Organic Ketchup + Homemade Sweet Potato Fries (slice, toss in Olive Oil, Salt and Pepper, and bake @400 for 20-25 minutes, flipping midway throughout — I  also do this in the toaster oven), Strawberries, Carrots & English Cucumber.

Bottom Left: Homemade Whole Wheat Cold Pasta Salad with in season Tomatoes, Avocados, Minced Fresh Spinach, and Pecorino, tossed with a little Olive Oil, a tiny dash of Red Wine Vinegar, Salt and Pepper. Sliced Ginger Gold Apple and one Earth’s Best Organic Letter of the Day Cookie, Carrot Sticks and Organic Mozzarella String Cheese, sliced.

Now that we’ve gotten some ideas flowing, let’s touch on a few important things to note about kids and food:

Remind yourself that it’s all about control: A wise mom once told me that early in life, there are only two things young kids can control. When and what they eat is one of them (can you guess the other bodily function?). This means food refusal is almost never about the food itself, but more a child’s act of asserting their autonomy.

The Basics For New Eaters 

Use these tips and self-reminders as soon as your child is on solids, keeping in mind age appropriateness of various options (i.e. pureed foods, minced foods, handheld or bitesized foods). Also check out Baby Led Weaning. It’s the absolutely smartest way to go about this next phase in your parenting journey. With that said, remember the following:

Food is food: Especially close to and after age one, forget kids’ food and adult food. Think of them as one in the same. Kids’ food is just adult food in bite-sized pieces. They eat what you eat! (Food allergies, a daily struggle in our home, are of course an exception to this rule).

It’s not about you: Are you ascribing your own food attitudes to what you think your toddler will or won’t eat? Are you declaring a food item not toddler friendly for no good reason? When my son was one I made him a pasta dish loaded with Mushrooms. My husband thought I was crazy to add them. What kid likes Mushrooms, he asked? Minutes later, my son gobbled down each and every one. Reject this sort of thinking as much as possible. That doesn’t mean that a well loved food won’t someday be rejected (two years later, he will not touch Mushrooms, but you can bet they will never stop appearing in his food until he realizes the error of his ways).

Texture: Introduce texture early and often. I recommend baby led weaning. Let them chew, eat with their hands, and try cutlery early. They’ll make a mess, but this is as it should be.

Variety is the spice of life: True for kids and adults! When little ones have a few choices, the more they will enjoy eating -why?? because they are exercising their will! This rule applies with babies, toddlers, and beyond (though you’ll want to provide less options the younger the child – too many can overwhelm a very new eater – 3 selections is a good amount).

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Serving principles for new eaters (all learned/adapted from nutrition and feeding expert, Ellyn Satter): Start with a compartmentalized plate and put a few different food items in it. Serve it all at once. Your baby will enjoy picking and choosing, and trying as they go. If there is a sweet or a dessert (but I advise that you avoid sweets as long as humanly possible), make sure it is served with the main. You don’t want to send the message that dessert is a reward for eating yucky regular food. If the child becomes upset, won’t eat, or begins to throw their food, try redirecting once and if it doesn’t work, take them out of their highchair and tell them the meal is over for now. Put them back when they are ready and repeat the process if they resist.

It’s my belief that if, after several tries, they don’t eat and they are otherwise healthy, then so be it. If your child is healthy and thriving, there is no need to worry about a few skipped meals* (* Please note — I’m not a doctor so use your judgment and consult experts if you are concerned). We all know that things like teething or feeling under the weather can put a damper on the appetite.

About Pouches: Pouches, rather than jars of baby food, are all the rage these days. The even better news is there is a huge variety that are organic and incorporate high impact ingredients baby might otherwise shy away from (think Kale or Quinoa and other Ancient Grains). Once you’ve past the exclusively baby food stage and you move to handheld, full texture foods, I believe you can still benefit from supplementing with pouches if you follow a few rules of thumb. Remember, pouches should not replace real food. If you are too reliant on them, you may end up with a child who is texture averse.

Here are some tips to make ever so convenient pouches work for you:

  1. The blander the better – go for green beans over sweet corn and cherries – you’ll be building their palates in the direction of less sweet, green veggies. Do this as long as you can!
  2. Provide a wide variety of flavors – even ones you think are “icky” – again, you’re coaching their taste buds not to be shocked by certain tastes.
  3. The most crucial time for child nutrition is up until age 2, so don’t feel bad about utilizing pouches to help pack them full of as many fruit and (preferably) veggie and whole grain varieties as you can during this window of time. You’ll benefit from the fact that they are probably a bit more docile and compliant than they will be later. If you haven’t gotten there yet, you can bet you’ll have plenty of fights on your hands from age 2 on when they develop even stronger opinions!
  4. Buy Organic Pouches. The extra you’ll spend is totally worth it.

My Philosophy on “Healthy Junk Food”: If I had a dime for every kid I know that (supposedly) only eats Mac and Cheese and Grilled Cheese, I’d be rich. “It’s the only thing he/she will eat,” parents will tell you. Of course! Because we’re giving it to them often as we know it’s a sure bet. So the cycle continues and parents come to believe their little one will only eat these foods. Instead, they’re eating them because we’ve allowed it and convinced ourselves that they’ll starve any other way. My advice to you is break the habit — go out on a limb to provide other options and resist the urge to fall back on the sure bet. I’d eat Mac and Cheese ever day too if I could. It’s delicious! Wouldn’t you?

If you’ve tried a universally palatable food one or two times and it was rejected, keep trying. You’ll be shocked that all of a sudden, they’ll often change their tune. During the times you do serve them “junk food” like Mac and Cheese or Grilled Cheese, make it a little less pleasant by being sure you throw something healthy in there. I like to add frozen Peas and Carrots to boxed Mac, or top it with pureed fresh Spinach.  Another (undetectable) addition is finely chopped Cauliflower florets. Boil them along with the pasta! If you’re off boxed Mac because of the phthalate flap, try our shortcut “instant” version here.

Tips for Making Lunch for Toddlers & Preschoolers 

  1. Variety – If you provide a lot of choices, you have a better chance something will get eaten. Bento boxes are great for this! We love Bentgo Kids and LunchBots. Trust me, I know how disheartening it is to get an entire lunch back, with only one item eaten. Press on and don’t cave.
  2. Supply and Demand -When you send lunch to school your child will instinctively know t’s the only game in town – Capitalize on the fact that when they’re there, they are aware that their favorite short order cook isn’t on duty. I swear I seem to get far less food refusal at school, so that’s where I front load all the healthiest stuff (like frozen steamed Broccoli with a pinch of salt or parmesan cheese). Do push the envelope with fruits, veggies and leafy greens (flowers, as he calls them) during school lunch.
  3. Big Batches Make for Easier Lunches – At the beginning of the week, cook up large batch of something they love to anchor the meal. In my son’s case, that’s pasta. In keeping with the “cold” temperature of this week’s lunches, I made several portions of whole wheat pasta salad (bottom left in the photo above) with peak season tomatoes, minced fresh spinach (which he probably picked off bit by bit), avocado, olive oil, a little vinegar and pecorino cheese. He ate it at room temperature 3 days straight.

Thanks so much for joining me today and stay tuned for my upcoming mega list of healthy and convenient pre-packaged foods for the little ones!

Mini Shepherd’s Pies With Sweet Potato

What: Cute, single-serve versions of Shepherd’s Pie to delight your little Baa Baa Black Sheep fan

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When: Whenever you’ve got about 20 minutes (assuming you have a microwave handy for quickly cooking the Sweet Potatoes)to spare to create a filling and balanced meal for your kids

Why: We use Sweet Potatoes or Yams, actually, we aren’t sure which, because the sweet flavor is familiar to toddlers and Sweet Potatoes pack more fiber as well as vitamins A and C as compared to their colorless counterpart, the traditional White Potato. They look awfully striking too. For more amazing facts about the nutritional powerhouse that is the Sweet Potato, definitely head right over to PositiveHealthWellness.com!

How: Using a frozen Pea and Carrot Blend and combining it with pre-cooked Ground Meat (I like to brown a big batch to last me a few days) alongside quickly microwaved Sweet Potatoes that are hand mashed, allows us to churn out several make-ahead servings in no time flat. You could be done in as little as 20 minutes.

Mini Shepherd’s Pies With Sweet Potato

3 to 4 6-Ounce Servings

Ingredients:

1 Large or 2 Medium Sweet Potatoes, scrubbed, pierced all over with a sharp knife

1/2 Tablespoon Salted Butter

1/4 Cup minced Yellow Onion, such as Spanish or Vidalia

1 Cup Organic Frozen Peas and Carrots Blend, we prefer Cascadian Farm

1 Cup  Pre-Cooked and drained Ground Meat of your choice (we use Organic, Grass-fed Beef, but Lamb would be great too)

Method: 

Wrap the pierced Sweet Potato in a wet paper towel and microwave on high for 6-7 minutes. Meanwhile….

Heat Butter in a medium sized skillet over medium-low heat and add the minced Onions. Allow to saute about three minutes, stirring occasionally, until they start to brown slightly.

Add the frozen Peas and Carrots blend and stir together until thawed slightly tender (but not mushy), another two minutes or so.

Stir in the cooked Ground Meat (or sub-in canned Beans for a vegetarian option). Allow to cook together another two to three minutes until warm throughout.

Slice open the Sweet Potato and carefully scoop out the skin and place the flesh into a shallow bowl. Mash with a spoon or fork until very smooth.

To serve, layer the Meat and Vegetable Mixture about 3/4 inch deep into an 8-ounce single-serving glass dish (or small ceramic bowl). Next, spoon some of the mashed Sweet Potato on top and spread carefully about a 1/2 inch thick using a spoon or even your clean fingers.

Serve right away or store up to two days in the fridge! Serve warm.

Shortcut Lentil Stew 1-2-3!

What: A quickie version of Lentil Stew using cooked, BPA-free canned lentils

When: Whenever you have pre-cooked grains or leftover pasta, and you can spare 10 minutes to brown the ground meat of your choice. *Note: if you choose rice as your grain, it’s a good idea to know were it is sourced from and review the latest information on arsenic. Overall, I try to limit my child’s rice intake as well as my own.

Why: Lentils – an ancient legume popular in many cultures and on several continents- are a childhood staple for good reason. Packed with B vitamins, along with lots of dietary fiber and protein, they are great fuel for people big and small. We add pre-cooked quinoa, also a nutritional powerhouse, to this stick-to-your-ribs meal. Shortcut Lentil Stew keeps well in the fridge or freezer too.

How: I’m going to let you in on one of my favorite hacks when cooking for kids – use your child’s favorite baby food to create an instant “sauce” to tie together your dish. This technique makes our lentil stew even quicker and adds additional nutrients to an already power-packed meal. And just in time for the chilly weather.


Shortcut Lentil Stew

Yields 6 to 8 – 4 Ounce Servings

Ingredients:

1/2 Lb Organic Ground Beef

Tablespoon Olive Oil

1/2 Can Organic Lentils (15 Ounce Can)

1 Cup Cooked Quinoa or other leftover grain (Barley or Farro would be great choices)

Pinch of Organic Garlic Granules or Minced Garlic (optional)

4 Ounce Pouch Broccoli & Carrot Baby Food Blend (or similar, to your child’s liking) – we use Earth’s Best

1 Cup Baby Spinach Leaves, minced

Method:

Brown the Ground Meat in Olive Oil until fully cooked. Drain on a plate with paper towels. Wipe out the skillet.

Return meat to the skillet and add the Lentils and Fresh Minced Spinach, optional minced Garlic or Garlic Granules.Turn heat to medium low and allow to warm, stirring occasionally for two minutes.

Now add Baby Food Pouch and about 3 Tablespoons of Water – or more if you’d like a wetter consistency.

Heat another minute or two and stir in Quinoa or other grain. Taste for seasoning and add a *tiny* sprinkle of Salt if you like.

Allow to cool a bit and serve warm!