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!

Homemade “Instant” Mac & Cheese

What: Today’s recipe is an easy way to make Mac & Cheese just as quickly as you can out of the box. No baking necessary. A stovetop is all you’ll need.

When: Have extra cheese on hand? Whether you’re looking to get creative with leftover ingredients or simply want to skip the pricey boxed Macs, Homemade Instant Mac & Cheese is really a no-brainer.

Why: Right or wrong, thousands of parents across the country were shocked into despair a few weeks ago upon reading a bombshell report that their favorite foolproof shortcut kids’ meal, boxed Mac & Cheese, may have one of the highest concentrations of Phthalates (harmful chemicals found in plastics or, in this case, which migrate to high fat food from the manufacturing line). Though the veracity of the study is being debated (it wasn’t peer reviewed, for one, and there is debate over what constitutes acceptable levels of Phthalates), parents like myself who’ve been judiciously avoiding phthalates in toys and and plastic containers (to say nothing of BPAs), are probably more likely to err on the side of caution until more details emerge. Even for those already conscious of making “healthier” choices when it comes to our favorite “junk food,” the worst news was that even trusted organic brands were not immune from Phthalate contamination, particularly within the powdered cheese packet.

How: The trick to this recipe involves reserving some of the hot pasta water to create a sauce – you’ll dissolve slices of cheese in a small, microwave safe bowl, to create the creamy cheese sauce – you won’t even have to add Milk if you don’t want. All this comes together in nearly exactly the same amount of time as you’d need for the boxed version. Other bonuses include far less sodium (which may take your kids a bit of time to adjust to) and more opportunity for creativity! Play around with different Cheese blends and healthy mix-ins. My usual M.O. is to add frozen Peas and Carrots to the cooking pasta just a few minutes before it is done. The Veggies with thaw and warm right in the same pan, then you can drain the Pasta and Veggies and add the cheese. Guilt-free Mac & Cheese here you come. Check out the easy method below!

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Homemade “Instant” Mac & Cheese

Ingredients:

1 Cup Dry Small Pasta or Macaroni

3-4 Slices Organic American Cheese

Flour or Potato Starch

Salt & Pepper

Pat of Salted Butter, optional

Optional Frozen Peas and Carrots (if using, add the to the cooking pasta 3 minutes before it is done)

Method: 

Set a pot of salted water to boil and the prepare Pasta as directed on the package, adding Organic Frozen Peas & Carrots about 3 minutes before pasta is done.

Before draining, reserve about a 1/3 cup Pasta Water in a small, heat proof and microwaveable bowl. Drain Pasta. Return it to pot.

Place about 3 Slices of American Cheese, Mild Cheddar, or a blend of similarly textured sliced cheeses. They should melt into the water with a little stirring, or if not, give them a quick zap in the microwave (30 seconds to start).

Stir to desired consistency and if the water looks too much for the amount of pasta you have, drain some off the cheese mixture. Stir Cheese Mixture into the Pasta and combine to coat. If the mixture is too thin, add a few pinches of Flour or Potato Starch to thicken. Taste for seasoning and add Salt if needed. Add a pat of Butter to enhance flavor and texture.

Serve!

School Lunch Remix! Veggie & Grain Base

What: A fast Veggie and Grain blend to help you switch up one of your many parental responsibilities – keeping school lunch exciting! The key is to make your grains ahead as I do each week – one big batch to use in lunches, salads, dinner sides. Grains even freeze well after cooking. Some favorites are: Farro, Barley, Bulgur, Wheatberries, and Quinoa.

When: When you and your little one are sick of making and eating sandwiches every day, serving protein atop a grain and veggie bowl is a great way to deviate from the norm. I’ll tell you more about how your child can easily to transport your creation to school, alongside some other exciting options to make lunch fun, healthy and colorful.

Why: We don’t serve too many cold cuts, a school lunch staple, in our house. This is because it’s hard to find good quality lunch meat that is without potentially dangerous Nitrates and Nitrites. I also prefer to buy Organic Cold Cuts where possible (which is not to say that we don’t cheat once in a while). While there are good options for Organic Lunch Meat, many brands still use fillers such as Carageenan, an ingredient that is non-nutritive and brings with it several health concerns. All these things considered, Grains and Veggies topped with a Protein are a great alternative to the omnipresent sandwich.

When I do manage to find a Cold Cut brand that satisfies all my usual requirements (Plainville Farms is my current fave), it will always, and unfortunately, have a higher price tag attached to it. Sure, maybe I’ll throw together a sandwich or two with it, but serving sliced Lunch Meat atop a grain bowl is a nice way to mix things up but also stretch the ingredient! Grain and Veggies are super filling and will give your little one a nutritional boost when they need it most.

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How: 

Grain and Veggie Blend (2  to 3 Lunch-Sized Servings)

Ingredients:

1/2 Chopped Zucchini

4 Sliced then Chopped Cremini Mushrooms

2 Pats Salted Butter

1/2 Cup packed Organic Fresh Baby Spinach Leaves, minced

3/4 Cup cooked grains such as Farro

Salt

Method:

In a skillet over medium flame, melt a pat of Butter and add Zucchini and Mushrooms. Cook, stirring, until tender, turning the flame down if needed. Once veggies are tender, add the Minced Spinach and stir. Finish by adding Grains and heat through. Melt one last pat of Butter and add Salt and other seasonings as desired.

To serve, top with sliced Cold Cuts or other protein (last night’s dinner leftovers make a great option too!).

Tip: We absolutely love our Bentgo Kids Lunchbox. I recommend it to everyone (they’re also available on Amazon). The lunch boxes are BPA free, and they come with a removable, microwaveable tray, for easy heating, serving and cleaning. If you can, buy a spare removable tray. This will allow you to prepare two lunches at a time leaving you ahead of the game on busy weekdays.

Pictured in today’s colorful lunchbox:

Organic Raspberries

Okinawan Purple Sweet Potato (steamed in the microwaved then mashed)

Horizon Organic Mozzarella Sticks

 

Here’s to fun and healthy lunch.