My youngest daughter just started kindergarten, and my oldest is entering 3rd grade. Getting everyone out of bed, fed, and out the door on time every day is a real challenge, and I find I don’t have much time to think about healthy lunches for the kids. Do you have tips for organic and fun lunches that won’t break the bank or take too much time?
Amy in Asheville, NC
What a fun question! And super appropriate, as I too am dealing with a new kindergartner and a toddler entering daycare this week. The morning rush hit us like a ton of bricks, too, but this past weekend I rolled up my sleeves and did a whole bunch of cooking, baking, and organizing to get myself ready for the week. Below are some ideas for staying organic, healthy, and sane as you send the kids to school every day.
- Make time the night before to pack lunch. Boy, did I learn this lesson the hard way. I usually wake up at 5am and get a couple hours of work in at the computer before the kids wake up. Not anymore! Not only do we have to be out the door by 7am nowadays, but also it takes all of an hour for me to get lunches, cups and snacks loaded with healthy fare, labeled, and in the right backpack compartments to meet all the school requirements. Shew! Now I’m assembling food, labeling, and packing the night before and keeping everyone’s little pile in the fridge so I can grab and go in the morning.
- Make a weekly meal plan for breakfasts and lunches. I usually try to do this on Fridays, so I can then make a shopping list and hit up the tailgate market for everything on Saturday morning. It wasn’t too much of a stretch for me to start this habit, since I make a weekly meal plan for dinners, too. I keep all my meal plans and grocery lists on my smartphone, using a memo app, so I always have them handy and can stay organized without wasting a lot of paper from week to week.
- Don’t skimp on breakfast. Especially during the first week or two of school, the kids are going to be short on sleep and energy so a power packed meal in the AM has proven super important at our house. Here’s my list for this week:
- Homemade granola with bananas and dried fruit, and yogurt or milk
- Miso soup and boiled eggs (yep, my kids eat miso for breakfast. It took some time but now there’s no flinching. It helped to tell them that it was made with monster eyeballs.)
- Toast with peanut butter, apples and cheddar
- Scrambled eggs and local sausage
- Baked Oatmeal (recipe follows)
1 C steel cut oats, soaked 24 hours in water with a dash of whey, buttermilk, or vinegar)
1-1/3 C whole milk (or milk alternative, if you are dairy free)
2/3 T vanilla1 egg, beaten
2 T. honey or maple syrup (optional)
1 t. cinnamon
1/3 C raisins or other dried fruitOnce you’ve soaked your oats, pour off the soaking liquid and then mix everything in an 8×8 inch dish. Bake at 325 degrees until firm. Cut into squares and top with yogurt, nuts, honey, or fruit.
- Get yourself some containers. We use recycled
goat cheese containers a lot for lunch items, since they have nice,secure lids and are smaller, for kid-sized portions. We also use jelly-sized (half pint) mason jars. If you use store-bought baby food, those jars could potentially come in handy, too. I just learned about lunchbots, which are these really cool, compartmentalized stainless steel lunchboxes. Check them out if you want an all-in-one unit. Seems like a real worthwhile purchase to me! Avoid sending plastic bags to school, as I have found that the schools just throw them away, instead of recycling them back into the lunch box for parents to re-use. Yikes! I’m pretty sure that when humans end our reign on earth, plastics will be the longest-lasting scar we leave. Lunch-packing parents, do your part! I even go so far as to write “PLEASE SAVE CONTAINER” on all my recycled goat cheese and yogurt containers to make extra sure those items come home for further happy use.
- Think about lunches and dinners at the same time. In other words, cook dinners that can easily be turned into leftovers lunches. Our family had lamb meatballs and butternut squash soup for dinner last week, and I took full advantage of my eldest son’s new, prized Superman thermos to pack a butternut soup and meatball lunch the next day. Later this week, we’re having empanadas, and I plan to make extra so the kids can eat them for lunch, along with a little mason jar of black beans on the side.
This stuff is amazing! Pack it rolled up in lettuce leaves, alone with a stack of crackers, or inside of a sandwich.
2 C. cooked, drained chickpeas
2 or more dill pickles, and some pickle juice
3-4 carrots, grated
3 sticks celery, chopped finely
1 onion, diced
salt and pepper to taste
mayo or vegannaise
Mash the chickpeas slightly, using a potato masher. Stir in remaining ingredients, adding mayo (or vegannaise) last. You’ll add as much as you want to gain the consistency of egg salad. Salt and pepper to taste.
Homemade Fruit Bars
These things take some time, but they are so worth it. I made them on Sunday morning so I’ll have them all week long, as they store well in an airtight container.
½ C softened butter or coconut oil
4 T. lard or non-hydrogenated shortening
½ C brown sugar
1 t vanilla
2 C flour
½ C whole wheat flour
½ t sea salt
1-1/2 t baking powder
8 oz. unsulphured dried figs or apricots
1-2 T. lemon juice
2 T maple syrup
¼ t cinnamon
¼ t cardamom
1-3/4 C water
Cream the fats and the sugar. Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. In a separate bowl, combine flour, salt, and baking powder. Add the dry ingredients to the wet ingredients in two batches, and combine. Divide the dough in half and chill for 1-2 hours minimum. Meanwhile, make the filling. Put the dried fruit in a small saucepan with the water. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and add lemon juice, maple, and spices. Cover and simmer until fruit is soft, then pull the lid off and use an immersion blender to blend the mixture smooth. If there is still water in it, just let it cook a little longer on low heat with the lid off so the water cooks off the top.
When you’re ready to fill the bars, preheat the oven to 375 degrees. On a floured surface, roll the dough out to 1/8” thickness (keeping it as square as possible). Trim any un-square edges with a pizza cutter. Then cut the rolled dough into equal strips about 2 inches wide. Place your filling down the center, and then bring each side up around it, leaving a strip of filling peeking out the center. Bake on greased cookie sheets for about 12 minutes, or until the bottoms brown and the tops flake. Allow to cool a tad on the pan, then pull them off an finish cooling them on a rack. Store in an airtight container once they are cooled.
Tip: You can freeze this dough for another time if you only want to fill half of it. And, if you get in a pinch, you can fill with homemade jam or fruit preserves. Just know that if you do that the bars will be much sweeter in the end.
These are super fun. There are a million combos, so use your imagination. I’ve offered just a few possibilities below.
-2 bamboo kebab skewers
-veggies from your tailgate market like cucumber slices, cherry tomatoes, carrot slices, sweet peppers
-meats such as local pork salami from Foothills Meats or kielbasa from Hickory Nut Gap Farm
-fruits (we’re getting yummy senshu apples, nectarines, blueberries, and Asian pears at our tailgate market right now!)
-cheeses from our local creameries. A few of them are making some harder cheeses that will skewer just fine. Check out Looking Glass Creamery and Spinning Spider Creamery, among others.
Skewer the chosen veggies, fruits, meats and/or cheeses on the bamboo and pack em up. Kids love the variety, and its fun to eat things on a stick!
I got this idea from a restaurant at the beach. It’s very fun and clever, and you could do this with any food, really.
1 avocado, mashed
smoked salmon or trout (check out the Wild Salmon Co. and Sunburst Trout Farm)
spread everything on the tortilla and roll it up. Then slice the wrap into little sushi-like rolls. You can do this with peanut butter or sun butter in a tortilla, too.
Sometimes my kids’ lunches are just little compartments of pretty simple foods, like a boiled egg, a tin of steamed peas, a sliced apple, a bunch of grapes…you get the drift. Beef jerky is another one of these great stand-alone items. This jerky is made with ground meat instead of a muscle cut, which makes it easier for the little ones to chew.
1-1/2 lb. ground beef, lamb, or bison
1-1/2 t sea salt
½ t black pepper
¾ t chili powder
2 t garlic powder
2 t cumin
Blend all ingredients in a large bowl. Then, press the mixture onto parchment paper until you have a layer 1/8” thick. Use as many pieces of parchment as you need to distribute all the mix. Score the uncooked jerky with a dull knife. Dehydrate in your food dryer or an oven set to 150 degrees for 12-20 hours (keep checking it, as time varies based on the fat content of the meat, humidity and other factors). When finished, store in an airtight container. Be sure to eat it within 10-14 days.
A super treat at our house! Use anything you like, but it works great with tuna salad, peanut butter, or cheese.
1 large apple
an apple corer
sandwich filling, such as tuna salad
Core the apple and then turn it on its side. Cut slices about ¼ inch thick. They should look like flat donuts. Spread your filling on an apple slice, then top with a second apple slice. Voila! You made an apple sammich!
Hope these ideas and tips are helpful to you, and will spark your imagination for some additional ideas going forward.
Ask Meredith © 2013 Meredith McKissick & Organic Growers School
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Meredith Leigh is a die-hard advocate for good food. As a farmer, founder of a butcher shop/restaurant, and writer, she has worked on many angles of real food for over a decade. She currently teaches farming and cooking classes, consults for food and agriculture non-profits, and is writing a book about meat. Meredith has been the Program Coordinator for the Organic Growers School (OGS) Spring Conference since 2006 and was the Director and then the Executive Director of OGS for 10 years.