Every night before bed, Sue Patterson packs her 10-year-old daughter, Emmy, a lunch that resembles a work of art.
Picture a heart-shaped roast beef sandwich nestled into a Hello Kitty container with colorful cups of dried fruit, olives, organic cheese and yogurt-covered pretzels. Or a pink Japanese-style bento box with a California sushi roll, shelled edamame, red grapes and kiwis cut into cute fan shapes.
Making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich would be easier. But Patterson says she’s a big believer in eating a variety of healthful, organic food, so spending 15 to 20 minutes preparing her daughter’s lunch is no big deal.
“It’s totally worth it so she can have a good, high-quality lunch every day,” Patterson says.
Not all healthful lunches have to be Pinterest-worthy. With a little planning and a refrigerator full of convenient kid-approved foods, parents can send their kids back to school with a midday meal that’s as fun as it is nutritious.
Gary Hild, executive chef at the Culinary Center of Kansas City, says a great lunch begins with great ingredients.
“A sandwich is fine,” he says, “but be sure to be a good label reader.”
The chef recommends bread that says “100 percent whole wheat” on the label, mayonnaise made with olive oil and sliced turkey or chicken that’s free of fillers such as gelatin.
Swap sandwich bread for a whole-wheat wrap and you can add in extra vegetables (think shredded carrots, romaine lettuce and sliced bell peppers).
“You want to emphasize eating the rainbow,” Hild says about feeding children.
In other words, skip the white bread and potato chips and reach for blueberries, green spinach and red cherry tomatoes.
The only downside: Cutting up fresh fruits and vegetables can be time-consuming. Hild offers this solution: Shop at the salad bar of your grocery store for sliced vegetables, fruits, even protein such as hard-boiled eggs and chicken.
“Everything’s already cut,” the chef says, “so it saves a lot of time, money and waste.”
If your kids are picky eaters, get them involved in making their lunches, says Lily Siebert, education and outreach assistant at the Merc Co-Op in Lawrence, Kan.
Once a month, she teaches classes for young cooks. One of her go-to recipes for kids is a whole-grain wrap filled with hummus, vegetables and sunflower seeds.
Siebert asks each student to choose three vegetables to put in their wraps.
“They’re more open to trying new things when they have control,” she says.
Siebert shows kids how to make “energy balls” out of peanut butter and crispy rice cereal, yogurt parfaits with fresh kiwi and mango, and quinoa salad with black beans, avocado and cilantro.
Quinoa is also the main ingredient in the popular meatballs that Jackie Kincaid Habiger cooks for the students at Notre Dame de Sion grade school in Kansas City. Kincaid Habiger, who runs a hot lunch program called Future Foodies, serves the quinoa-beef meatballs with tomato sauce with zucchini, carrots and mushrooms she makes from scratch.
Sneaking vegetables into sauces is one way that Kincaid Habiger gets students to eat a nutritious, well-rounded meal. But she’s also very open with them about the ingredients she cooks with. When she first served the meatballs, for example, Kincaid Habiger put a bowl of plain cooked quinoa out for the students to sample. The grain was a hit.
Kincaid Habiger has also been known to crack fresh farm eggs into a bowl so students can see the rich gold color of their yolks, and to make colorful salads out of tomatoes grown in the school’s garden.
Kids eat with their eyes, she says: “If they don’t like the way it looks, they’re not going to give it a try.”
When it comes to packing meals for her 5- and 7-year-old boys, Kincaid Habiger keeps it simple. She concentrates on whole, natural foods and always incorporates a protein, fruit, vegetable. But she isn’t afraid to throw in something fun, like a pack of fruit snacks.
Patterson, the organic food stickler, also adds a fun, surprising touch to her daughter’s bento box lunches. Sometimes it’s elaborate — like a cup of egg salad with black olive slices arranged in the shape of a bear’s face. Other times, it’s simple, like a mini Kit Kat bar, a wheel of Emmy’s favorite Babybel cheese or a cute fork shaped like a rabbit.
When you have fun with food, preparing it never feels like a chore, Patterson says: “I call it my meditation.”