School lunch box nightmares

 

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Back to the grind of school days and one of the things that I’m least looking forward to is the monotony of the lunch box. Every morning, when I’m just barely awake, I’ve turned the kitchen bench in to an assembly line of snacks and sandwiches- and the anxiety I feel is one of both time pressure, and the pressure of creating something that I will be happy with nutritionally, that they’ll ACTUALLY eat. Nothing makes my blood boil worse than unpacking a lunch box at the end of the day and putting the food I got up early and stressed out over, in to the compost. In fact I’ve implored the kids to PLEASE throw away your uneaten food at school, so that I never have to see it again.

Out of 21 meals a week- 5 will be spent at school- where your kids will be lured in to the playground and may not be able to focus entirely on your lovingly prepared lunch. 5 meals a week, you won’t be able to tell them they have to sit there until they eat their vegetables. You won’t be able to negotiate with them or offer rewards if they have 2 more bites. They will have a half hour tops, they will be distracted and if the contents of their tupperware fail to excite, they’ll be off to the playground and that’ll be the end of it. So what are we to do? How can we sneak nutritionally rich food in to their away from home meals that they’ll ACTUALLY eat? Darned if I have all the answers, it’s bloody hard work and frustrating. I have been at this for 7 years now, and I’ve got a few tricks up my sleeve I can share. There won’t be recipes in this post- just tips, but I’ll try to build up a resource of lunch box recipes in the future.

Each kid has their own quirks

Suggestions are helpful, but you will have your own journey figuring out what works for your kid. Depending on when your family started a whole foods lifestyle (it could be this very second) you may have varying degrees of success straight off. Your lunch box kinda reflects the way you eat at home. So the more work you can do making nutrition part of your food culture right from the very earliest introduction to food as a baby- the easier it’ll be at school. If your kid has been till this point raised on white bread and vegemite and not drinking the saurkraut juice out of the jar and eating chia pudding- well, you may have a bit of a harder time initially, and the transition may be slow. If you’ve got small kids just beginning school- the best plan is to start them with a robust palate and a diverse lunch box. They don’t know any different and so they are less likely to argue. A kid who has had raw veggies since day one is less likely to scoff at a box of snow peas and cherry tomatoes.

12190097_10156160575280177_618747318178752797_nPROOF! You can have a kid that enjoys sauerkraut for breakfast- Oscar has been eating this way since day dot, and has an advanced palate. Your kid may not be as adventurous, but don’t despair… 

Accept compromise

It is possible that your kid won’t embrace the pinterest perfect, mum-of-the-year lunch no matter what. Remember that it’s just 5 out of 21 meals. You still have a lot of opportunity to influence the other 16. Don’t set yourself up for tears- work with your kids likes and give in a little. Better that they have calories to fuel their brains then none at all. Try one new thing at a time, and slowly build your repertoire.

Lunchbox strategies

Preparation is key- I always try to make Sunday my prep day for the weeks lunch boxes. This usually involves some kind of baking. Getting the kids involved in this can be both rewarding quality time but also helps them to feel empowered with the decision of what they want to eat that week, and builds their confidence in the kitchen. If you are time poor- and baking once a week is a stretch- try baking once every 2 weeks. It’s actually no more work to mix a double batch of cookies/muffins and you can freeze the batter/dough for the next week, or for a week you run out of time. Double batches are a good way to time save.

Of course baking your own allows you to be in control of the amount/source of sugar that goes in, and to sneak a few healthy ingredients they won’t notice. Here’s where compromise comes in. My kids are less than enthusiastic with doughy sugar free paleo blobs. I’ve had some limited success with coconut flour muffins, and if I have any hope at all – they better have chocolate chips in there. But if they are sweetened with coconut sugar or apple sauce and have no processed carbohydrate in them, can I concede defeat with a sprinkle of choc chips? Sure I can. I may even put a little sprinkle of coconut sugar on the top too so that it goes all caramelized and yum.

If you want to mix it up- also remember things like “balls” and home made muesli bars, of which there are million recipes out there. Nut free is usually the tricky part to adhere to.

Covert ingredients- How awesome is carrot cake? Zucchini muffins? A totally legit vegetable in a dessert. That is some gold right there. Branch out though too… don’t forget the Chocolate/beet root combo (using densely nutritious raw cocoa of course- check out this awesome recipe! ) and the sweet potato/pumpkin options for muffins/scones too.

Everything I bake has chia seeds hiding inside. I usually have some soaked for smooties, and I just add a big tablespoon or 2 of the chia “jelly” to the mixture. Seeds are generally ok for most schools these days (nuts are out, which totally sucks). If your kid is open to whole seeds in their baked good, go crazy- sunflower, pepita, sesame, flax. Also, you can try to reduce the processed carbohydrate by using ½ coconut/buckwheat/quinoa flour to your other flour of choice (if these aren’t already your flour of choice). This will also increase the protein of the baked good and reduce it’s impact on blood sugars (reducing the energy crash for the second half of the lesson day).

Shapes matter– If you want to get your kid to eat raw veggies and fruit in their lunch and you suspect they may be resistant, try experimenting with shapes and widths etc. My kid won’t eat an apple unless it’s cut up. She’ll eat celery if it’s sliced lengthways in to strips that make the stringy-ness less… stringy. There are kinds of slicers and cutters out there that make flowers and stars out of things- see what works for your kid without being too time consuming for you.

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Borrowed this photo from Alphamom.com – this post has some cute shape ideas. However if going to the trouble of fancy shapes isn’t your style, you may still find that veggies in smaller bites and thinner slices are more likely to be eaten. 

Containers are helpful- Aside from being good for the environment and reducing waste, packing your own stuff in containers is more economical. A good container can also make the job of eating easier for your kid. I know it sounds weird, but take this example. If I pack carrot sticks and hummus in 2 separate containers – The hummus comes back every time. If I use a nifty container with a little separate dip section- it’s wiped clean. Also I get mine to eat a variety of vegetables (not just carrots- but also cucumber, celery, snow peas) with dips. They’re tastier with dip- duh.

I will also often portion out my own yoghurt in to small little boxes. Prepackaged yoghurts, even at the expensive end, are either low-fat (which I’m not in to- especially for kids) or have sugar. Finding an organic, full fat sugar free yogurt in a prepackaged container is near impossible. It’s easier to buy your own in the jumbo 1 kg tub and add raw honey, fresh/dried fruit, soaked chia seeds, raw cocoa, cinnamon/vanilla etc…

Those same little boxes good for yoghurt are also good for making things like puddings (chia, sago, rice, avocado) and homemade jelly. I’ve written about the health benefits of grass fed gelatine on the immune system and gut health here before. Good quality gelatine can be a bit tricky to get your hands on. Here and here are good sources to buy it on line in Australia. If you get excited about gelatine, you can also get in to making fruit lollies with it and all kinds of other super fun things.

Puddings and jelly are a good Sunday prep to do while you defrost the second half of your previous muffin batch and whack it in the oven. You’re feeling like a super parent this week.

12737016_10153200389586148_499949656_oThis very uninteresting picture is of some of my favourite lunch boxes. The nifty ones for veggies and dips- the small square ones that seal completely shut and won’t leak yogurt or jelly, and assorted kinds for crackers, dried fruit and other bits and pieces. 

Mix it up- I had an alternating PBJ with cheese whiz sandwich situation every day of my primary school years. I hate sandwiches and bread generally, which makes it really hard for me to make them every day for my kids to eat. They want sandwiches though. Partly because they like them, but also because that’s what everyone else is eating- so there’s that compromise again. Luckily mine will accept spelt sourdough but definitely prefer fluffier lighter options- and I do try to source wheat free/gluten free sandwiches breads from time to time. My daughter will do wraps instead of bread, but not my son (just to make things a bit annoying). I also try to mix up the “main” of the lunchbox with non sandwich options that I know that they like. Sushi- is a fav. I try to sneak ¼ quinoa into the sushi rice. Smoked salmon, avo and cucumber always get a good reception. Leftovers- On occasion when we’ve had a pasta dish, or a home made pie/quiche- the kids will accept these. I wouldn’t send them with a thermos of soup – I just know that wouldn’t get a look in, but your kids might be different. Ricepaper rolls- Traditional Vietnamese cold rolls is another way to sneak in a few extra veggies- just make sure to leave out the peanuts. Fritters and falafel- Some kids love homemade corn/zucchini fritters, bean/lentil patties, veggie burger patties and falafels. Theses can be served as a snack or made in to a wrap/sandwich with salads/pickles and dips.

Carbohydrate vs. protein- Lunch box fare is generally carbohydrate based, which always stresses me out. Sandwiches, muffins, cookies, crackers, fruit. Try to find ways to sneak in protein wherever you can to keep those energy levels stable. Mine love jerky and salami- I try to source as good as quality as possible, and on occasion we make our own. Small boxes of goat feta and olives seems to be well received as a snack. Some kids will do a hard boiled egg. Always add seeds, coconut/buckwheat/quinoa flours to as much baking as you can- as these are seeds not grains and are higher in protein. If your kids will do my raw cereal as a “cookie”, perfect! If it’s sandwiches your kids are after, try to always make your sandwiches savoury and protein based, and avoid sweet ones like jam, honey etc. We do leftover roast chicken with homemade mayo and diced celery, free range ham/salami/BLT, hummus & salad, smoked salmon and avocado.

Drinks- It’s important to limit the amount of juice and flavoured milk. I’d actually say, abstain all together. Mine may get juice as a special treat on an excursion or sporting day- that’s it. Boxed juices offer no nutritional value- they are highly processed and nothing more than a straight sugar hit. On the other hand, if you’re a super parent who wants to put your homemade fresh juice or kombucha in to a container to send to school- and your super kid will drink it there… WIN! Smoothies can also be sources of protein (seeds, good quality protein powder, raw egg, yoghurt) and can be bottled for the lunch box. Smoothies can also hide leafy greens, especially when made chocolate with raw cocoa, I’ve got a smoothie post here.

Breakfast is important- So if lunch is going to be a place of compromise- best make sure that another 5 meals a week are top quality. Protein rich is the best for breakfast. We do lots of eggs (at least 3 times a week) and in winter there may be miso soup made with bone broth, and in summer always a smoothie full of seeds, greens and super foods. Also consider omelettes (a good place to hide veggies), baked beans (home made is best, but if it’s out of a tin, you can sneak in mushrooms, tomato and spinach). On toast think: good quality labna, quark or ricotta with a drizzle of honey, nuts and seeds. If you’re an oats family- try mixing rolled quinoa in to your oats and make sure to add soaked chia seeds, high quality protein powder and nuts. Sorry, but avoid all breakfast cereal. No matter what it says on the box it’s highly processed and a direct sugar hit/energy crash for your kid. If the “best” cereal/granola in the universe fits in anywhere, I’d say it’s as an afternoon snack or desert/treat. Definitely not breakfast.

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However your lunchbox goes out, above all, try to avoid it going out soaked in your guilt, stress or tears. There’s a lot of packed lunches ahead before they’ll be making their own, and at the end of the day, a full stomach and a heart full of love is what we’re the most grateful for- just do your best!

 

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Move over Weetbix- My raw cereal

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I have a few staples that I always have on rotation. Things I prepare in big batches and have on hand for times when life is busy. In these times, I’m hoping I’ve got cupboards full of jars and freezers full of boxes. One of the great staples I’ve discovered, is my raw cereal. I call it a cereal because that’s how I like to eat it, with some kind of milk, or yoghurt, often with fruit and a drizzle of honey. My daughter prefers it more like a biscuit or a cookie. I try to make batches of it where I don’t include any nuts, and then they are perfect in her lunch box at school. The combinations are endless, and dehydrating is a great way to make use of any seasonally abundant produce you may have.

If you haven’t yet run out and bought a dehydrator, after the enthralling and compelling  Kale chips  post- then let this serve as further motivation! Like I said, when I got my paws on my Excalibur, I never looked back. But whatever the brand- you are making an investment in your wholefoods kitchen and increasing the efficiency of all kinds of food preparations/preserving. Now, like the Kale chips, you can make this in your oven, and I know many folks who do. There are a few draw backs with using the oven- 1) you don’t have control over the temperature to the same extent, which means you can easily burn or cook your cereal. 2) Lack of temp control means you can’t really say your end result is bonafide “RAW”- this may or may not matter to you 3) A dehydrator is set up to accommodate many rows or trays. Mine is a 9 tray. In terms of energy and time efficiency you get more bang for you buck (and hour) with a dehydrator. 4) A dehydrator can be left on all night or when you go out. You may or may not like to leave your oven on in the same way, especially if it’s gas. So there. Put that dehydrator on the top of your wish list. Until then, don’t let me put you off trying some of these goodies. The more you get in to the swing of making and enjoying them, the more likely you are to get the right equipment for the job.

The base

I have tried a lot of different bases for the cereal, and I have found that raw buckwheat is the best. It becomes soft with soaking/sprouting and when it is dehydrated, it is nice and crunchy without being too hard. I’ve tried spelt grain in the same way, and the dehydrated result, though entirely edible, isn’t as nice. Depending on the batch size, you may start with 1- 2 cups of raw buckwheat, and soak in double the amount water over night. If you want to sprout the buckwheat, to enhance nutrition and digestibility, check out the method described on my post on the fermented dosa. Buckwheat is amazing versatile and under utilised. It is a seed, not a grain, high in protein and bioflavonids, and it is also gluten free. Time for the humble buckwheat to take to the stage- front and centre please!

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Here my buckwheat has already been soaking and has been drained and rinsed. 

The second half of the base, I usually use another nut/seed of some kind.

Nuts are a fantastic source of protein and omega fatty acids- however, in the modern world of the hysterical immune system- anaphylactic allergies are rampant. Meaning of course the end of the P.B.J era (peanut butter n’ jelly in case you missed it)- but also the end of this healthful food being allowed at most schools/preschools. As a health conscious parent, this is a REAL drag. But of course, we don’t want to risk anyone having a reaction to our lunch, so… seeds it is. I usually mix together equal parts of flaxseeds, sunflower seeds, and pumpkin seeds- ALL RAW. Chia seeds and sesame are also included at times- and if you can get your hands on hulled hemp seeds, by all means- add them too. If I was using nuts for a home-only batch, I would probably go for almonds, cashews, pistachios, pecans. I generally use equal parts seeds/nuts to buckwheat, soaked 24 hours.

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This batch is a home batch- so I’ve got almonds to add to the mix. Along side is flax seeds, chia seeds, desiccated coconut and coconut flour. 

Next you need some kind of fruit.

I use seasonal fruit and there are no rules. I often use bananas as they never really out of season where I live (I’m spoiled). They make a great creamy consistency to the mix, are naturally really sweet, and dehydrate well. When I made this batch- I was drowning in mangos (incredibly decadent). I’ve written a post on eating seasonally and foraging, inspired by the bumper crop we had this year. Frozen berries can work too, or a combination of whatever you’ve got.

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Spotty mangos from a friends tree. Gotta preserve these guys FAST!

Those are basic ingredients to your raw cereal. But don’t stop there! There are heaps of extras you can add to the mix to create a particular flavour or variation that makes each batch it’s own special thing. I often have a couple of batches on the go. One say, really chocolate- another more fruity/tropical.

Some extras to consider adding to your cereal may include: Raw cocoa (can you say- cocopops?!), Acai powder, Maple syrup, Honey, Vanilla bean, Cinnamon, Nutmeg, Essences of almond/orange/rose (rose and pistachio with strawberries! YES!), Fruit slices- thinly sliced strawberries or banana spread out over the top, salt (I use Himalayan salt), Spirulina (Great with cocoa and mint essence) … As you can see- the possibilities are endless.

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Blending Once you’ve combined all the ingredients- it’s time for the blender. I’m sure you could use a bar mix for the job- I use a high speed blender. I like to have quite a chunky mix- so there are lots of textures. Crunchy nuts and leathery dehydrated fruit all get their place. One way to achieve this is to blend half the mix until it’s a smooth porridge consistency- then add the other half and just pulse it enough to chop. The trick is adding just the right amount water to make the combination porridge-like. Add a 1/4-1/2 cup of water- blend- then stir before adding more.

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You can also at this stage add extras to the mix- like sweetener. I won’t lie. If I’m making a kid friendly batch- I need to add sweetener. Mine don’t LOVE it just with the sweetness of fruit. I’ll usually use honey or coconut sugar at this stage, though maple syrup sometimes is a nice flavour addition. I’ll leave you to decide how much sweet is good for you- taste as you go. Another thing I may add at this stage is coconut flour. I’ll stir through just enough to make the texture of the mix a bit more creamy- it can really add a lovely consistency. Make sure it’s completely blended and smooth, not dry.

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Stir in the honey and coconut flour. 

Laying it out on trays

Next step is to spread the mix out on your dehydrator trays. I use baking paper to line my trays. I didn’t buy the teflex sheets that some people use. I did a bunch of reading on both teflex and the silicon in baking paper- and there seemed to be areas of concern for both. It’s unclear if either substance leeches in to the food at low temperatures, and seeing as this will be dehydrated at the standard for raw foods- 41C or 105F, I’m comfortable with that. Spread the mixture using a spatula until it’s about 1-2 mm thick.

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I’m pressing desiccated coconut on to the top of the batch- not blended- to add extra crunch and texture.

Dehydrate at 41C or 105F until crisp

There’s no exact time you need to leave you cereal going for- somewhere between 10-12 hours. Once they’ve become solid enough, peel the paper off, as it helps them to dry faster. Make sure there are no soggy or moist bits and any fruit chunks are throughly dehydrated before storing. Break the sheets of dried cereal in to “flake” size bites, or leave in larger chunks and eat as a biscuit. The cereal keeps for couple of months in an air tight container or jar.

IMPORTANT! This recipe is for a sweet, cereal or biscuit. However simple variations can make an equally delicious savoury crisp bread! Instead of fruit- add tomato/grated zucchini, carrot, beetroot, fresh herbs (dill, basil, oregano are great), garlic/onion, diced spinach/kale, nutritional yeast, smokey paprika, balsamic vinegar. I once made a batch of raw nachos using buckwheat, almonds, sweetcorn, garlic and nutritional yeast. YUM. Top with avocado/hummus and microgreens and you’ve got a delicious quick snack.  So many variations are possible. Just get creative and let the produce of the season inspire you.

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Photography courtesy of Rebecca Rushbrook Photography.