Each weekday morning during the school year for the past two decades, I've stumbled out of bed at dawn, rubbed my tired eyes and confronted the age-old problem parents have wrestled with for generations: how to put together a school lunch that's healthful and nutritious, but tasty enough that it won't get traded for a bag of chips or tossed in the trash like yesterday's crumpled-up math quiz.
If I sound a bit jaded, it's because in the school lunch wars, I'm a battle-scarred veteran. I did the math. In Pennsylvania, there's 180 school days. Multiply that by 13 years, then by five kids, and by the time my twin daughters, the last in the house, graduate in 2014, I will have purchased or packed more than 11,000 school lunches.
Thank God for coffee.
Each September, at the start of the new school year, my husband and I vow this will be the year we finally master the art of brown-bagging it. We plan menus, compile lists, buy groceries and lunch bags. (This year we even got a PackIt, a freezable lunch bag that keeps its contents cool.) We rejoin the consumers' club bulk store we quit months earlier, and we stock up on healthy snacks. We even set the alarm clock a few minutes earlier so we're not rushing around with a knife in a jar of mayo between bites of toast. But you know how it goes.
By the time National School Lunch Week rolls around (this year it's Oct. 15 to 19), we're quickly losing steam. In the beginning of the year, there's sliced chicken and provolone for sandwiches or packable leftovers in the fridge, plus fresh fruit on the table; within a month or so, when I haven't had time to run to the grocery store and I can't find even a single cheese stick to toss into the brown-paper bag on the counter, all I can offer my kids -- besides lunch money -- is a pat on the back and a prayer there will be at least one thing on the school lunch menu they won't find too horribly offensive.
Call it a cop-out, or just being lazy, but between work deadlines, chauffeuring kids, running, folding laundry, cooking, and everything else we working parents have to juggle on a daily basis, I cannot consistently get my act together when it comes to packing lunch. Especially when it's so easy to write a check to the school cafeteria each month. (They're the professionals, after all!) If the food's not exactly my kids' cup of tea? It's not like they're going to starve to death in the course of eight hours. Besides, I almost always make a great dinner that atones for my poor lunch planning skills. So the truth is, for the last five or six years, most days, the McKay kids could be found in the long, shuffling line of kids waiting to plunk down their cash for what passes for a mid-day meal.
Complicating matters this year are new school meal standards set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture that put twice the fruits and vegetables on kids' lunch trays, along with more whole grains and less salt and saturated fat. Designed to improve nutrition standards, the new guidelines sound like a dream come true for parents like me who feel guilty about not packing their child's lunch. In reality, many kids -- mine included -- claim the changes make what's never been known as a good meal even more unpalatable. French fries can't be made with salt or fat, the only two things that make French fries edible, and the number of calories is now strictly controlled, so serving sizes are noticeably smaller.
Students in the Plum School District hated the new food so much this fall that they proclaimed a strike on Twitter, using the hashtag #brownbagginit. In Kansas, lunch protesters made a video protesting the calorie limits called "We Are Hungry!" It quickly went viral. Our house is a small outpost in the rebellion. Says one of my daughters, who wishes to remain nameless so as to not offend the lunch ladies: "It's gross! Everything tastes like it's made out of cold plastic." Her sister just makes a face.
While the federal government has good intentions in trying to reduce childhood obesity, one size doesn't fit every family. Our girls absolutely refuse to eat breakfast, and go right to volleyball and cross-country practices after school, and I worry that they might not be getting enough calories to keep them going through the day.
So this year, each morning, my husband I have been getting up a few minutes early and, working like seasoned, if groggy, food-service workers, assemble two bag lunches -- chicken and mayo for one girl, chicken and cheese, no mayo, for the other. (Absolutely no mayo, not even traces on the knife to slice the sandwich. No kidding.) Each girl also gets a banana, an energy bar, and, for dessert, a small baglet of fruit snacks and a homemade cookie or brownie. We haven't done the calorie count, and have no idea what the fat content might be, but they eat it, and seem to like it. We also try to remember to toss a package of peanut-butter crackers into their backpacks for a quick pick-me-up before sports practice so the daily 5 p.m. "When are you getting home and what's for dinner?" phone call is more affectionate than testy.
I worry that the girls might get sick of eating exactly the same thing, day after day, like a couple of kindergartners. We've searched for alternatives, but it's tough. They can't easily heat up leftovers the way my husband and I do, and hot soup sounds like a good idea, until the first day the container leaks and you have to spend the rest of the year with a math book that smells like broccoli.
Our family is fast approaching National School Lunch Week, and going strong. We're determined that we'll get through this year, and next year, making healthy, nutritious lunches that will not only taste great (OK, good) but will be nutritious enough that they won't keel over during after-school sports.
After that, though, I'm going into retirement. Come June 2014, I'm gladly hanging up my apron, donating whatever brown bags I have left in the cupboard to a neighbor, and walking away, a survivor of the school lunch wars.
One twin likes tofu but the other most definitely doesn't. So to keep peace in the family, I substituted shredded rotisserie chicken. This recipe also would work with thinly sliced beef or pork.
- 1 pound dried pasta (such as linguine or fettuccine)
- 3 tablespoons toasted sesame oil
- 1 tablespoon toasted sesame chili oil
- 6 tablespoons tamari or soy sauce
- 1 clove garlic, minced
- 1/2 tesapoon ground ginger
- 1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
- 12 to 14 ounces firm tofu, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
- 1 red bell pepper, seeded and cut into 1/4-inch dice
- 4 green onions, white and tender green parts, thinly sliced
- 3 tablespoons sesame seeds, toasted
Bring 6-quart pot two-thirds full of lightly salted water to a boil over high heat. Add pasta, decrease heat to medium-high, and cook, stirring occasionally, for about 10 minutes, or until al dente.
While pasta is cooking, prepare sauce. In a bowl large enough to toss pasta, combine sesame oils, tamari, garlic, ginger and allspice and stir to mix well. Shake the noodles dry, add them to the tofu-sesame sauce and toss to coat evenly.
Add pepper, green onions and sesame seeds and toss to mix well. This dish can be served at room temperature or chilled (store in the refrigerator for up to 24 hours before serving).
Serves 4 to 6.
-- "Simply Fresh: Casual Dining at Home" by Jeff Morgan (Andrews McMeel, 2011, $25)
This easy recipe only takes about 20 minutes, and sneaks in a few healthful veggies.
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 2 carrots, peeled and chopped
- 1 celery stalk, chopped
- 1 leek, white and light green parts only, halved, washed carefully and thinly sliced
- 32-ounce box low-sodium chicken broth
- 1 large chicken breast
- 2 teaspoons herb seasoning
- 3/4 cup thin egg noodles
Heat oil in large saucepan or Dutch oven over medium heat. Add carrots, celery and leek and saute for 4 minutes, or until softened.
Add broth, chicken and seasoning and bring to a boil. Turn heat to medium-low and simmer soup for 12 minutes, or until chicken is cooked through.
Remove chicken breast and cool. Shred or chop into bite-sized pieces.
Add noodles to the broth and cook for 6 minutes, or until tender. Return chicken to soup to warm it up. Serve.
Makes 4 servings.
-- "Weelicious: 140 Fast, Fresh, and Easy Recipes" by Catherine McCord (Morrow, Sept. 2012, $27.50)
Fruit is the healthiest sweet dessert, of course, but these deeply chocolate brownies aren't too bad either: just 154 calories per square and 6.8 grams of total fat.
- 2 tablespoons vegetable oil, such as safflower, plus more for pan
- 4 ounces bittersweet chocolate, coarsely chopped
- 3/4 cup all-purpose flour
- 1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/4 teaspoon baking soda
- 1 cup packed dark-brown sugar
- 1/2 cup unsweetened applesauce
- 1/2 cup reduced-fat sour cream
- 2 large eggs
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Brush a 9-inch square baking pan with oil; line with parchment, leaving an overhang on two sides. Brush parchment with oil. Heat half the chocolate in a small bowl in microwave, stirring every 30 seconds, until melted.
In medium bowl, whisk together flour, cocoa powder, salt and baking soda. In another bowl, whisk together brown sugar, applesauce, sour cream, melted chocolate, eggs and oil until combined. Add flour mixture, and mix just until moistened.
Spread batter in prepared pan. Sprinkle evenly with remaining chopped chocolate. Bake until a toothpick inserted in center of pan comes out with a few moist crumbs attached, 30 to 35 minutes.
Let cool completely in pan. Use paper overhang to lift from pan; peel off paper and cut into 16 squares. Brownies can be stored in an airtight container at room temperature up to 3 days.
Makes 16 brownies.
-- "Everyday Food: Light" from the kitchens of Martha Stewart Living (Clarkson Potter, 2011, $24.99)
This simple formula -- 3 parts liquid, 2 parts vegetable and one part dairy -- works for any creamy vegetable soup. So if your kids aren't fans of broccoli, substitute a veggie (or combination of several) they do like: carrots, sweet potatoes, squash, spinach, peas. Throw a crusty roll or package of crackers in their lunch bags, and you've got a nice, nutritious meal. To help sell this soup, I stirred in a handful of shredded cheddar cheese just before serving.
- 2 cups broccoli florets and peeled stems (about 1/2 average head), cut into chunks
- 3 cups chicken stock
- 1 garlic clove, peeled and cut in half
- 1 cup milk, cream, half-and-half or yogurt
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Combine broccoli and stock in a saucepan and simmer, covered, until broccoli is tender, about 10 minutes. During the last minute or so of cooking, add garlic (this cooks the garlic just enough to remove its raw taste). If you're serving the soup cold, chill now (or refrigerate for up to 2 days), or freeze for up to a month before proceeding.
Puree in a blender, in batches if necessary, until very smooth. Stir in milk, cream or yogurt and reheat gently. Do not boil. Season top taste and serve.
Makes 4 servings.
-- "The Mini Minimalist: Simple Recipes for Satisfying Meals" by Mark Bittman (Random House, Oct. 16, 2012, $19.95)
Cranberries and chopped apples add a sweet crunch to this easy tuna salad. If you won't like wraps, substitute saltine crackers.
- 2 7-ounce cans water-packed albacore tuna, drained
- 1/4 cup mayonnaise
- 1/2 cup chopped onion
- 2 stalks celery, finely chopped
- 1/4 cup dried cranberries
- 1/2 cup chopped apple, skins on or off
- 1 hard-boiled egg, chopped
- Sea salt and black pepper
- 2 10-inch whole grain tortilla wraps
In a large bowl, mix together tuna, mayo, onion, celery, cranberries, apple and egg. Add salt and pepper to taste. Spoon half the mixture into a tortilla and roll up. Repeat with second tortilla and the remaining filling. Cut each tortilla in half to serve.
Serves 2 to 4.
-- Adapted from "The Organic Family Cookbook" by Anni Daulter (Sellers, 2011, $21.95)
Gretchen McKay: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1419 or on Twitter @gtmckay.