Letting kids help makes packing lunch less of a struggle

Packing school lunches doesn’t have to mean another task for a parent during the school year, because kids can get in on making choices and planning.

“To start off with, I usually tell parents to make sure you get your kids involved in this whole thing because you want to make sure that you’re providing them [with foods] they like. There’s such a big push to make sure they’re eating healthy, but you also want to make sure that they’re eating, because that really kind of helps with their grades and everything,” said Dona Baughman, registered dietitian and clinical manger for UPMC Altoona’s Nutrition Services Department. “I think the key, really, is to get your kid involved, because if you put a bunch of [food] in their lunch box that they don’t even like, that’s when they start to complain.”

Parents should aim for having a lunch that includes at least three food groups, she said. Go with fresh fruits they like and add in such items as fruit snacks only occasionally, to offer them some variety, she suggested.

Baughman also recommended letting a child try different foods, such as whole grain breads, before school starts so they can figure out what they like.

When picking a protein, she said, go for lean meats with no “filler.” Meats with fillers to avoid include bologna, pepperoni, chipped ham and salami. Turkey, ham or roast beef without fillers are good choices. Peanut butter and tuna are also good options. Tuna is lean and gets them interested in fish, a good lean protein, especially for adults.

Balance the rest of the meal out with a vegetable such as baby carrots, and milk or water to drink, she said.

Dr. Keith Kantor, a nutritionist and member of the Presidential Active Lifestyle Award Committee, is the author of the book, “What Matters: Leadership Values that Just Might Save America.”

In giving some tips for providing a balanced lunch to kids, Kantor said in an email, “For their drink, make sure it is water instead of a juice, flavored tea or soda. These tend to contain too much sugar, salt and dyes.”

He also believes in having the child partake in the decisions.

“Have the children help with preparing the lunch so they take ownership of it,” he said.

Parents can start having kids help pack their lunch and take responsibility for letting parents know when it is time to go shopping at a young age, Baughman said.

“If they own it, they seem to like it a little bit better,” she said.

Another solution for easy school lunches just happens to be dinner.

Associated Press food editor J.M. Hirsch’s new book, “Beating the Lunch Box Blues,” offered suggestions for making dinner leftovers into next-day lunches in an excerpt from his book.

“Easy, delicious lunch packing relies on leftovers,” he said. “This is why there are certain dinner foods I always make sure to cook too much of: chicken, steak, pasta, rice and grilled or roasted vegetables. They’re all easily transformed into something fresh.

“That’s why dinner is the best time to start thinking about the next day’s lunch. If supper leftovers could be easily repurposed, you might as well make a little extra.”

The following recipe for bacon-cauliflower mac and cheese makes enough to have the next day, he said.

Bacon-Cauliflower Mac and Cheese

Hirsch says, “The bacon and four cheeses make this mac and cheese seriously indulgent. But the cauliflower and whole-wheat pasta make it virtuous. For speed, you can skip the breadcrumb and broiling step, making this an easy stovetop meal. I’m a big believer in have-it-your-way. I like elbow pasta for mac and cheese, but substitute whatever you have. Ditto for my selection of cheeses.”

Start to finish: 30 minutes

1 pound whole-wheat elbow pasta

10 strips bacon, chopped

1/2 medium head cauliflower, cored and cut into small florets

2 cups milk

1 tablespoon garlic powder

1/2 tablespoon onion powder

1/2 tablespoon mustard powder

1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper

1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper

4 ounces cream cheese, cut into chunks

1 1/2 cups (6 ounces) grated cheddar cheese

1 1/2 cups (6 ounces) grated gruyere cheese

1 cup grated Parmesan cheese

Kosher salt

3/4 panko breadcrumbs

4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) butter, melted

Heat the oven to broil.

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the pasta and cook al dente, about eight minutes. Drain and set aside.

Meanwhile, in a large, deep oven-safe saute pan over medium heat, cook the bacon for two minutes. Add the cauliflower and saute until lightly browned, about 12 minutes. Add the drained pasta to the pan and mix well. Add the milk, garlic powder, onion powder, mustard powder, black pepper and cayenne. Mix well and heat until the milk is hot.

Add the cream cheese, stirring until melted. Sprinkle in the cheddar, gruyere and Parmesan, stirring until melted. Season with salt. Leave the pasta in the pan.

In a small bowl, toss the breadcrumbs with the melted butter, then scatter evenly over the pasta. Broil for two minutes, or until lightly browned.

Leftover lunch ideas: Use leftover mac and cheese as the filling for a grilled cheese. It was my son’s idea. It’s a little crazy, but it’s a lot delicious. Or pack it warm in a thermos and use it as a topping for DIY nachos. Just accompany with tortilla chips and other toppings, such as bacon or sausage chunks, salsa and a package of guacamole. At lunch, spoon the warm mac and cheese onto the chips and top as desired.

Servings: 4 dinners, plus leftovers

Mirror Staff Writer Amanda Gabeletto is at 949-7030.