Fun and healthy lunches for kids include blueberries, spinach and tomatoes

Experts share their tips for packing mid-day meals for kids that are fun and nutritious.

08/19/2014 7:00 AM

08/19/2014 8:41 PM

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, who lives in Mission, says she’s a big believer in eating a variety of healthy, 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 healthy lunches have to be Pinterest-worthy. With a little planning and a fridge 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).

With kids, “You want to emphasize eating the rainbow,” Hild says.

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 like 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.

Once a month, Siebert teaches cooking classes for young chefs. 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 also 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 curly 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.”

Contact enterprise reporter Sarah Gish by calling 816-234-4823, emailing sgish@kcstar.com or tweeting @sarah_gish.

More lunch tips from the experts

Invest in a compartmentalized lunchbox, such as a Japanese-style bento box. They eliminate the need for disposable plastic bags, and “they’re automatically portion controlled,” Mission mom Sue Patterson says.

Get into the habit of making too much dinner so you’ll have leftovers to pack for lunch, advises J.M. Hirsch in his book “Beating the Lunch Box Blues” (Rachael Ray Books/Atria 2013).

Make sure food is ready to eat — for example, peel oranges and shell pistachios. That way, “kids will be much more apt to eat all the food,” chef Gary Hild says.

Jazz up peanut butter and jelly sandwiches by experimenting with different types of bread and surprise fillings, such as coconut flakes, Lily Siebert, of the Merc Co-Op in Lawrence, says.

“Every kid wants something sweet at the end of lunch,” Hild says. He recommends gluten-free cookies made with whole grain flour, dried fruit and nuts.

Don’t be afraid of the cold — pastas and whole grain salads taste great cold or at room temperature, Hirsch writes in “Beating the Lunch Box Blues.”

Two quick and easy recipes from Hirsch: Bake an egg in a muffin cup with a slice of deli ham to make a portable and protein-rich lunch entree. You can also fill frozen mini phyllo cups with yogurt and fruit — they’ll thaw by lunchtime.

Mix mayo with Greek yogurt to make a tangy sandwich spread with more protein and less fat, Hild says.

Let kids pick out fruit at the store. Siebert recommends pluots, a cross between plums and apricots. “I tell kids how cool it is to find new things to like,” she says.

Entree-style salads topped with cooked shrimp and a whole grain such as barley make for a healthy, filling and cost-effective lunch, Hild says.

Another lunch idea from “Beating the Lunch Box Blues”: Skip the sandwich and pack a snackable spread of crackers, cheese, deli meat, hummus, peanut butter, jam and fruit.

Chicken Salad Roll-Ups

This fun alternative to the basic sandwich can also be made with hummus and shredded carrots.

Makes 4 roll-ups

1 cup chopped cooked chicken

2 celery stalks, diced

1 tablespoon mayonnaise

1 teaspoon Dijon mustard

2 teaspoons lemon juice

1/4 teaspoon salt

4 slices whole-wheat sandwich bread

In a bowl, combine the chicken, celery, mayonnaise, Dijon, lemon juice and salt and toss to mix well.

Using a rolling pin, roll the bread to 1/4 inch thick.

Spread 1/4 cup of the chicken salad mixture on each slice of bread and roll it up. Tip: If you have younger kids, you can secure the roll-ups by gently putting a rubber band around them.

Per roll-up: 129 calories (30 percent from fat), 5 grams total fat (1 gram saturated), 18 milligrams cholesterol, 14 grams carbohydrates, 10 grams protein, 352 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber.

Source: Weelicious Lunches (HarperCollins 2013)

Banana Dog Bites

These sweet sushi-style snacks pack a protein punch. Use whole-wheat tortillas for extra fiber.

Makes 4 servings

2 tortillas (any variety will work)

1/4 cup peanut butter, or almond or sunflower butter

2 bananas, peeled

Place one tortilla on a flat surface and spread 2 tablespoons of peanut butter on the tortilla to coat it evenly. (Note: If your tortillas are stiff, you can put them in the microwave between 2 pieces of moist paper towel and heat for 15 to 20 seconds, or until softened).

Place 1 whole banana near the edge of the tortilla and roll it up.

Slice the banana dog into 1/2-inch rounds.

Repeat to make a second banana dog and serve.

Per serving: 267 calories (36 percent from fat), 11 grams total fat (2 grams saturated), no cholesterol, 37 grams carbohydrates, 8 grams protein, 248 milligrams sodium, 3 grams dietary fiber.

Source: Weelicious Lunches (HarperCollins 2013)

Rainbows and Butterflies Pasta Salad

This recipe calls for corn, edamame and red bell pepper, but you can swap in any combination of vegetables you or your kids like.

Makes 4 servings

8 ounces bow-tie pasta, preferably whole grain

3 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon extra-virgin olive oil

1 cup corn kernels, thawed if frozen

1 cup shelled edamame, thawed if frozen

1 medium red bell pepper, diced

2 medium carrots, shredded (about 1/2 cup)

1/3 cup grated Parmesan cheese (about 1 ounce)

Salt

Cook the pasta as the label directs. Drain and toss with 1 teaspoon olive oil to prevent sticking; let cool.

In a large bowl, toss the cooled pasta with the corn, edamame, bell pepper and carrots. Drizzle with the remaining 3 tablespoons olive oil and toss to coat. Add the Parmesan and 1/4 teaspoon salt; toss again and season to taste.

Per serving: 414 calories (33 percent from fat), 16 grams total fat (3 grams saturated), 5 milligrams cholesterol, 57 grams carbohydrates, 16 grams protein, 137 milligrams sodium, 8 grams dietary fiber.

Red Quinoa Salad With Black Beans and Avocado

Lily Siebert demonstrates this healthy recipe for kids who take cooking classes at the Merc Co-Op in Lawrence. She also packs it for lunch.

Makes 6 servings

For the salad:

1 cup red quinoa

2 cups water

1/2 cup finely minced red onion

1 1/2 cups cooked black beans, rinsed and drained

1 fresh avocado, coarsely chopped

1/4 cup minced cilantro

For the dressing:

2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lime juice

2 tablespoons light tasting oil, such as safflower, canola or soybean oil

3/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon ground cumin

Rinse quinoa well, then put it in a saucepan with 2 cups water and bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer, cover and cook until all water is absorbed (about 15 minutes). The quinoa is done when the grain appears soft and the red becomes translucent. The germ ring will be visible along the outside edge of the grain. Allow to cool to room temperature.

While quinoa is cooking, mix dressing ingredients together. Toss cooked quinoa with onion, black beans, avocado and cilantro. Add dressing and toss until evenly distributed. Serve at room temperature.

Per serving: 267 calories (38 percent from fat), 12 grams total fat (1 gram saturated), no cholesterol, 34 grams carbohydrates, 9 grams protein, 279 milligrams sodium, 7 grams dietary fiber.

Source: The Merc Co-Op in Lawrence

Heart Crispy Treats

Cutting crispy treats into heart shapes makes them fun to look at and eat. Have leftover pieces? Just roll them into balls.

Makes 14 (2-inch) hearts

4 cups organic crispy brown rice cereal

1 cup freeze-dried raspberries or strawberries (can be found at most health food stores)

1 cup brown rice syrup

1 cup smooth peanut butter (or any nut or seed butter)

In a large bowl, combine the brown rice cereal and the freeze-dried fruit.

In a large saucepan, heat brown rice syrup and peanut butter over low heat and whisk until melted and combined, about 2 minutes. Remove saucepan from heat and pour over rice crisps in a large bowl. Stir with a plastic spatula until completely combined. Pour into a greased 8-by-8-inch pan and press down to flatten the top. Cool for 5 minutes and then use a heart-shaped cookie cutter to cut into hearts.

Per heart: 231 calories (36 percent from fat), 10 grams total fat (2 grams saturated), no cholesterol, 34 grams carbohydrates, 5 grams protein, 170 milligrams sodium, 4 grams dietary fiber.

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