You could hand your children a wad of cash each morning and hope they make nutritious choices in the school cafeteria this fall. Or you could make their lunches from scratch, trying to invent new ways to make cucumbers and carrot sticks both kid-friendly and cool — all at 6 a.m.
The good news is local markets and their suppliers have got your back, according to Cindy Palmer Dean, creative director/owner of Palmer’s Darien. “Companies have picked up on the snack craze going on … and quick and easy lunches,” she observes. “I think companies have finally gotten smart and are providing easy solutions for parents.”
In fact, by mid-summer Dean was putting the finishing touches on a list of good-for-you school lunch options that will be on the market’s website. Most are already portioned to make lunch prep more of a grab-and-go affair each morning.
The list includes a plethora of single-serving, protein-packed cheese options, such as Horizon Organic string cheese and Laughing Cow Dippers with breadsticks and cheese wedges. Sabra Hummus Snackers are another good option, as are Eggland’s Best hard-boiled eggs, which come pre-peeled in a two-egg portion, Dean says.
At the Village Market in Wilton, staffers make several nutritious lunch possibilities each day, from yogurt parfaits and carrots and celery with hummus to 18 varieties of grab-and-go sandwiches, explains Nancy Dolnier, vice president and general manager. In business since 1935, the market’s deli custom makes about 200 sandwiches a day and has at least 25 salad options on any given day.
Sandwiches are ready for the taking by 7 a.m., along with bagels and cream cheese for those hoping to sneak in a late breakfast or make lunch more of a brunch affair.
“It’s amazing how many people come in in the morning to get sandwiches for their kids,” Dolnier notes.
The sandwich — the old standby of the school lunchbox — is still a great option for kids, says Southport culinary nutritionist Heather Carey, but she encourages parents to pass on peanut butter and jelly in favor of ingredients that pack a more nutritional punch.
Is your child tempted by turkey? Swap out the standard mayo in favor of mashed avocado or hummus and be sure to pile on lettuce and tomato for a more well-rounded meal, Carey suggests.
Carey is a big fan of giving kids a little control by offering them a bean dip with cut up vegetables, for example, so they can choose the ratio of mush to crunch. A sensible serving of nuts is a smart midday pick-me-up, as is a handful of whole grains. “You know, popcorn is a whole grain,” she says of the many choices available to parents.
Smoothies are another way to sneak in fresh fruits and veggies and they travel well in a thermos, Carey adds.
She also encourages busy parents to take a little time to make a batch of her energy bites (recipe below), which combine nut butter, carrots, coconut, flax seed, and other goodies. They’re the perfect foil to some of the big no-nos on her list — fruit juice, fruit-sweetened yogurt, and pre-packaged granola bars, all of which offer a wallop of unnecessary sugar with little nutritional value, she contends. Whole fruits offer vitamins and a nice dash of fiber, while parents can add fresh fruit to plain yogurt, she adds.
“Some granola bars are full of sugar. They’re almost the equivalent of candy bars,” she says. “It’s a nutritional zero. It’s always better to make your own.”
Parents strapped for time might want to head for Palmer’s, where there is a kids’ area in its award-winning gourmet to go section. In addition, the store is highlighting things like Mush, a pre-made oatmeal that even comes with a spoon in the lid, freeze-dried fruits and single-serving cheese and charcuterie options. Dean also loves Herban Essentials, which are individual, anti-bacterial hand wipes scented with lavender and other therapeutic essential oils to keep kids both clean and rejuvenated.
Busy parents can make a grab-and-go section at home for older kids to mix and match pre-measured servings of nuts, dips, vegetables, and fruit slices. You can even make a batch of nut butter and fruit spread sandwiches and pop them in the freezer for a last-minute lunch.
“Lunches and snacks have come a long way,” Dean concludes. “It used to be just potato chips that had snack packs … now my granddaughter thinks dried fruit is candy.”
Heather Carey’s Energy Bites
These no bake bites are so versatile. Use almond butter instead of peanut butter, unsweetened dried cherries instead of currants, or add in other ingredients that you simply enjoy. High in protein, filling and good for you! Make extra and store in the freezer.
Makes 12 bites
1/2 cup currants
1/2 cup grated carrots
1/2 cup granola (good quality, low sugar)
1/2 cup ground flax seeds or hemp seeds
1/2 cup unsweetened coconut
2 tablespoons local honey
6 tablespoons peanut butter
Mix all ingredients in a bowl. Roll into small, bite-sized balls and place on parchment paper. Refrigerate for 10 minutes to set ingredients. Eat right away or refrigerate/freeze for later.