Back-to-School Meals: Goodbye Lunchables, Hello Delicious!

By now, you and your child are just getting settled into the routines of fall, kicked off by being back in school. As I struggle to get my groove on with this, the negotiation between healthy, tasty and consumable-in-three-minutes – my son’s requirement out of the school lunch – has become a comedy routine in my kitchen.

I clock up the protein in the morning recess snack and lunch box, which my son’s doctor urges: it stabilizes blood sugar every two hours, sustaining attention span throughout the day. Then my son takes half the food out. Even still, it comes home only half eaten.

The excuses always boil down to time. My son explains it matter-of-factly, as if all parents should understand this reality: “I don’t want to waste anything but it takes too long to chew healthy stuff. I mean, almonds? It can’t be done in three minutes. It cuts into my play time. Kids hafta play, Mom. So here’s what you pack me: pizza, carrot sticks and fruit.”

Oh, I appear to be raising a lawyer. I suppose I can’t complain much as his demand list included a fruit and a vegetable, and God knows they need exercise, given P.E. has been drastically cut in schools.

Thus, my only alternative becomes playing “beat the clock” with the evolving school lunch. Rejected so far was a measly baggy of ¼ cup of cashews, sunflower seeds, and string cheese; also, my brilliant invention of an orange-frozen mango vanilla protein powder shake that takes 20 seconds to whip up in the blender and about 20 seconds to down. This would leave another 120 seconds for Sun Chips and his fruit d’jour. Boys and boosting attention? It is ON. Read to the end for the ingredients. Still, I have to bribe him with reward points like I’m the United Airlines mileage program in order to get him to drink it, and only at breakfast.

But this is where the Farmer’s Market comes in. As we compromise to avoid food as a conflict, his having a range of inviting fresh food from which to choose by taste-test has truly made him a healthy eater from way back.

When he was in preschool, he had lunches the preschool teachers eyed for themselves. One noontime, I got a call that our son forgot his lunch. “All he has is a Lunchable. We figured it HAD to be somebody else’s. He always eats so healthy.” Only for peer group reasons, because every other kid had them daily, we compromised, letting him take a Lunchable on Fridays. The deal was to camouflage a lack of candy and sugar drink by stuffing into the package carrots, all-fruit juice and his farmer’s market choice of fruit.

Now that we’re thrust into the trifecta season of excess food and junk–Halloween, Hanukkah, Christmas—I’m watching the five farmers markets around me for some back up. The yummier the free samples, the easier it is to replace junk with sweet but good stuff.

We are sure that taking our son as a toddler to the weekly farmers markets played a significant role in his healthy eating and love of almost any fruit. He is willing to try almost any variety. Most kids like apples, but sour pomegranates? Rhubarb? He will eat anything purple.

By age 3 he was dining a full-course meal at the market, from appetizer nuts to apple turnovers and Fujis at Ha’s apples, to almond butter on whole wheat bread triangles at the bakery booth. By 4, he was haggling on price, paying for things he chose, and counting the change. He would even come home and act as a waiter, cutting up fruit and serving samples.

It has many teachable moments. Your child connects with real flavor, a sensory adventure with some control over his own consumption, the economics of food, even socialization with interacting in the market setting that dates back to ancient times. We have shared that history and lore (for some reason, though, he thinks the dried fruit CAME from days of yore).

The Farmer’s Market will save you a good amount weekly for most produce, or at least give you another week of shelf life over traditional grocery store fare. Click here for a list of L.A. area farmers markets.

Also enlightening was this story about neighboring communities with economic and health disparity. One has farmers markets, the other is in poorer health.

And as promised, here is my shake recipe:

2 scoops of Whey Protein Powder, Vanilla or Chocolate (I bought at Trader Joe’s)
4 oz. orange juice
8 to 10 bite-size pieces of fresh frozen mango but any fruit will do
A splash of milk

Blend until frothy, about 20 seconds

If you replace the juice with milk you gain more protein. Only the juice seems to recall my son’s beloved Jamba Juice smoothies.

I’d love to hear some healthy recipes you got over the plate, so please share.

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