This post was originally shared as part of Sunny’s (And Love It, Too!) 2012 Healthy Lunchbox Series. Sunny’s fantastic 31-day series has concluded and you’ll definitely want to check out her event summary and roundup, The Ultimate Collection, to get the “take away” on making healthy lunches!
When Sunny first asked me to join in this year’s series, I hesitated. As she well knew, I had participated in her series last year with my post on The Cagey Bachelor Philosophy … A Tapas Approach to School Lunches. I told Sunny that I didn’t know what more I could offer. But then I kept thinking about the lunches that I had packed for Son when he was growing up. (He’s now 24 years old and off living on his own in New York City.) The lunches I packed for him when he was a child were not healthy. Oh, don’t get me wrong, I actually thought that I was doing pretty well back then, but I was ignorant about what constituted a healthy lunch. Very ignorant in fact. I actually packed healthier lunches for myself because mine usually involved leftovers from meals made from real food. Those were often not a good option for Son’s lunch as there was no way for him to heat up his lunches. Sure, some leftovers could be packed in a thermos and kept warm, but for the most part I relied on packaged individual serving items for his lunches. Let’s break them down, shall we?
Then: Son, who is now dairy free in addition to being gluten free, used to love yogurt. But it was the yogurt with the colorful packaging and cute cartoon characters. Yogurt that was pretty colorful itself. It was full of sugar (or the even less desirable aspartame or sucralose), dyes, and preservatives. Not good at all.
Now: If I were packing Son’s lunch today, I’d make my own yogurt, adding fruit. If I needed dairy-free yogurt, I could use one of the many dairy-free milks to make my own yogurt. There are many terrific recipes for making yogurt online. Here are links to just a few.
Katie (Kitchen Stewardship) (In this post, Katie also addresses all the excuses on not making one’s own yogurt.)
Then: Cheese sticks were just so much fun back then, but after a while even Son noticed that daily cheese sticks were, well, to put it bluntly, clogging him up.
Now: Today, I’d skip the cheese most days, but occasionally would include a very small square of high quality cheese. For dairy free, a small piece of a Daiya non-dairy “cheese” wedge would work.
Then: I went for single servings of fruits like applesauce (with sugar and cinnamon added), peaches, and fruit cocktail. I’d occasionally cut up an apple or a pear, but they did tend to turn brown by lunch time. I didn’t want to use the commercial product that keeps fruit from turning brown, nor did I want to use orange juice or lemon juice on the fruit slices because although those will work to prevent a color change, they also subtly change the flavor.
Now: I’d add fresh fruit all the time for lunch. Thanks to Pinterest, I know about the “apple puzzle” solution. With your apple standing upright, cut apple into vertical slices and then secure all with a rubber band so the surface of the slices won’t oxidize and turn brown. See Smashed Peas and Carrots’ step-by-step instructions here.
Photo courtesy of Smashed Peas and Carrots
Meats, Main Dish ~
Then: Jerky was a favorite “go to” lunch item. Full of preservatives, the jerky and “meat sticks” I packed for Son were not at all a good choice. Leftovers were used if they didn’t require re-heating or could be added to a thermos. I also relied on canned and microwaveable goods.
Now: Making jerky is a great reason to have a dehydrator. Here’s a recipe for Ginger Tamari Jerky from Paleo Parents. Soup (like Everything Soup; Potato-Zucchini Soup; Black Bean, Corn, and Salsa Soup; or Black-Eyed Pea with Ham, and Chicken Soup)—with a savory muffin, paleo bread, or crackers—makes for an easy-to-make filling meal with the help of a thermos. Similarly, small portions of leftover casseroles (like Easy Pea-sy Cheesy Tuna or Salmon Casserole, Spicy Sausage with Russet Potatoes and Sweet Potato Cream Sauce, and Taco Popover Supper) can easily be taken for lunch in a thermos. Remember to always fill the thermos with hot water, let sit for a few minutes, and then empty and fill to ensure thermos does its job best.
Granola Bars/Cereal Bars/Protein Bars ~
Then: I bought a lot of pre-packaged cereal bars and granola bars for son’s lunches. For the most part, they provided little nutritional value and, in hindsight, didn’t excel in the flavor department either.
Now: I would make some pretty healthy bars (focusing on ingredients like nuts, oats, quinoa flakes), for a treat once or twice a week. Popeye Protein and Fruit Bars, Chewy Granola Bars, or Black Magic Bars would all make welcome lunchbox treats. Most of my bar recipes can even be frozen on a wax-paper lined baking sheet and then stored in a larger container and pulled out one at a time as needed.
Then: Sometimes packaged sandwich crackers made their way into Son’s lunch box. You know those day-glow orange ones that came with peanut butter or cheese centers? Those were the ones. Obviously they contained food coloring, but they also contained both wheat flour and barley flour, one or more undesirable oils, and more.
Now: There are a few purchased healthy gluten-free crackers that I buy from time to time, so I’d be willing to use those occasionally. But I’d like to try Ali’s Quinoa-Seed Crackers, Elana’s Vegan Herb Crackers, or Maggie’s Sesame Almond Crackers.
Then: Yep, I included packaged chips in Son’s lunches all the time. Son’s favorites were those stackable, thin, “formed” chips. It turns out they aren’t even gluten free like most chips.
Now: There are some healthier chips on the market today (I especially like the veggie chips, like sweet potato, beet, etc.) and I’m sure that I’d still share some packaged ones from time to time, but it’s pretty easy to make one’s own potato chips like Karina shows here. Or you could not go wrong with these yellow squash chips, which Jen’s kids fought over (if your child’s school starts while yellow squash is still in season). Zucchini chips are another great chip option and zucchini seems to be around pretty much year round these days. These Zucchini Chips from Alyssa look perfect for a kid’s lunch. And you’ve now happily crossed over into the Veggies category!
Then: Unless veggies were included in leftovers packed in thermoses, sadly, few veggies made it into Son’s lunch.
From: I did pack raw carrots from time to time, but later information revealed that the baby carrots that I packed were not healthy at all. A “go to” lunch with an emphasis on veggies would be hummus (in different flavors) with cut red pepper strips, cucumber sticks (or slices), and similar.
Then: Okay, I never ever bought cookies or muffins for Son. I always made my own. Baking has always been my specialty, but before I was only focused on making tasty baked goods. I didn’t give a second thought to ingredients. I made cookies and muffins with highly refined gluten-full flour, refined sugar, lots of chocolate chips, etc.
Now: I still make cookies but focus more on nutritionally dense ingredients like nut butter, nut flour, unrefined sweetener (honey from our own bees—which I only used in place of pancake syrup back in the day; Grade B maple syrup; and coconut or palm sugar). You will find many healthy cookie recipes here on gfe.
Today’s recipe for Double Chocolate Nut Butter Oaties—at the bottom of this post—is an example of the cookies I make today. Nut butter, eggs, oat flour, cocoa powder (or raw cacao powder), coconut sugar, allergen-free chocolate chips, coconut oil, baking soda, and homemade vanilla extract come together to create soft, moist, filling, and healthier chocolate cookies.
Then: I was trained by television commercials, ads, and soccer game fare to always provide a beverage like milk (yes, chocolate), sports drink, juice pack, or juice. So I always had those for Son. A bright orange “Sunny” beverage was a favorite of his. The ingredients were several juices (that constituted less than 2% volume), corn syrup, canola oil, food coloring, sucralose, gums, and preservatives. Yikes.
Now: I’d focus first and foremost on filtered water. From home. In a recyclable container. If I wanted Son to enjoy some milk, I’d go for a non-dairy milk (I love this easy recipe from Ricki for making one’s own hemp milk and this way to make French Press almond milk), healthy juice (as in 100% juice; not a juice-pack), or even a smoothie. If Son wanted a really cold drink, I’d include Lexie’s Cool-Aid. Putting the beverage in the lunch in a frozen state should result in a cold, drinkable beverage by lunch time.
Making healthy lunches when you are actually making a lot of the food does take a little preplanning and preparation, storage, and packaging time, of course. But it doesn’t have to take tons of time. A once-a-week effort–and a fairly modest amount of time spent–can produce a whole week’s worth of lunch components!
Here’s my recipe for healthier lunch box cookies. Note that some of you might recognize the name of this recipe from a previous post during the July Self-Care Retreat. A number of folks had issues with that one (myself included!) after I published it, so I took down that post until I can recreate that recipe. This cookie is not the same recipe, but does contain the same basic ingredients; hence, the name. These are soft, moist and somewhat hearty cookies. They make for great lunch or breakfast cookies; only one or two is needed to satisfy!
- 1 cup nut butter (or sun butter)
- ⅓ cup certified gluten-free oat flour (see notes on making your own oat flour)
- ¼ cup cocoa powder (or raw cacao powder)
- ¾ to 1 cup coconut sugar (to taste; may even use less)
- 2 eggs, slightly beaten (see notes for natural egg substitutes)
- up to 1 tbsp coconut oil (if needed; see notes)
- 1 tsp baking soda
- ½ tsp vanilla extract (I use my homemade vanilla extract)
- ¼ to ½ cup Enjoy Life chocolate chips (optional, like these dark chocolate chips)
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Line baking sheets with parchment paper.
- Add ingredients to large mixing bowl in order shown, adding chocolate chips after other ingredients are mixed well.
- Drop cookies by heaping tablespoonful onto baking sheets, about one inch apart. (The cookies will not spread much during baking.)
- Bake for about 8 to 10 minutes, until cookies appear set. Remove baking sheets from oven and let cookies stand on baking sheets for 10 minutes longer. They will continue to bake during this time.
- Remove to drying rack to cool.
- Makes about 24 cookies, each about three inches in diameter.