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How to pack healthy food with kid appeal

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With kids back at elementary school, parents have to decide, once again, what to pack the little youngsters for lunch. It's important, because the foods you choose will provide the energy and nutrients children need to make it through a busy day in and out of the classroom. Here are some things to consider:


Follow Food Guide

Use Canada's Food Guide to help you create school lunches. (Health Canada's website is at Most dietitians I've spoken to suggest including choices from at least three of the four food groups, including whole-grain products; fruits and vegetables; protein (meats, fish, chicken, beans and alternatives); and dairy products and alternatives. If time allows, make a list of items in each group that your child currently eats, build upon it over time, and use that list to guide you on what to pack in their lunch.


Make interesting, kid-friendly meals

Store foods in easy-to-open containers and pack them in a way that maintains their quality. For example, don't pack moist foods with items that are meant to stay dry. Add variation to sandwiches by switching up the baked goods used as the base. Consider using mini-bagels, pita pockets, tortilla wrappers and mini buns. To encourage fruit and vegetable consumption, make them easy to eat by choosing those that are bite-size, or by cutting them into bite-sized pieces. If packing whole fruit, such as an apple, opt for smaller ones, not giant ones that would be more suited for an adult.


Pack colourful food

Food companies use bright-coloured foods to attract children to products that might be loaded with sugar, bad fats and artificial colouring, so why don't you? Of course, I'm talking about healthy, fresh foods that have visual and taste appeal, such as berries, golden plums, purple grapes, cherry tomatoes, orange bell peppers and rich-green snap peas. Some parents avoid buying some of these items because they deem them too expensive, but won't hesitate to purchase colourfully packaged processed food that's on sale. Evaluate the true cost of both and you'll likely find that fresh produce is the best value, particularly nutrition-wise.


Read labels

Try to read the nutrient fact box on the convenience items you buy for lunches, such as single-serving yogurts, cheese strings, granola bars, fruit leather and snack items. It can be shocking how much sodium, fat and sugar some of these products contain. The only way to determine that is to read the label.


Lead by example

If you eat healthfully -- at least most of the time -- there's a better chance your child will, too. You are the boss, but letting the child make some decisions about what goes into the lunch box increases the chance that the lunch will be happily consumed. And be patient if your child is a fussy eater. Regularly offer new foods and don't freak out if the kid rejects them.

It can take numerous attempts to get that fussy eater to try something new, but most eventually will. Jump for joy when they do!


Get inspired

If you're stuck for lunch ideas, check out the latest food and family magazines, websites and kid-friendly cookbooks for inspiration.

In today's column, you'll find four recipe ideas you can add to your repertoire. Supplement, where needed, with the items noted in Canada's Food Guide.

When packing the meal, use quality containers, vessels and lunch kits and remember this simple food safety rule: Keep cold foods cold and hot foods hot.


Fresh produce is usually the best value, particularly nutrition-wise, when preparing kids' lunches.

Enlarge Image

Fresh produce is usually the best value, particularly nutrition-wise, when preparing kids' lunches. (DARREN STONE / POSTMEDIA NEWS)

Salmon salad sliders with cucumber

The mini hamburger (slider) buns used in this recipe are sold at some supermarkets. Their small size makes them easy and fun for kids to eat. Spreading each bun with a little butter creates a barrier between the salmon salad filling and the bun, which helps keep the latter from becoming overly soft before the slider is eaten.

Preparation time: 15 minutes

Cooking time: None

Makes: 3 servings (2 sliders each)

1 (213-gram) can sockeye salmon, drained well

2 to 3 Tbsp light or regular mayonnaise

1/4 cup finely chopped celery

1 green onion, thinly sliced (optional)

lemon juice and freshly ground

black pepper to taste

butter, softened, to taste

6 mini hamburger (slider) buns

6 small lettuce leaves

6 to 12 thin slices English cucumber


Combine the first five ingredients in a bowl.

Spread the cut side of each bun with butter. Set a piece of the lettuce on each bottom bun. Divide and top with the salmon salad and cucumber slices. Set on top buns. Wrap and chill sliders until ready to pack for lunch.


Salmon salad  sliders are easy to make and fun for kids to eat.

Enlarge Image

Salmon salad sliders are easy to make and fun for kids to eat. (TIMES COLONIST)

Red pepper hummus with vegetables, crackers and cheese

I'm not giving exact amounts on items to include in this lunch -- that's based on the age of your child and appetite. The hummus recipe yields 2 cups, so pack what you'll need for the lunch(es), and keep the rest in a tight-sealing container in the refrigerator. It will keep for a few days.

Adults will also enjoy this hummus.

Preparation time: 20 minutes

Cooking time: None

Makes: Varies

1 (19 oz/540 mL) can chickpeas, drained well, rinsed in cold water, and drained well again

1 large roasted red pepper, coarsely chopped (see Note)

1/4 cup olive oil

3 Tbsp tahini (see Note)

2 Tbsp fresh lemon juice, or to taste

1 garlic clove, coarsely chopped (optional)

1 tsp ground cumin

1/4 tsp dried oregano

salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

raw vegetables, to taste, such as cucumber slices, carrot sticks, snap peas, cherry tomatoes, celery sticks and/or broccoli florets

grapes or other fruit, to taste

small sticks or slices mozzarella, havarti or other cheese, to taste

whole-grain crackers, to taste

Place the first eight ingredients in a food processor and pulse until smooth. Season the hummus with salt and pepper. Transfer to a tight-sealing container and refrigerate until needed. To make the lunch, place the hummus, vegetables, grapes or other fruit and crackers in separate small containers or arrange in a compartmented container.

Note: The roasted red pepper and tahini (sesame seed paste) used in this recipe are available in jars at most supermarkets.


Quick chili with cheese and wholegrain tortilla chips

This tasty chili is easy to make and requires just five ingredients. You can make it the day before needed and reheat it.

Preparation time: 5 minutes

Cooking time: About 25 minutes

Makes: 4 to 6 servings (depending on child's age and appetite)

3/4 lb. extra-lean ground beef

1 (415-ml) jar mild tomato salsa (see Note)

1 cup low sodium beef stock

1 (14 oz.) can red kidney beans, drained well, rinsed in cold water and drained well again

2 tsp brown sugar

grated cheddar or other cheese, to taste

whole grain tortilla chips, to taste

Set a pot over medium heat. Add the beef and cook, stirring occasionally, until it is entirely cooked through and crumbly. Drain away the excess liquid. Mix in the salsa, stock, beans and brown sugar. Bring to a simmer. Simmer the chili, uncovered, 15 minutes, or until thick and tasty. Taste chili and season with salt and pepper, if needed, and it's ready. Serve chili with grated cheese and tortilla chips.

Note: You can use any brand of tomato salsa to make the chili, but the one I successfully used when testing the recipe was Newman's Own.


Enlarge Image


Whole wheat macaroni salad with ham, cheese and vegetables

This comfort food salad and lunch item contains fibre, protein, calcium and a colourful mix of vegetables. The salad can be made the night before needed.

Preparation time: 20 minutes

Cooking time: About 8 minutes

Makes: About 3 to 4 (1 to 1 1/3 cup) servings

3/4 cup whole-wheat elbow macaroni

1/4 cup light or regular mayonnaise 2 tbsp plain yogurt or low-fat sour cream

1 tsp yellow mustard

pinch 75 grams cheddar cheese, cut into small cubes dried oregano

2 thin slices honey or black forest ham, chopped

1 cup finely diced fresh vegetables, such as carrots, celery and bell pepper

6 snap or snow peas, thinly sliced on an angle

Cook the pasta in a large pot of lightly salted boiling water until just tender, about 8 minutes. While it cooks, combine the mayonnaise, yogurt or sour cream, mustard and oregano in a medium bowl. Drain the cooked macaroni well, cool in ice-cold water, drain well again and place in the bowl. Add the remaining ingredients and toss to combine.

Cover and refrigerate until ready to pack for lunch.


Eric Akis is the author of the bestselling Everyone Can Cook series of cookbooks.

-- Postmedia News

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 12, 2012 D1

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