Crystal Lake mom Susan Poduch spends a lot of time making school lunches.
That’s because Poduch isn’t only responsible for feeding her two kids, 11-year-old Grace and 13-year-old Max. She’s also the kitchen manager for the hot lunch program at their school, Immanuel Lutheran School, in Crystal Lake.
On a typical day, Poduch and her staff — also school moms — feed approximately 100 teachers and students in kindergarten through eighth grade.
Her biggest challenge?
“Finding foods that are healthy that kids will eat,” she says. “So, we try to take stuff we know they’ll eat and give it a little twist.”
Her kitchen serves from-scratch versions of kid favorites such as pizza bread with homemade sauce, chicken strips made from boneless, skinless chicken breasts brushed with olive oil and coated with panko, baked cheeseburgers made from 90 percent lean ground beef, and chicken potpies.
But not every dish is a winner.
“Beef vegetable soup,” Poduch says. “We have a handful of kids who love it, the teachers love it, I love it, but it’s not a kid favorite.”
Grace and Max eat hot lunch a few times a week and bring packed lunches on other days, which follow the same pattern as the school lunches.
“A fruit and a vegetable every day, a sandwich for protein and dairy,” Poduch says. “Desserts occasionally, but not on a regular basis. You try to tell them to eat it when they’re done with their lunch, but it’s hard when you know it’s the first thing that comes out of the bag.”
Whether it’s gluten-free, peanut-free, meat-free or low-fat, school lunches — purchased or packed — have changed.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, a nutritionally-balanced school lunch contains one half to one cup of fruit; one half to one cup of vegetables; one to two ounces of grains (whole grains preferred); and one to two ounces of a meat or meat substitute.
USDA caloric requirements for school lunches vary by age. Lunches served to students in kindergarten through fifth grade must contain between 550 and 650 calories; sixth- to eighth-graders, between 600 to 700 calories; and ninth- through twelfth-graders, 750 to 850 calories.
But calories aren’t the only consideration.
While kid favorites like chicken tenders and pizza still rule, cooking more items from scratch and using fresh ingredients have improved the overall quality of school fare, says Jennifer Bychowsky, owner of Lake in the Hills’ Wholesome Tummies, a lunch provider for Trinity Oaks School in Cary, Crystal Lake’s Friendship House, the Lake in the Hills Park District and others.
“We serve whole-wheat crust pizza with freshly prepared marinara sauce that has lots of vegetables, but they’re emulsified so the kids don’t see them,” she says.
Protein-enriched pasta, baked chips, veggie straws, yogurt parfaits made with fresh fruit and granola, organic milk and fruit juices are also part of the Wholesome Tummies menu, as are more exotic offerings such as edamame beans.
“We try to get kids to try new foods,” Bychowski says. “The older kids are a little more adventurous, but the younger kids stick to what they know.”
Allergies and food sensitivities also are a big concern for schools.
“We hear a lot of concerns from parents about what kids are getting in their lunches,” Bychowski says. “As people are educating themselves on the impact [of gluten], it’s become a hot topic.”
Poduch encountered a similar situation with a student who had a dairy allergy.
“There was a mom whose son wanted to try hot lunch, so she was able to come in and read the ingredient list,” Poduch says. “She also works here at lunch, so it’s easy for me to ask her if something is OK.”
Parents who pack their children’s lunches can follow a similar approach to a healthy lunch by emphasizing fruits and vegetables, using protein and whole grains to round out the meal.
Consider tossed salads (pack dressing separately so salads stay crisp), sliced cheese and whole wheat crackers, vegetarian pizzas served on whole grain pitas or English muffins, and fresh veggies with hummus or dips made from Greek yogurt.
Instead of sodium-heavy processed lunchmeats, try homemade tuna, chicken or seafood salad, or whole grain bagels spread with low-fat cream cheese.
If your kids love the look of pre-packaged lunches and you love the convenience – but not the cost or the use of processed foods – consider making your own, using a compartmentalized lunch box or bento box system.
A Japanese creation, bento boxes are reusable, sectioned boxes that keep foods separated and protected from backpack hazards like oversized math books. Often accessorized with matching flatware, sauce containers and drink bottles, bento systems featuring Pokemon, Hello Kitty, Sesame Street, Disney characters and more can be purchased at www.casabento.com, www.laptoplunches.com and other retailers.
Pinterest has a wealth of ideas for bento lunches with holiday, animal and movie themes. While maybe not practical for every day, they’re fun ways to make birthdays, Halloween or the first day of school extra special.
But even kids who’ve outgrown Mickey Mouse-shaped sandwiches or would go hungry before eating flower-shaped carrots enjoy an attractive lunch.
“It’s the reason why Lunchables are so popular. Kids love that cute little tray,” says Kelly Lester, a mother of two and CEO of California-based EasyLunchboxes.com.
The company’s clear plastic containers, available from Amazon.com and other retailers, are divided into three compartments and have a single, easy-to-open lid.
“When every container and package has a lid, a teacher often has to come help each child open them, and the last kid may not have time to eat,” Lester says.
Lester recommends packing lunches in the evening and stacking them in the refrigerator. Not only does this save time in the morning, it also ensures that lunches start out cold. Help them stay that way by sending kids to school with an insulated lunchbox that has an ice pack or even a frozen water bottle wrapped in a clean sock to absorb moisture, she adds.
“It cuts down on morning stress so you can just grab it and go,” Lester says. mc