By Rosie Bernstein
Special to the TJP
With the start of the school year arriving, school supplies, backpacks and lunch boxes are lining grocery store shelves everywhere.
But with the excitement of picking out a new lunch box comes the stress of what to fill it with.
And if you’re sending your child to a Jewish school this year, you know that the kosher guidelines make deciding what to pack that much more challenging.
While most Jewish schools require that students bring only non-meat or pareve (non-meat, non-dairy) items from home, some require additional kosher certification on all food items. Please check your school guidelines to be sure.
One of the biggest struggles that comes with the limit of a non-meat lunch is making sure that your child is eating a balanced meal, complete with all the necessary vitamins and nutrients. We spoke to Levine Academy Kitchen Manager Becky Nurko and Registered Dietitian and Culinary Nutritionist Robin Plotkin and put together some fun and creative ways to give your child a healthy lunch that he/she will want to eat, all without the meat.
Both experts agree that non-meat lunches are not the biggest challenge; creativity and changing up lunches from day to day is far more difficult.
“If my kids don’t get (protein) at lunch I know they’ll get a good portion at dinner,” Nurko said. “But there are so many substitutes for different forms of protein.”
Both Nurko and Plotkin recommend beans, tuna, salmon and other fish, nuts, nut butters, milk, cheese and grains such as quinoa and soy as high-protein substitutes for meat.
Nurko believes that the key to nutritious meals is paying attention to ingredients and freshness. She always tries to incorporate all five food groups when packing her kids’ lunches, and she always tries to choose the healthiest and most fresh foods to cook with. Both emphasize the importance of tailoring portion sizes to the child based on gender, age and weight.
Plotkin highlights the importance of having nutritious foods on hand and available at all times.
“Have healthy, nonperishable foods in the car, backpack or purse (such as a homemade trail mix of nuts, raisins, high-fiber cereal and pretzels, individual bags of popcorn, peanut butter crackers, etc.) at all times,” Plotkin suggests. “It’s a life saver that keeps you from running through the drive-through or picking up something unhealthy at the drugstore.”
Above all, both Nurko and Plotkin stress the importance of starting a pattern of healthy choices from the parents.
“It’s about trying to educate the kids to take responsibility for their choices and what they eat and what they drink,” Nurko said.
Plotkin suggests that parents model good choices by eating breakfast, eating meals together as a family, choosing medium over large and trying new foods.
“Kids learn to eat the foods their parents eat,” Plotkin said. “This is important not only at home, but while eating at restaurants, on vacation, at the ballgame, the school carnival and the gas station.”
At the end of the day, Nurko suggests viewing lunch planning as a fun and educational opportunity for the family.
“It’s a great way of actually talking about food and educating the kids about their choices. I see it as an investment. It all starts in the family, and it’s about creating a healthy lifestyle.”
Below are some suggestions from both Nurko and Plotkin for what to pack in school lunches this year.
Salads are always good and you can always throw in the protein component, whether it’s a piece of salmon, hard-boiled egg, tuna, nuts or beans and some slices of fruit (strawberries, blueberries or oranges).
I always throw in walnuts or almonds that are very nutritionally rich and dressings that are low-fat or fat-free. A sandwich can also be a good meal — a tuna sandwich or egg salad sandwich with lettuce and tomato — and you can use mayo that’s low-fat or fat-free. Pita with hummus is good, but I would make it healthier: a whole-wheat pita with vegetables or falafel balls.
How about a bean and cheese burrito with flour tortilla? You can substitute the beans for meat. At Levine we have breakfast tacos with scrambled eggs and beans and cheese, and kids like to add the salsa and do a make-your-own-taco kind of thing.
Pasta is a possibility. We make pesto with pine nuts that’s also very nutritious. We use whole-wheat pasta instead of just plain white pasta. Salmon or other fish is always good. We need maybe 5-7 ounces of protein a day. It’s very easy to substitute that protein part or just to get that much even if it’s not with meat.
Eggs, peanut butter and beans all make good sources of protein. Think about balancing your children’s nutrition during breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks.
- Carrots, broccoli, cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, snap peas, peppers, tortilla chips with hummus, and bean or avocado or guacamole dip
- High-fiber, low-sugar cereal with milk
- Yogurt parfaits with Greek yogurt, fruit and granola (pack separately and then assemble at school)
- Cheese and green apple quesadillas or tacos
- Egg salad, tuna or salmon salad with whole grain crackers or in a wrap
- Mini skewers of cheese, tomato and cucumber with salad dressing for dipping
- Mini skewers of fruit and cheese
- Pasta salad with tuna or beans, veggies and avocado
- Whole wheat pancakes or waffle with nut butters and jam
- Black bean sliders on mini buns with ketchup or barbecue sauce
- Rice and beans with salsa, avocado and a tortilla
Becky Nurko is the kitchen manager/chef at Levine Academy.
Robin Plotkin is a registered dietitian and culinary nutritionist in Dallas. Learn more about Robin at www.robinplotkin.com or on her blog: www.robinsbite.com.