Monday, January 14, 2008

School Lunch: Healthy, Make-Ahead Alternatives

The first time I saw a public school lunch menu was this past September when my oldest child started kindergarten. To say I was shocked, is putting it mildly. Considering that the percentage of kids who are overweight has doubled since the time I was a kid in the 1970s, the fact that school lunches are loaded with so much fat and sugar is unconscionable.

Some recent entree selections from the "hot lunch" menu: "Mozzy Sticks" (those would be fried mozzarella sticks), "Italian Dunkers" (bread sticks dipped in tomato sauce), "Nacho Chips with Meat, Cheese, and Salsa", and "Chicken Tenders". Hmmmm----to me this reads more like the appetizer menu at a TGIFridays than a lunch menu for elementary school students. Mozzarella sticks and nacho chips for LUNCH? Is the person making these menu decisions high?

To be fair, about once per week there is a selection that sounds at least semi-healthful. The baked chicken with cranberry sauce and whipped potatoes may not be terrible, and the turkey breast on a multi-grain roll could qualify as wholesome. But I draw the line at "Belgian Waffle Sticks with Sausage Links and syrup". Sounds to me like a sugar/fat fest on a plate. I wouldn't want to be the teacher of 22 five year-olds who just scarfed down a plateful of white-flour waffles and processed syrup. Oh, and don't forget the Trix-brand cereal flavored yogurt on the side. Talk about sugar-induced hyperactivity!

As much as I like the idea of not having to pack my daughter's lunch every day, I find myself doing it anyway. I wouldn't serve her nacho chips for dinner, so why would I allow her to eat it for lunch? Thankfully, she likes bringing her lunch. The students only have 20 minutes to eat, and if you buy "hot lunch", you spend half of that time waiting on line to purchase it. Great---so in addition to teaching our kids that it is okay to eat fried mozzarella sticks for lunch, we are telling them to shove it down their little throats in under ten minutes. Good eating habits that last a lifetime!

For those of you (like me) who hate packing lunch, don't have the time to pack lunch, and/or would rather sleep an extra 15 minutes in the morning, here is an idea for a make-ahead sandwich that requires no preparation in the morning. Toss in a piece of fruit and an organic milk box (oh yes, they also do not serve organic, hormone-free milk), and you've packed a healthy lunch in under 2 minutes.

To make these rolled sandwiches, you'll need to set aside about 30-45 minutes on a weekend. You can prepare enough for enough for a few weeks' worth of lunches.

Make-Ahead Lunchbox Rolls
Makes a dozen small sandwiches (you may double this recipe as needed)

2 - 1 lb packages whole wheat pizza dough, or other variety (usually found in the refrigerated deli section at the grocery store)

3/4 lb sliced turkey breast, ham, or other lunch meat (look for low-fat, low-sodium, nitrate free varieties like Applegate Farms brand)

1/4 lb low-fat sliced cheese (Swiss, cheddar, or other non-processed, hormone-free variety)
1 egg, lightly beaten

Non-stick cooking spray

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Spray two large cookie sheets with non-stick cooking spray.

Divide each 1 lb dough into 6 pieces (for a total of 12 pieces).

On a lightly floured surface, roll into circles (about 6" in diameter).

Place 1-2 slices of deli meat and 1 small piece of cheese on each circle.

Roll into "wrap" like sandwiches, and seal the seam and ends by gently pinching dough together.
Bake for 20 minutes, or until golden and baked through.

Transfer to a baking rack and cool completely.

If you like, cut each roll in half (on the diagonal), and place in a ziplock baggie, and freeze for up to 2 months.

In the morning, simply remove desired number of sandwiches from freezer and place in lunchbox. By lunchtime, it will have defrosted, and acted as an ice-pack for the other items in the lunchbox.

Alternatives: For a vegetarian variety, substitute steamed broccoli, spinach, or other vegetable for the deli meat.


Katy said...

I've never seen whole wheat pizza dough in the grocery store -- is there a specific brand you use? These look great -- but that menu reminds me of my college dining halls -- everything was either inedible or fried. Good thing your kids are developing good habits, despite all that!

mom said...

This is a great recipe! I love it -- also, Jamie Oliver has been a big activist in Britian on school lunches -- this could be your issue. We need your help! At dds school it's the same -- fries, burgers, tacos, and kids aren't allowed to bring food from home unless they have allergies! I always ask her what she ate -- sometimes it's alarming and often it's next to nothing!


I buy my whole wheat pizza dough at Trader Joe's (it is their own brand). If you don't have a TJs, try the health-food section of your regular grocery store---sometimes there will be a frozen section and it could be there. Or, you could make it yourself in a snap----this is from Mark Bittman's "How to Cook Everything"--and is one of the easiest pizza dough recipes I've found. Good luck!
Whole Wheat Pizza Dough
Makes 1 large or 2 small pizzas

1 t rapid rise yeast
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup whole wheat flour
(or you could use 3 cups of white whole wheat flour intstead of a mix--th)
2 t salt (kosher or sea salt is best)
1 cup water (tepid)
2 T olive oil

Place the yeast, flour and salt in the workbowl of a food processor. Pulse a few times to combine.
While the blades are running, add the water, then the oil.
Once the dough forms into a ball (you may need to add slightly more water), remove it to a lightly floured work surface.
Knead a few times to be sure it is smooth.
Place in a lightly oiled bowl and cover with plastic wrap or a damp towel.
Set in a warm place for 1-2 hours until it doubles in size (or, you could put it in the refrigerator for 6-8 hours for a slower rise).
Once risen (your fingers should make an indent in the dough and stay indented), knead a few times to get out excess air and proceed with pizza recipe.

Eric said...

Apparently, you didn't eat school lunches when you were kids, either. I was in elementary school the better part of 20 years ago, and we ate the same identical school lunches then. What has made them so unhealthy now? It should be less about what the school is feeding your children, and more about parents making your kids break away from the computers and video games, and go outside for fresh air and exercise like we did as children.

The Secret Ingredient said...

Eric---I was in elementary school a few years before you, and the lunches definitely were not particularly healthy then either, but we didn't have mozzarella sticks passed off on us as "lunch". However, while I still believe the schools bear some responsibility to serve healthy lunches, I do completely agree that part of the childhood obesity problem in this country is due in large part to the sedentary lifestyle many children lead due to television, computers, video games, and the like.
Hopefully between feeding our kids healthier foods and getting them moving they will be better off.

Erin said...

I think before people start criticizing school lunches based on the names, they should investigate the ingredients and recipes that are used. Although chicken tenders and hamburgers may not sound healthy, they are typically made with lean meats (usually turkey substituted for beef) and baked instead of fried. This teaches children that they can still enjoy foods that they like, just healthier versions. Also, side dishes (which are often left of off the menus) are a variety of fruits, vegetables and low fat dairy products. In Austin ISD, the nutritional values for all meals are posted online. You would be surprised at the low calorie and fat content.

The Secret Ingredient said...

I am definitely all for the healthier versions of things, but I still stand by my view that fried mozzarella sticks and bread sticks dipped in sauce do not constitute "lunch". Yes, the side dishes are usually healthy (carrot sticks, fruit, etc are among the options in our district), which is a start. I just wish the main courses would be more consistently non-fried and lower-in-fat.

Kim said...

Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!
I had been looking for makeahead lunch ideas. THIS I can do.

Rhonda Brotherton said...

Thank for taking this time for this idea. The whole paragraph speaks to me. I have been making my kids lunches but with 3 I hate doing it from scratch in the am. I have been making homemade un-crustables (PBJ) for a few years - and like you freeze them in bulk and by the time lunch comes they are perfect. Lately I am trying to cut as much sugar (that not natural) so I am looking for better alternative to freeze - I can't wait to try this. FYI, my more healthy attempt to the PBJ is whole grain/low cal bread, Natural PB or Almond butter mixed with honey (instead of jelly, jam, etc). Calories are simular but tons more natural. Thanks again. Rhonda

Stacy Cacciatore said...

Love your post! I have been looking for more make-ahead lunch ideas for my kids for summer camp. I blogged about packing healthy lunches for my kids on my blog, Five a Day the Fun Way, and I have been looking for more options! My kids were getting tired of the ham rollups and fruit on a stick that I was making. Love your blog!