Back to School Lunches

Tips for resisting junk and making quick and delicious school meals

Your memory of the school cafeteria as a drab place that served limp-looking salads and rubbery burgers is no fiction, and kids nowadays report the same findings. Cafeterias are feeding more children than ever before and the freshness that’s sacrificed in poor-quality mass-produced and processed items, puts children at risk of missing out on total nutrition, not to mention depriving them of the simple pleasure of eating good food. On the flip side, there’s evidence that kids actually learn better and show fewer signs of eating disorders when they get meals made with fresh ingredients and a diversity of fruits and vegetables. So how can you get your kids to school with “real” food—on time and on budget?

Real Food for Real Kids

For Lulu Cohen-Farnell, going back to the basics of eating home-cooked, nutritious, quality food is like a revolution. As founder and co-owner of Real Food for Real Kids (RFRK), she has launched school lunch programs that help kids become aware of what they put into their bodies, a message that creates good food habits that last a lifetime. RFRK began five years ago when Lulu and her husband David realized that their son’s childcare centre—though it offered outstanding service—was providing the same average-quality lunches as the majority of such centres in the city; meals filled with low-quality, highly processed options packed with sugar and sodium. Lulu’s subsequent decision to send Max with his own nutritious snacks and lunches hit a nerve at the centre. Not surprisingly, its eats didn’t stack up well against Max’s healthy, fresh and tasty homemade food, so the child care centre invited Lulu to cater its kids meals. RFRK was born.  

Food should look good, be good for your tummy, smell great and be shared, says Lulu, and the RFRK Lunch Club puts these ideals into practice by showing kids that eating good food is something to appreciate. RFRK has strict criteria for sourcing ingredients and it works hard to establish partnerships with local farmers and producers. The program signs up a minimum of 60 children per school or 35 per childcare centre and then rolls in with freshly made delicious food that gets dished out with the help of a 'Real Food Lunch Club Coach' and parent volunteers. Children bring their stainless steel containers, eat with real cutlery, get served, and then sit down together with their food. This idea of commensality—or sharing a meal with loved ones and friends—is also a tenet of the Slow Food philosophy (which RFRK deeply supports and practices). Lulu says that parents have really welcomed the program because they notice that their kids feel better and that their energy has changed (they’re calmer and more balanced, yet energized).

New lunch rules

According to Cohen-Farnell, the ideal lunch is made of some hearty leftovers (based around a nutritious grain such as couscous or quinoa is best) packed in a thermos along with some fruit for a snack. Sounds easy enough, right? Not if you don’t leave the grocery store with the right basics, she says. Identifying healthy sustainable meal ingredients can be harder than it looks. For example, many milk products, generally thought of as nutritious, contain unnecessarily high amounts of sugar, as do things like canned beans. So here are her tips on navigating the supermarket and putting together great lunches:    

Just don’t bring the junk home. If you know you’ll be faced with a tantrum in the store when you start saying no to the sugary cereals or salty chicken nuggets, try going solo. You’re the boss. If that’s not an option, try to teach your kids to be “food detectives” who scan the shelves for products to be wary of and decode labels.

Eat less meat—and when you buy it, buy better quality meat and if possible, straight from a small-scale, local farm using organic feed.

Keep an open mind. Don’t assume that just because you don’t like a food, your child won’t either. 

Avoid using junk food as a reward. You’ll serve your children better by bringing them food that restores and nourishes them, rather than just fulfilling a craving. To peak their interest in real food, take field trips to a farmers’ market or nearby farm and show them that carrots are grown in the ground! (Better still, next spring, get them growing their own!)

Make eating fun. Go on picnics, making sure to bring reusable containers along for a zero-waste lunch in a park or at the beach.

Find ways to include your kids in the kitchen. As a mother, Lulu knows that giving a kid a carrot to peel could take forever. But, she insists, there are ways to keep their interest. For example, try quizzing your little one about a food’s origins, how it grows, the way it tastes, its colour, etc. The key is making it fun!

Relax. A good food pantry doesn’t happen overnight, so give yourself time to make the adjustment to adding whole grains and spices to your cabinet, experimenting with new tastes and gradually removing the crave-oriented snacks and junk foods from your household altogether. But get started. It’s nearly harvest season, so now is the best time to change!