Photo By: Eve Hill-Agnus/Special to the Town Crier
Kids and color go well together – envision the parade of Peanuts and Dora the Explorer lunch boxes across schoolyards, fun and funky in shades of buttercup yellow and hot pink. And at a time when experts are fretting over childhood nutrition and celebrity chefs like Jamie Oliver are calling for a food revolution to bring whole, nonprocessed foods back to schools, bold color is still the best bulwark against a nutritionally crummy lunch. Think beyond fiery-red Cheetos to the natural hues of tangerines, bell peppers and strawberries that can bring a meal to life.
Children may not respond to lectures about lycopene and beta-carotene, but if the phytochemicals in fruits and vegetables mimic the bright motifs on their lunch boxes, what’s not to like? So send them off with lunches as exciting as a new box of crayons. Soon they’ll be the ones ogling purple cauliflower in the produce aisle or steering you straight for ruby-red pomegranates. You’ll have them zeroing in on health – naturally.
Following are a few simple strategies to help you pack a nutritionally potent, kid-appealing lunch.
Wrap up the rainbow
Wraps are the perfect medium for packing colorful produce in a form that’s easy and fun to eat. Nori (seaweed) sheets, flour tortillas or soft, rectangular flatbreads can be rolled around a kaleidoscope of fillings.
Play the fiery colors of carrot, purple cabbage, grated raw beet or red and yellow bell pepper against the tender green of cucumber, alfalfa sprouts and avocado. Add the emerald green of spinach, lettuce, fresh basil or mint.
Or riff on the classic Italian muffuletta sandwich, with layers of zucchini, red bell pepper, tomato, sliced turkey, olive tapenade and pesto pressed in a sandwich bun.
Invest a few extra minutes, and you can assemble Thai-style spring rolls using softened rice-paper sheets, accompanied by a peanut dipping sauce.
The easiest way to get children excited about eating raw vegetables is to pair them with dips and spreads they love. Keep chopped, raw vegetables within easy reach in the fridge. Then have your children choose healthful dips and spreads they look forward to eating: peanut or almond butter for celery and apples; hummus (maybe accented with roasted bell peppers or sundried tomatoes) for snap peas or spears of celery, carrot and red and yellow bell pepper; Greek yogurt and granola for strawberries; a chunky salsa for carrot sticks or sliced raw mushrooms. The combinations are endless – the goal is to keep them eager for dipping.
Growing up, the standard was peanuts and raisins. Now it’s toasted almonds, dried cherries and crystallized ginger. Regardless, homemade trail mix has always been a staple in my life. Supremely versatile, it’s a great way to introduce a cornucopia of dried fruits that provide energy and nutrition for children.
Raisins will never go out of style, but try venturing into the more unexpected hues of dried blueberries, cherries, strawberries, cranberries, apricots or freeze-dried raspberries. Or go tropical with dried mango, papaya and banana chips, all in shades of the setting sun. The pretty shapes of apple, peach and persimmon rings – or shaggy-edged pineapple rings – are crowd-pleasers, too. They’re perfect for spinning around a finger or holding up to the light to trace the translucent star shape in the middle.
It’s hard to make a case for dessert, but you can at least add a few nutrients by venturing beyond the basics. Snickerdoodles, blondies and brownies are classic, but blueberry-banana or zucchini bread, chocolate-cherry cookies, apricot-streusel squares and carrot cupcakes all bring better nutrient profiles with that extra touch of color.
Eve Hill-Agnus is a teacher and freelance writer.