At most public schools, the cafeteria options are pretty poor. And even the few healthy vegetable sides are undermined when they accompany fried chicken. And if pizza is on the table, you know what your kids are reaching for.
Bad lunches actually impede kids' ability to learn. According to a study of the eating habits of almost 2,000 students led by Dr. Arthur Agatston, a preventative cardiologist and creator of the South Beach diet, there is a direct correspondence between nutritional lunches and academic performance. When students' lunches were switched from their school's low-budget processed meals to healthier options, their grades significantly improved, particularly in language, science and math, reported Examiner.com. Researchers also observed a 15 percent decline in student absences, which are most often linked to illness.
Especially for young students, lunch is what refuels their bodies and minds, giving them mental energy to concentrate—as well as run around the playground. Recess, after all, enhances academic ability. A recent survey of principals reveals that 30 minutes of spontaneous play outdoors improves students' attention-span and focus.
So for the sake of your kids' mental and physical health, pack them a nutritious meal.
Here are some recipes—that incorporate indigenous foods—to make packing lunches easy for you (ahem, reinvent leftovers!) and delicious for them:
1. Wild Rice With Maple Syrup and Vegetables
Wild rice, called manoomin by the Ojibwe people, is an indigenous grain to North America long harvested by the Menominee (“wild rice people”) in the Great Lakes region.
This low-fat, high-fiber grain is easy to prepare in bulk and will keep your kids' stomachs full and content. It's packed with protein, B vitamins, zinc and magnesium to enhance their cognition and immune systems.
Try serving a container of wild rice, sweetened with just a little maple syrup. Add in some vegetables—boiled or pan-seared, or even microwaved.
2. Peanut Butter and Honey on Whole Grain Bread
You can't go wrong with the classics. High-protein peanut butter is great fuel for kids, and a little honey is a healthy substitute for jelly. But if your kids like the basic PB&J, try finding (or making your own) no-sugar-added jam made from grapes, strawberries, blueberries or blackberries. Complex carbohydrates like whole grain, as opposed to white bread, will give them more energy and not cause their sugar levels to rise and plummet—in the midst of learning how to multiple and divide!
3. Smoked Salmon and Bow-Tie Pasta
Salmon is the lifeblood of our brothers and sisters in the Pacific Northwest. Salmon, whether roasted, pan-seared, smoked or cooked over an open alder-fire pit, is a nutritious meal.
Smoked salmon generally works best for packed lunches, which are generally served cold. (That said, it's a good idea to invest in a thermos.) Smoked salmon also blends well with a light sour cream-based sauce that can be mixed with lemon juice and olive oil or white wine. Throw in some peas and any other vegetables you have on hand, like broccoli.
A succotash is any combination of corn and beans. This is my favorite version. This recipe serves six, so prepare in bulk and divide up for the family.
1 cup fresh corn
1 cup fresh lima beans
½ cup chopped onion (optional)
Heat together on stove top with broth or butter. Add salt and pepper to taste.
5. Quinoa Salad
Quinoa is an ancient grain indigenous to Bolivia and Peru; the Inca called quinoa chisa mama, “mother of all grain” and they called corn “our life.” Quinoa contains nine of the amino acids that we humans need in our diet, plus a healthy supply of iron and potassium. In addition, it is a good source of zinc and many B vitamins.
RELATED: Quinoa: Everything Old Is New Again
The nice thing about preparing a big quinoa salad for lunch is that you'll want to eat it too. Your kids will like the big slices of avocado.
RELATED: Avocados, Ripe in Aztec History
2 cups of cooked quinoa, chilled
½ green or red bell pepper, sliced thin
1 medium tomato, chopped
2 stalks scallion, sliced thin
½ ripe avocado, sliced and cubed
¼ cup chopped cilantro
Optional for more crunch: chopped celery stalk or ¼ cup of chopped jicama or cucumber, a sprinkle of pine or walnuts
6. Turkey Wraps
Get some fresh veggies into your kid's lunches with these yummy wraps that use pesto instead of mayo to reduce saturated fat.
Learn how to make fresh basil pesto at home here.
??Roll sliced turkey breast with romaine lettuce, tomatoes, and cucumbers into a whole wheat tortilla spread with pesto.
7. Soup and Sandwich
Here's when that thermos comes in hand. When the cold weather kicks in, there's nothing like a warm cup of soup for kids to take to school. They typically enjoy this savory recipe.
1 large, or 2 medium butternut squash
1 med-large sweet onion, chopped
1 tablespoon butter
3 cups chicken stock
1 cup sweet apple cider, or apple juice
1 teaspoon cumin
1 teaspoon curry powder
Salt & pepper to taste
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Split squash lengthwise down the middle, remove seeds, and place on a baking sheet flesh side down. Bake 45 minutes to 1 hour, until soft. Cool to handle. Remove flesh to a bowl or processor. Saute onion in butter until translucent. Add to squash plus ½ cup chicken broth. Puree and add more stock as needed. Pour into a large saucepan, adding remaining stock, cider and seasonings.
Here's one idea for a healthy after-school snack: low-fat popcorn. (Check back with Indian Country Today Media Network in coming weeks for more snack tips.)
Dale Carson (Abenaki) is the author of three books: New Native American Cooking, Native New England Cooking, and A Dreamcatcher Book. She has written about and demonstrated Native cooking techniques for over 30 years. Dale has four grown children and lives with them and her husband in Madison, Connecticut.