kosher kitchen

Back to school: If I knew then what I know now


The Jewish Star is pleased to welcome Joni Schockett to our roster of contributors. Joni has been writing about food and more for 20 years, including as a columnist for The Jewish Advocate of Boston. When not testing and creating recipes, she teaches English and writing at Wentworth Institute of Technology in Boston. She has three grown children and one grandson who has stolen her heart.

It’s that time again — time to think about school lunches. Why is summer the shortest season?

I am a veteran of the lunch bag wars. I made three lunches, five days a week, for 12 years — or until my cherubs took over the task for themselves. My husband also took his lunch and so did I. That’s a lot of lunches. 

So I am here to admit that knowing now what I know about childhood nutrition, I probably failed, to a moderate degree, to provide the best and most nutritious lunches for my kids. I gave in to the juice box craze, the snack packs of some things unhealthy, occasional bags of corn chips, and too many homemade desserts. I even allowed chocolate skim milk and that yogurt you squeeze from a plastic tube. 

I did use organic whole grain breads and organic peanut butters, and jams only sweetened with fruit juice, and I included fruit and vegetables every day. Those often came back in their original, whole condition, which my kids then refused to take the next day. 

I also included hummus. How come my kids loved hummus and veggies at home and hated it in school? It was the exact same hummus!

I focused on protein and vegetables and whole grains. So what was wrong?

I probably gave them too much and too many choices and foods that contained far too much “hidden” sugar. Their yogurt often contained at least 22 grams of sugar. Juice boxes contained tons of fructose, fruit sugar. And jams — even those sweetened with fruit juice — contained far more sugar than I would ever want them to have. 

With all that sugar, I am sure teachers noticed a burst of energy after lunch and then a drop around mid-afternoon. I often wonder if tense moods after school were more a result of hidden sugar in their lunches than they were of true exhaustion. 

Back then, we thought fat was the enemy; now we know that sugar, hidden sugar and much of it in the form of high fructose corn syrup, is far more detrimental to our health than are certain, heart-healthy fats.

Happily, children’s nutrition — and their lunches — look very different now. We know so much more about nutrition for children than we did decades ago, and new moms are far more aware of nutrition than we were. First Lady Michelle Obama did her best to change school lunches and there is some evidence that her initiative has had a positive effect. 

All this may sound daunting, especially when it is so easy to pick up those pre-packed lunch box foods and toss them into lunchboxes at 6:30 in the morning. 

However, if you are taking lunches or making lunches, if you plan ahead, just a little, avoid processed foods, train your palate to enjoy foods that are clean and natural and skip those 10 am donuts, you will feel a lot better and your kids will be healthier. 

Involve your kids in this process with some nutrition education, some summer recipe tasting, and some honest discussion about why Oreos and potato chips will not help them stay focused or help them stay healthy. Then tell yourself that you really don’t need that 10 am office donut!

Sweet and Sour Lentils (Pareve)

This is a delicious side dish for kids (and it’s great atop a salad or rice for adults). Add some walnuts or almonds to your greens for added nutrients.

1/4 cup tamari sauce

2 bay leaves

1 small onion grated

1 tbsp onion powder

1/2 cup Canola oil

1/2 (scant) cup red wine or garlic wine vinegar

3/4 cup honey

1/2 tsp powdered ginger

1 tsp grated fresh ginger

1/2 tsp allspice

4 cups water

3 cups lentils, rinsed

Rinse the lentils and set aside. Place the rest of the ingredients in a 4 quart pot. Mix well. Add the lentils. Bring to a boil and then cover. Reduce heat to simmer and simmer for 1-1/2 hours. Stir once or twice. Turn off the heat and let stand for about 20 minutes. Remove bay leaves before serving. Delicious, hot, warm or cold. Serves 8-10. 

Tabbouleh with Nuts and Fruits (Pareve)

This is delicious warm or cold. Send it for lunch to use atop a salad or beside some sliced chicken or turkey or cold salmon.

1 cup bulgur wheat

1/2 cup dried cranberries

1/2 cup dried chopped apricots

1/4 cup chopped toasted walnuts

1/4 cup toasted slivered almonds

1 cup boiling water

1/4 cup slivered red onion

1 tbsp walnut oil

1/4 cup fresh orange or lemon juice (orange was the kids’ preference) or a mix of the two salt and pepper to taste

Optional: add some diced apples, feta cheese or shredded cheddar, raisins, or other favorite fruits.

Snip the apricots into small pieces and set aside. Place the cranberries and apricots in a medium sized, deep bowl. Add the bulgur wheat and the boiling water. Stir and let stand for about 30 minutes or until all the water is absorbed. You may need to add a bit more water, if the water is absorbed too fast. The wheat should be chewy, not hard.

Add the juice(s) and let stand for another 15 minutes. Add the toasted nuts and toss gently. Serve warm or chilled. Serves 6-8, more for lunches.

No Bake GF Treats (Pareve)

2 cups old-fashioned oats

1/4 cup ground flaxseed

1 tsp cinnamon

1/2 cup nut butter of your choice, or nut-free sunbutter

1/4 cup honey

1 tbsp pure maple syrup

1 tsp pure vanilla extract

1 cup lightly packed grated apple, Fuji or other firm, sweet apple

Optional: Add some unsweetened, flaked coconut and snipped apricots (to equal 1 cup) and leave out the apple and cinnamon. 

Add some grated carrots to the apple to make 1 cup. 

Add chopped walnuts and raisins to make 1/2 cup. 

Place the oats, flaxseed and cinnamon in a bowl and whisk to blend. Place the nut butter, honey, maple syrup and vanilla and mix well. Add the apple and mix to blend. Pour the liquid over the dry ingredients and mix with a fork or your hands. Roll into balls and place on a plate. Refrigerate to chill. Makes 18-24 treats.

Cream Cheese or Peanut Butter Banana Wheels (Dairy)

(Use cream cheese for a nut-free class.)

1 whole wheat or corn tortilla 

1 long banana

1/4 cup whipped cream cheese, more as needed OR

1/4 cup peanut or other nut or non-nut butter

1/2 tsp cinnamon

Spread the tortilla with the cream cheese or the nut butter. Place the banana in the middle and sprinkle the banana with the cinnamon. Roll up the tortilla with the banana in the middle and, using a sharp knife, cut wheels about 1 inch wide. Place them cut side down on a piece of plastic wrap and wrap gently. Makes about 4-7 pieces.