Creative school lunches: Healthful brown-bagging that isn’t boring

Justin Beckett prepares healthy school lunches for his sons, from left: Greyson (10) left and Tobin (8).

Chef Justin Beckett spends most evenings cooking pork osso buco confit and smoked chicken with grilled andouille gumbo for diners at his two Phoenix eateries.

Most mornings, the chef known for his bold flavors is at home with wife, Michelle, packing kid-friendly sushi and nut-butter sandwiches shaped like animals for their two boys. They pack made-from-scratch lunches not because they own restaurants, but because they are parents who believe their kids deserve no less.

“I’m a restaurant chef who is passionate about feeding children flavorful, healthy foods,” says Beckett. “It’s important for our family, and should be for every family.”

A recent study published in the New England Journal of Medicine bolsters his point, noting nearly 13 percent of children in the U.S. are obese, up from 5 percent in 1980.

Like so many families, the Becketts live life at full speed, juggling the herculean task of running restaurants with raising 10-year-old Greyson and 8-year-old Tobin. But they still take the time to avoid packing the dietary no-nos blamed for increasing childhood obesity: prepackaged, processed foods that are high in heart-clogging fats, sugar and calories.

Instead, they assemble lunches that are creative, colorful and wholesome, midday meals that end up in their children’s stomachs — not in the trash or on the trading block.

“We keep lunches simple, but interesting,” Michelle Beckett says. “We aim for a protein, vegetable and fruit.”

Nutritionists agree, saying lunch should power children through the afternoon. Brown bags should include protein for muscles, carbohydrates for energy and the brain, and vitamins and minerals for overall health.

The Becketts plan a week’s worth of lunches before shopping — a move that eliminates late-night dashes to the grocery. They estimate they spend about half an hour each week on school lunches. They also frequently turn leftovers from dinner into lunch — from cold pizza to sweet-potato slices.

A few of their helpful tips:

  • Include the kids in grocery shopping and deciding what to pack. This increases the chances of kids polishing off their lunches.
  • Use cookie cutters to shape sandwiches. Dinosaurs or bunnies beat out traditional squares.
  • Be environmentally smart by packing lunches in reusable containers rather than throwaway plastic bags.
  •  Think food safety. Add a cooling pack to keep food safe. Or pack warm pasta, chili, stew, soups or stir-fries in a Thermos.
  • Substitute air-popped popcorn — a whole grain — for potato chips.
  • Make sliced vegetables with fruit yogurt dip or salad dressing a staple. Encourage children to select new veggies to add to their lunch boxes.
  • Include a note. A Beckett family staple is a daily note tucked in the lunch box, from words of encouragement to a quick puzzle to solve.

Colorful, flavorful and healthful lunches

Cold packs

Make your own frozen-yogurt packets. They will be soft, but still cold by lunchtime. For eight packets, combine 2½ cups plain Greek yogurt, 1 ripe banana, 1 cup strawberries, blueberries, peaches or any other fruit in a blender. Puree, pour into sealable packets and freeze. These go-packs are extremely forgiving. Add a splash of juice for more flavor. For additional nutrients, add protein powder or crushed vitamins.

Breakfast for lunch

Pack granola, diced berries and yogurt for a quick-to-assemble parfait; or fruit and milk for a meal in a bowl. Hard-boiled eggs are another easy, protein-packed entrée. When packing sandwiches, opt for whole-grain breads or tortillas. Garnish with sliced cucumbers, slivered carrots, pickled vegetables, sprouts or chutney.

Kid-friendly sushi

Wrap cheese, veggies and more in a slice of deli turkey, beef or ham. Opt for low-sodium and low-fat options. To assemble, place a slice or two of meat on a clean surface. Top with a slice of cheese and celery sticks. Roll into a cylinder and cut into sushi-sized pieces. Serve with a dipping mustard. For variety, make with a spinach tortillas as the base, incorporate different cheeses. For the filling, use slivered carrots, olives, pickled vegetables, guacamole or sun-dried tomatoes.

The new PB & J

Substitute almond, sesame or cashew butter for peanut butter, and top with fresh sliced strawberries or other fresh fruit.

Chopped salad in a jar

Fill a canning jar with layers of diced avocados, bell peppers, cherry tomatoes, squash, sunflower seeds or trail mix, shredded cheese and olives. Drizzle with a vinaigrette. Shake and eat.

Go Mediterranean

Pack hummus, whole wheat pita bread, nuts and dried fruit.

Rotisserie salad

Dice and toss chicken with mayo, sliced grapes and celery for a filling salad served with whole wheat crackers.

No-heat noodles

Pack cold, whole-grain soba noodles in olive oil and garlic salt. Top with cold sliced chicken, pork or beef, edamame, or — for a hearty vegetarian option — steamed vegetables. A Beckett family topping favorite is leftover turkey meatballs.