Back in Swing for School: How to Prep Meals Ahead for Busy Schedules
Tobias Roberts, August 14, 2018
According to the Center for Disease Control, one out of every five school age children aged 6 to 19 years old is obese. The rate of child obesity has tripled since the 1970s, and while there are many underlying causes varying from a lack of proper exercise, to diets centered on processed foods high in sugars and fats, unhealthy school lunches also play an important role.
When our grandparents were school-age children, they most likely walked home for lunch to eat a healthy, nutritious, home cooked meal before returning to class in the afternoon. During the Great Depression when poverty rates were high, the U.S. government purchases surplus food from local farmers and distributed it to certain schools where lunches were prepared for students. A 1936 USDA publication titled “Menus and Recipes for Lunches at Schools” showed that the earliest school lunches were wholesome, nutritious and prepared from locally purchased fruit, meats, and other foodstuffs.
Unfortunately, the lunches provided for free (or minimal cost) to millions of students across the country today are significantly less nutritious than the home cooked meals that our grandparents enjoyed or the Depression-era school lunches purchased from your neighbor´s farm. A 2005 article by Newsweek found that over 50 percent of all school cafeterias offered fast food and the National Association of School Nurses estimates that 98 percent of high schools have vending machines that offer students a quick lunch of potato chips and a soft drink.
Even if public school cafeterias did want to try and improve the nutrition of the lunches they provide to students the limited budget is obviously an issue. Schools receive $2.68 for each free meal served through the National School Lunch Program provided by the U.S. government, and most health-conscious people know that you´re simply not going to be able to purchase an organic quinoa salad and a glass of almond milk for that amount.
Groups of students in the Chicago Public School system (CPS) have recently begun to boycott the school lunches provided by the food contracting corporation Aramark claiming that they are “disgusting and rotten.” While it still remains to be seen if this student activism will eventually lead to healthier cafeteria options, there are several ways that even the busiest families can prep healthy, nutritious and wholesome meals for their school-age children
It All Starts with Breakfast
Most of us parents know that a healthy breakfast is important for children. Providing a wholesome breakfast before heading off to school improves concentration, helps students achieve better test scores, increases their energy levels, allows for a higher intake of vitamins and minerals, and also helps young people maintain a healthier body weight. Children in elementary school especially need a healthy breakfast as their brains use half of the energy created by the body.
The problem, of course, is that when a single mother has to leave for work at 6 am to beat rush hour traffic or when the school bus shows up before dawn appears, it´s not easy to have the time to prepare a wholesome breakfast. Instead of simply settling for sugar-infused breakfast cereals, preparing a healthy breakfast the night before is a great way to get a quick morning breakfast that doesn’t withhold needed nutrients.
This “make-ahead” breakfast casserole recipe offered by Sally´s Baking Blog is full of protein and packed with vegetables. It is completely possible to brown the sausage and cook down the veggies up to 2 days in advance and the casserole can be frozen for up to 3 months. Simply put your pre-prepared, frozen casserole into the refrigerator to thaw out overnight, and put it in the oven for 20 minutes while you´re taking your morning shower. This will allow both you and your children to enjoy a nourishing breakfast without having to wake up at 3 am to get started cooking from scratch.
A Few Tips for Prepping Lunches on a Weekly Basis
Avoiding those nutrition-deficient school lunches is completely possible with the proper planning and prep routine. Below, we offer some simple tips on how a few hours of work on a lazy Sunday evening can give you and your children healthy, instant lunches throughout the week.
Get the Right Equipment
Meal prepping requires the right tools and equipment to get the job done correctly. Firstly, you will want to invest in some quality Tupperware to seal and store the meals you prepare. While plastic Tupperware is certainly cheaper, glass options will last longer and won´t allow toxic substances to migrate into food when microwaving (as happens with plastic). Glass also enhances and preserves the flavor of the foods you prepare. If you and your children are planning on prepping salads, some mason jars with a twist tops are an easy way to keep lettuces and other greens separate from dressings to avoid sogginess.
Also, to save time on cooking whole grains, a simple rice cooker will allow you to slow cook grains ahead of time. Many of these products come with timers which will allow you to cook the grains while you´re at work and thus have them ready to prepare in the evening. Slow cookers are also useful tools as you can leave them cooking overnight and have a fresh meal waiting to be packed up for a healthy school lunch the next morning.
Planning, Lists and Shopping
Another side benefit of meal prepping is that it tends to drastically cut back on food waste. Make a list of the meals that you will be prepping for your children (and for yourself) during the week. Most of the foods you will need will be fresh fruits and veggies, meats, dairy, and other fresh products. This means that you will be able to essentially skip the “center aisles” of processed foods that are common in most grocery stores.
As soon as you get home from grocery shopping, you will want to spend a couple of hours prepping the meals before you put everything away. Here are a couple prep ideas for some quick and healthy lunch ideas.
- Hardboiled eggs can be stored in hermetic glass containers and can be seasoned in a number of ways to add a healthy protein to salads.
- Turkey sausage, chicken filets, and other lean meats can easily be sautéed, seasoned, and stored in your glass containers to quickly put together a wrap, sandwich or other lunch option.
- Chopping up vegetables takes a lot of time, and can lead to a cut finger when hurriedly chopping onions early in the morning. Wash and cut up all the vegetables that your weekly meal plan requires. You can then either store those vegetables together or separately depending on what you are planning to cook.
- A ready-mix salad dressing can be made by simply combining some olive oil, vinegar and whatever spices you like. Place the dressing in a mason jar in the refrigerator or measure out tiny plastic cups with lids to keep the dressing separated from your pre-prepared salads.
- A homemade guacamole is a great addition to any meal, adds important Omega 3 fats, and can easily be prepped ahead of time. To keep the mashed avocado from browning, make sure to leave the avocado seeds in the guacamole, add plenty of lime juice, and store in an airtight glass container in the refrigerator.
- Consider trying your hand at home fermentation. Fermenting vegetables is a great way to add some flavor and needed probiotic qualities to any meal. Furthermore, when properly prepared, fermented vegetables can last for months. When prepping your meals for the week, consider adding some chopped radishes and cabbage to a salt brine to begin the fermentation process. With a few herbs and spices, you should have a rich kimchi preserved in the refrigerator which can add a quick kick to any meal.
With these simple meal prep ideas and strategies, you can take the stress out of frantically trying to beat the morning bus as you prepare a healthy and nutritious meal for your school-age children.
Need help for breakfast in the morning? We made some make-ahead breakfast recipes, courtesy of Sally’s Baking Addiction.