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Wednesday, May 28, 2008 04:58 pm

Summer lunches for kids

Get creative with leftovers, and don’t forget fruits and vegetables

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Q. Do you have any ideas for kids’ summer lunches? — Vickie

A. That question is tough to answer without information on your children’s ages and eating habits. If there’s more than one, will they all eat the same thing? Do they eat lunch at home, or do they take it to daycare or summer activities? Do they eat a variety of foods, especially fruits and vegetables? Are they used to mostly eating pre-prepared and fast food? Are they adventurous and willing to try new things? When I asked my 23-year-old daughter about childhood summer lunch favorites, she said, “You know, you really can’t use us as examples.”
She had a point. I’ll be the first to admit that my children’s diet wasn’t exactly conventional. I gave my kids scallions to gnaw on when they were teething. I ignored those who told me to avoid onions and garlic when I was breastfeeding because it would flavor the milk: I figured the kids might as well get used to those flavors. None of my three ever had a jar of baby food or infant cereal; until they had enough teeth, I either mashed up table food (unless it was spicy or otherwise inappropriate) or puréed it in a blender.
For most of my kids’ childhood, my grandparents still operated their produce farm. I worked part-time in my husband’s dental office; if the kids weren’t eating summer lunches at home, they were eating at the farm. Whether in my kitchen or Nana’s, lunch wasn’t necessarily health food in the strictest sense, but it was healthy: lots of vegetables and fruit, almost everything made fresh or left over from previous dinners.
So that’s the perspective from which I come and from which I’ll offer two broad suggestions. • Soup from leftovers. I’m a big fan of leftovers for quick and tasty lunch soups. (Leftovers can work in many other lunches besides soup, as well as quick weeknight dinners and more, but for now I’ll stick to soup.) Unintentional leftovers are fine, but, with forethought and little extra work, leftovers can be on hand when you need them. Soup is a great way to use leftovers. Extra mashed potato? Whisk milk into mashed potatoes to a souplike consistency, heat gently for a few minutes, and voilà! potato soup for lunch. Any child who likes mashed potatoes should like it. Leftover broccoli? Mash or purée half, then add milk as described above for broccoli soup. Stir in a packet of dried cheese powder from a box of macaroni and cheese for potato-cheese or broccoli-cheese soup. I’m not generally a fan of altered foods, but that cheese powder is basically just dehydrated, defatted cheese, and brands such as Annie’s don’t contain much in the way of additives. How about taco soup? Combine a 15-ounce can undrained pinto or black beans and 1/2 to 1 cup (leftover) taco meat, add a small undrained can of tomatoes or some chopped fresh tomatoes, and simmer for a few minutes. Serve taco chips alongside. Stir in shredded cheese or lettuce if desired. • Involve your children in growing, buying, and preparing their own food as much as possible. It’s not always easy or convenient, but the advantages and lessons are substantial. If kids grow it, they’ll eat it. Even if it’s only a single tomato plant, it’ll bring them closer to knowledge of where food comes from. Children who participate in growing vegetables generally have a healthier diet, because they’re willing and excited to eat what they’ve grown themselves. Take children to the farmers’ market — Springfield’s is open every Wednesday and Saturday morning from now until the end of October. Groceries try to make products attractive, but they can’t begin to compete with the colorful, friendly hustle and bustle of the farmers’ market. Most vendors are happy to let kids inspect their wares and will talk to them if they’re not too busy. Take children regularly, and they’ll begin to understand seasonality: that the best, fragrant strawberries are only available in June, peaches begin in July, and pumpkins come in late summer. Have your children only experienced insipid, cardboard grocery-store tomatoes? Purchase a selection of tomatoes from the rainbow of colors, shapes, and sizes at the market and have a taste contest. Best of all, let your kids pick out some items to bring home to prepare themselves. Kids are increasingly interested in cooking. It’s wonderful: Preparing food for themselves and others gives kids a deep sense of satisfaction and independence, and it gives them a connection to what they’re putting in their bodies and where it comes from. That connection is too often lost these days.  There can be a downside for parents: the mess. When kids begin cooking, it’s inevitably messy, even with adult supervision. Without adult supervision — well, I still remember with horror the concoction my then-8-year-old daughter Anne created when I was outside gardening. The primary ingredient was an entire jar of honey that spilled onto the floor. I’d always told my kids, “I don’t care how much mess you make, as long as you clean it up.” Unfortunately, it wasn’t that simple. Anne did clean it up herself, but the honey had flowed into the floor’s crevices, and it took nearly a week’s worth of multiple daily swabbings before our shoes stopped sticking. Still, it’s worth it. If children have to clean up their own messes, they eventually become less messy; if they keep cooking, they’ll learn the importance of organization. Both are valuable lessons, not just in cooking but in life as well.
The Springfield Junior League, in conjunction with St. John’s Children’s hospital and 93.9 ABE-FM is sponsoring a cookbook contest, “Kids in the Kitchen,” for kids 8 to 12 years old. They’re hoping to have 75 or more recipes created by kids and for kids that are healthy and have kid appeal. Contest winners will have their recipes, as well as their photos and brief biographies, printed in the cookbook. Go to the Junior League’s Web site (www.jlsil.org) or call organizer Brandy Moore at 217-787-7802 for more information.

Contact Julianne Glatz at realcuisine@comcast.net.
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