What makes a good school lunch? Creativity and advance planning, if you talk to Tracey Rezapour of Keepin’ It Real. As a real-food advocate and health coach, Tracey believes in eating healthy whole foods for every meal. In 2012, the Rezapour family made a switch in their diet. They decided to eat more “real food” and less processed food. Now, Tracey makes more foods from scratch.
As she does so, Tracey’s practical nature is refreshing. She knows how challenging it can be to pack school lunches kids will love. What her six- and eight-year-old children consider to be good lunches varies from week to week. Liking carrots this week might not mean those crunchy veggies are welcome the next. So she gets busy searching for ideas and mapping out her options and has advice and ideas to share.
A Dash of Creativity…
Sometimes a good old PB&J does the trick for the Rezapour kids. Sometimes Tracey has to get more creative so they don’t get bored, so she stocks up on “a wide variety of ideas to throw into school lunches each week.”
She branches out from classic sandwiches like PB&J with ideas like these:
- Sandwich on a stick: cut a kabob skewer to fit in the lunch box and alternate bread, cucumber, tomato, cheese and rolled up ham or turkey.
- “Sushi” sandwich: flatten the bread, add healthy ingredients, roll it up and cut it to look like a sushi roll. On sushi sandwich days, Tracey packs chopsticks in the lunch box, and the kids love it.
- Homemade pancakes: For a special treat, make quarter-sized pancakes and send along real maple syrup for dipping!
- Overnight oats: This meal, prepared the night before by soaking oats in milk, makes a handy, healthy lunch.
- Leftover homemade pizza, leftover homemade chicken nuggets, even leftover soup will work if heated in the morning and kept in a good Thermos.
- Homemade pita chips with hummus
- Salads: Green salads or pasta salads
- Hardboiled eggs
She also looks ahead at the school lunch menu and recreates what they’re having. You know how it goes–you smell those chicken nuggets and suddenly you’re not looking forward to that pasta salad quite so much. So maybe if Wednesday’s chicken nugget day, you make light, organic chicken nuggets at home on Tuesday evening and send them along in the next day’s lunch box.
Of course, her kids have also picked up on the packaged, processed food their peers are having, reporting on the latest cool lunches when they come home. Tracey has found that if she can make their lunches look similar, but actually be healthy and homemade, this does the trick. She’s found containers that look similar to the packaged lunch options and fills them with organic lunch meat, cut with a cookie cutter. Rather than pre-packaged squeezable yogurt, she has found a product called Zipzicles that parents can fill with more natural yogurt varieties.
But this isn’t about smoke and mirrors. She recommends teaching kids about the difference between real and processed food so that they know why their homemade version is healthier. She’s taught them to find and read the food label–especially the ingredients list. “Can you pronounce this?” she asks. “No? Then it’s probably not healthy!” Now her kids will ask, “Hey Mom, is this healthy?”
Still, the kids often want their name-brand chips and ice cream. “You have to let life happen once in a while,” she says. Birthday parties and school events happen, and you can’t achieve all healthy all the time. She strives for 80% healthy, fresh, home cooked real food.
…And A Lot of Planning
“You have to have a plan,” says the level-headed real food guru. “It’s not going to happen otherwise.” She uses a website called Plan to Eat to save and sort recipes and create the week’s plan. Knowing the plan means that she can prep. On Sundays, she’ll spend 1-2 hours prepping: baking and freezing a batch of whole grain muffins, slicing cucumbers, cutting carrot sticks. And she always packs the lunch the night before. The morning is too rushed!
Planning ahead, Tracey scours the internet, either Googling “kids’ lunch ideas” or turning to her tried-and-true resource Super Healthy Kids.
As she plans, her overarching goal is to make lunches “as easy as possible and as healthy as possible.” She thinks about how that school lunch isn’t “just one meal”–it’s going to fuel her kids throughout the day. She points to studies that have shown the connection between healthy food and better learning. She’s also motivated by keeping her kids from getting sick. The kids’ last doctors’ appointment was a well visit and the doctor marveled at the fact that he hadn’t seen them all winter during the cold and flu season. That good health is what motivates Tracey as she assembles lunches.
When she prepares the food, she says “it’s really important to involve the kids.” They help make smoothies. They know how to work the juicer. They help measure ingredients for healthy baked goods, and Tracey talks with them about ingredients while they bake, explaining, for instance, why she is using whole wheat flour instead of all purpose. Instead of hiding vegetables in food, Tracey always lets them know what ingredients are going into the cooking project. Then, she says, “they know they’re eating spinach in a smoothie and it tastes pretty good!” Getting them to help also means they’re more willing to eat the end product.
Involving them has its limits, though, and Tracey does not often take the kids shopping with her. But when she does, she lets the kids pick out a new fruit or vegetable they’ve never tried before–then they start asking about it when they get home, clambering to try it. And while she doesn’t sit down with them to do the lunch planning, she makes things she knows they will like.
Eating real food began as a way to help her own family. In 2006, right before her son was born, Tracey started getting into nutrition. She wondered why Americans are seeing allergies and diseases like we’ve never seen before. She began to look at our food systems.
In 2007, when her son was born, she dug even deeper, motivated by wanting to nourish her new child. Watching Food, Inc. made her angry about all the food additives that people don’t know about.
This year, when her son and daughter both started school, she realized she had the time and motivation to look outward and educate people on food issues. She started her business, which began as a blog, in January 2015. Then she branched out into coaching services. She helps people clean out their pantries. She provides grocery tours, educating them as they go to the store. She teaches cooking classes, like the one she led this summer at Weaver’s Orchard. Her husband provides the tech knowledge.
Her mission: Help people get healthy without fad diets, by getting as close to nature as possible to heal from diseases and obesity. Getting an early start on this for your kids is part of the reason to beat the lunch-planning blues and find creative real-food solutions.