Did I tell you, I’ve been volunteering in the lunchroom at Harry’s school on Thursdays? At first I thought I might have a seizure from the clamor, but once my ears acclimated I came to admire the (gentle) military precision the lunchroom staff uses to shepherd the kids in and out safely while getting them fed. Over the two hours that I’m there, something like 300 kids from kindergarten to second grade shuttle through. I help open milk cartons, peace-broker spats between BFFs, clean up spills, and encourage the kids to actually eat.
That last task is more challenging than you might imagine. First of all, a shocking number of children come with lunchboxes packed with a bag each of chips and cookies, plus juice-like liquid—but no real lunch. Longtime readers know that I’m not judgmental; I encourage parents to do their best and accept that life is imperfect. But seriously, chips, cookies, and sugar water for lunch? I find myself getting not judgmental, but angry. Who would consider that “doing your best”? We’re a Title I school, so lunch is free for everyone. Why pack a lunchbox full of empty calories and chemicals when a healthy meal is there for the taking?
In those cases, we’re allowed to gently suggest to the child that she choose one of those things to eat now along with the school lunch, and save the rest for later. Because these kids are still quite young, most of the time they’re willing to go up and get at least a sandwich.
But then there’s the other issue: The kids who do have lunch, either from home or school, and spend their lunchtime socializing instead of eating. That’s Harry. He never stops moving, and he has so.much to say to his friends, there’s no time for food. I’ve watched out of the corner of my eye for four consecutive Thursdays now, and he’s consistently eaten the fruit I send and the nibbly stuff like nuts or whole-wheat crackers. The lunch-lunch, not so much. Almost never, in fact.
To combat this, I pack food that resembles snacks more than lunch. Always fresh fruit, often nuts or Justin’s nifty low-sugar chocolate-hazelnut butter squeeze packets, sometimes a little fake bento of shredded mozzarella, crackers, and mustard for him to put together. And lately, variations on the recipe I’m about to share with you. They’re simple-yet-nutritious, practically-no-bake granola bars—you toast the dry ingredients and make the binding mixture on the stove, then combine and pat firmly into a baking pan. Done.
I’ve added two ingredients to my bars that up the nutrients without Harry noticing: uncooked quinoa and nut butter. With a little over half a cup of added sugar, just enough chocolate to make Harry think they’re a treat, and only a few tablespoons of added fat, these blow commercial granola bars—which are often no better than straight-up candy—out of the lunchbox.
What do you do to make sure your kid eats well at school?
Chewy Quinoa Granola Bars
Adapted from Inspired Taste
ETA in response to reader requests: If you’ve got nut allergy issues (in your family or at school), swap the almond butter for sunbutter, and the sliced almonds for a bit more rolled oats and quinoa. You could also replace the almonds with sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, or coconut, if those work for your needs.
2 1/2 cups old-fashioned rolled oats
1/2 cup sliced almonds
1/4 cup white quinoa
1/2 cup dried cherries, chopped
1/3 cup honey
1/3 cup almond butter (or nut butter of your choice)
1/4 cup unsalted butter, cut into pats
1/4 cup packed light brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/3 cup mini chocolate chips
Preheat the oven to 350°F and line an 8 x 8-inch square baking pan with parchment paper—cut the piece big enough to have paper hanging over the sides a bit.
- Spread oats, almonds, and quinoa in a rimmed baking sheet. Bake for 8-10 minutes, shaking and stirring once or twice, until oats and almonds are golden-brown. Transfer to a large mixing bowl and stir in the dried cherries.
- Put the honey, nut butter, unsalted butter, brown sugar, and salt into a small saucepan over medium heat. Cook, stirring occasionally, until fully combined and bubbly. Stir in the vanilla.
- Pour the mixture over the contents of the mixing bowl and stir well—be careful, since that liquid is quite hot. Allow to cool slightly, then stir in all but a handful of the chocolate chips (set that handful aside). Don’t worry if they melt a bit.
- Transfer the mixture to the prepared baking pan. Spread as evenly as you can, then lay a piece of parchment paper over the top and press with your hands—smooth and flatten firmly. Don’t be afraid to press hard, in order to create solid bars that won’t fall apart. Remove the parchment and scatter the remaining chocolate chips over the top of the bars.
- Refrigerate until completely chilled, at least a few hours, then use the overhanging parchment paper to remove the entire block of bars at once. Cut into 12 bars—I like to wrap them individually, to make them easy to toss into Harry’s lunchbox, then store in an airtight container in the fridge. Straight from the fridge they’re quite firm, but by lunchtime they’re perfect. (I imagine you could freeze them, too, and let them defrost in your kid’s lunchbox.)
MAKE BABY FOOD: Sorry, but there are a good half-dozen reasons why this isn’t safe for the under-1 crowd.