Building a Better Lunchbox

Project Bread chefs respond to questions about how to improve the quality of your child's lunchbox

  Project Bread Chefs in Schools
Project Bread Chefs Kirk Conrad and Guy Koppe serving healthy food at Lawrence High School.

(September 19, 2012 – BOSTON) Chefs Kirk Conrad, Guy Koppe, and Nick Speros are trained culinary professionals who work in low-income schools for Project Bread’s Chefs in School’s Initiative.  All three chefs work closely with the school kitchen staffs to serve children from pre-school to high school with tasty, healthy food that’s made within a school budget — but they are also fathers who face the same challenges that other parents do when they get home. We sat down to ask them how they would solve some typical lunchbox problems . . .

Q: My daughter brings home her sandwich with only one bite taken out of it, should I

A: Kirk: I’ve had the exact same experience as this — that awful moment when you look into the lunchbox and the cookies and chips are gone and the sandwich is still there! So I sat down with my daughters and said this is what I want you to eat first and this is what I want you to eat second and here is why: I love you and I want the most nutritious food in your body so you can grow and be better learners. If you do not eat this first, then there will be no extra treats — that is, there will just be this sandwich in the lunchbox from now on. That is an approach I’ve taken. I have to rely upon them to tell me the truth; it’s part of our working

Q: My child is a picky eater, who doesn’t enjoy much other than typical peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. What healthy alternatives do you suggest

A: Kirk: I would encourage you to bring your child to the grocery store with you. This will allow your child to see the many options they now have;  show them what healthy food you have in mind, and allow them to pick what they want for the lunchbox.

You can compromise over what they want. So if your child is a big fan of peanut butter and jelly then maybe you can include a form of peanut butter or even a no-trans-fat sunflower-seed spread with a no sugar fruit preserve. Put this on a healthier form of bread, like whole wheat bread. Then add some fruit and cold skim milk.

Nick: I agree with Kirk, look for a natural peanut butter with the ingredient list of two things: peanuts and salt. This could be coupled with all fruit-type jellies (no sugar added) to make a tasty healthy sandwich, which is packed with a healthy dose of non-animal derived protein.

Chef Nick Speros   
Project Bread Chef Nick Speros at the Alexander B. Bruce Elementary School in Lawrence.

Q: What about juice boxes, are there any that you suggest staying away from because they lack nutritional value?

A: Nick: I offer my kids a sweet drink once a week.  The rest of the week it’s a filled water bottle.  I tell them that my beverage of choice is water, and I stand by it. Challenge them to come home with their water bottle emptied.  If they didn’t empty it during the school day, I have them sit down at the table and drink.

Guy: I think in a lot of ways juices are no different than soda in terms of the amount of sugar that they flood the body with. They now sell juice boxes that are half water. So the sugar concentration
is much less in those juices. I would look for those when purchasing a sweet drink for your children.

Q: When packing fruits and vegetables with school lunches, is it counter-productive to also pack dips for them?

A: Nick: When doing this, try to use a natural product like yogurt, honey, hummus, roasted pepper spread or cinnamon/sugar.  I just don’t trust the bottled dips or dressings because of the additives.

Q: I’m concerned about the high sodium and high fat content of deli meats. What do you suggest?

A: Kirk: When picking out deli meats makes sure to purchase low-fat, low-sodium varieties. There’s always a version of low-sodium turkey, low-sodium ham, and lighter cheeses. Look for nitrate-free items as well. There tend to be many chemicals in deli meats so make sure you are purchasing the best possible brands for your family.

Guy: Sometimes I will buy a turkey breast and roast it and we will make sandwiches with slices of that. I prefer to find a natural version of the meat to create a delicious sandwich.

Q: What kids of food would you suggest other than sandwiches for a child’s lunchbox?

A:  Guy: Pasta salads, quesadillas, soups, and crudités with a homemade dipping sauce are some alternatives that I use.

Kirk: Yes, also offer yogurt, vegetables with dip, even last night’s leftovers. There are many ways to vary what you offer.

Q: How do I expand the food palate of a picky eater who continually eats the same mundane food every day?

A: Guy: Always asking your child to try different foods even if they’ve tried them before. Also, asking
them to eat a certain amount of a food before they can get dessert works in my house. Getting children involved in the cooking process can also be a useful tool when trying to get kids to try new things.

Nick: Guy is absolutely right about getting children involved. Cooking with them is great way to make them feel involved. I know this takes extra time and sometimes “extreme patience,” but as your family gets more accustomed to this process, you all get better at it. Kids can help you make rice or pasta. You can show them your family’s secret recipe even if you don’t have one; start a new tradition with
them. Name a dish after them!

Q: Are there any tips you recommend for maintaining food temperatures for school lunches?

A: Kirk: My tip is to buy the insulated lunch boxes that keep the lunch cold! This is important. Then keep the lunch box or insulated bag in the refrigerator and open overnight. Don’t leave it on the kitchen counter. Making sure the lunch is cold is important. We even drop a cold pack from the freezer in there just before closing to keep that milk cold. It’s important to have “cold” milk. When trying to keep food warm buy a thermos.

Q: If I send my child to school with a salad, what are the best kinds of dressings to send with it on the side?

A: Guy: I would experiment with what your child likes. My son enjoys buttermilk ranch. Finding homemade recipes for dressings is a healthy option to your standard bottled dressings.

Q: I want to ensure my child will drink the milk I send with her to school, but she prefers chocolate milk, I worry that I if I send her with regular milk she will simply throw it away. What do you suggest?

A: Kirk: I’m not here to say that chocolate milk is absolutely out of the question. My personal stance,
as a father, is that a little bit in moderation is okay. Your child and you should establish one day each week that they want chocolate milk. This gives your child something to look forward too, and allows you to switch up the contents of the lunch box. Again, it’s a collaborative process: you ask them to
stretch a little by trying a vegetable that’s new and you compromise with them by allowing them something they want in moderation.

Q: I believe that all children should have a sweet treat in every lunch to go along with their fruits and vegetables. What do you recommend?

A: Kirk: If my kids eat their healthy food, it’s my opinion that they can have a treat. Sometimes I buy baked multi-grain chips or vegetable chips in small packages. Also there are 100-calorie cookies that make a nice treat. We discuss the fact that fruit, vegetables and everything else come first, and the treat is to be had after they’ve eaten the healthy food.

Nick: Treat your children as you would treat yourself. Something home-made from scratch is always better than store-bought food any day.

Q: Those prepackaged lunch box meals at the grocery store are always so tempting to kids but they are full of sodium, among other things. What are some ways to get children just as excited about the school lunches packed by their parents?

A: Kirk: I think those things are really bad. They are high in sodium, fat, and sugar, but they’re “cute.” I suggest recreating your own version of these lunches with your child. What we do is look for those same foods and get a healthier version of them. Then we pack them in their lunches in their own little containers to be fun – the girls can even decorate the containers.

Q: What does your ideal lunch box look like?

A:  Guy: Seared tofu with peanut sauce, sautéed kale with garlic and brown rice. This is actually really tasty served cold (and kids like it too!).

Nick: Variation! If you are getting bored with your lunch, then your kids must be too.

These chefs are part of the Chefs in School Initiative developed and operated by Project Bread. This program brings a total of four trained culinary chefs into schools and Head Start Programs to cook homemade, healthy, and appealing meals for low-income children in Boston, Salem, Lawrence, and Lynn. The chefs teach the kitchen staff but also learn from them and from the students and their families about what works, what doesn’t, and how to help the staff solve front-line challenges that promote healthy eating habits and better nutrition through school meals.

About Project Bread

As the state’s leading antihunger organization, Project Bread is dedicated to alleviating, preventing, and ultimately ending hunger in Massachusetts. Through The Walk for Hunger, the oldest continual pledge walk in the country, and other sources, Project Bread provides millions of dollars each year in privately donated funds to support hunger relief through emergency programs, schools, community health centers, farmers’ markets, community suppers, home care organizations, and other programs that protect the individual and strengthen our community food security. For more information, visit



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