Take a break from tuna salad with this salmon variation.

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This time of year elicits memories in all of us, whether we’re sending our littles to back school or remembering our own days preparing for a new school year. Perhaps it’s the chill in the air signaling the start of a new school year or the smell of school supplies that brings us back. Going “back to school” combines the tingle of excitement with a tinge of nervousness for many of us. As parents, we may be thrilled to have our kids’ days filled again (for their sake and ours), but one thing’s for sure: Back to school time means back to packing lunches.

Some of us may have gotten a welcomed reprieve from lunch packing during the summer. Though I am tempted to give school lunches a go, the tales my second-grader tells me of chocolate milk simultaneously served with chocolate rolls as a daily combination leaves the hair on the back of my neck on end and I immediately run to get her lunch box from the cabinet.

Packing for the pickiest

Packing lunch for picky eaters and doing it in a timely fashion so we can get to the next item on our to-do list isn’t as straightforward as it may seem. Once you add nut allergies to the mix, it’s a real picnic. The processed food companies (Big Food) have made things so “convenient” for us with easy-to-carry, individually wrapped packages. We may be tempted to resort to filling a lunch box with packaged snacks and yogurt tubes, serving up added sugars, oils and preservatives to those growing brains and bodies.

Gut issues with Dr. Gator

When we consider that the majority of processed foods contain gut irritants like guar and xanthan gums, it’s no wonder that one of the biggest issues facing our kids today is gut issues. Los Angeles pediatrician Dr. Joel “Gator” Warsh has been in practice for over 10 years. His approach is refreshing, as he takes an integrative angle with his patients, meaning he looks at the whole picture to determine the root of the problem. Patients’ symptoms are regularly what’s treated, which doesn’t get to the bottom of the true underlying condition.

Very often, doctors don’t have time to talk about nutrition with their patients, but Dr. Warsh has made this central to his practice. He takes time to discuss what his little patients are eating and maintains that food plays a pivotal role in a child’s health even before they’re born. “It starts before day one,” he says. “A lot of the chemicals that are in our body can go through to the baby. [It starts with] being aware that our choices matter.” Dr. Warsh maintains that he sees chronic disease earlier and earlier these days, and these conditions may be affected by eating a better diet.

“Our food is not the same food it was 50 years ago. We’re not getting nutrients that we once did,” Dr. Warsh explains, “and then you combine that with the toxins and the things that we’re spraying on the food…and those two things together are causing our kids to get sick.” Dr. “Gator” validates my opinion that we need to get back to basics. He tells me that 50 percent of kids in this country have a chronic disease, which can range from eczema to allergies to mental health disorders. Though he’s clear that food is no silver bullet for any and all chronic afflictions, he says it’s integral to our overall health.

He’s passionate when he discusses the importance of getting more nutrients into our diets, decreasing chemicals and exposing kids to real food as much as possible as early as possible. His holistic approach comes out when he rattles off several ways to decrease inflammation (the main culprit in overall disease and gut conditions). Dr. Warsh notes that turmeric, vitamin C and fish oils or omega-3s help to lower inflammation in those who are old enough to take supplements.

We carry our eating habits with us throughout our lives, whether it’s what we eat or the environment in which we eat it (in the car or at a dining table with family).

“Preparing food,” Dr. Gator explains. “That is the key at the end of the day for the issues that we’re seeing. It’s the purchasing and the preparing. Even if it’s making your own pizza. We’re not trying to restrict (our kids), we’re trying to create better options for them so they eat healthier food that they like. There’s a cost to the convenience and the cost is quality. At the end of the day, going back to the basics of family and preparing food (is what counts).”

I couldn’t agree more.

Here are some easy swaps for lunch convenience. While it’s going to seem like a long school year, the old saying rings in my head, “The days are long, but the years are short.”

Salmon swap

Swap salmon salad for tuna to add some variety. This can decrease kids’ intake of mercury while providing a healthy dose of omega-3s.

BYOY – Bring Your Own Yogurt!

Look for artificial sweeteners, sugar and “natural flavors” in yogurt tubes, which can pack several teaspoons of sugar in a tiny tube. Key terms from which to steer clear are “light,” “diet” and “no sugar added.” These are clues that, while no sugar was added, artificial sweeteners were. Pack a few tablespoons of plain yogurt in a container, drizzle with maple syrup and frozen blueberries. Add a dash of cinnamon for fun.

No-No-Nut butter & jellies

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The only ingredients in peanut butter should be peanuts and salt. Peanuts are full of oil and certainly don’t need more added, especially hydrogenated oils.

Steer clear of jellies that pack a ton more sugar in your kids’ lunch. Apple juice concentrate is a fancy way of saying sugar, but check the label for artificial sweeteners or added sugar and get the one with the lowest sugar content possible.

Somehow Big Food thought bread needed to be sweetened too. Check the ingredients list for sugar, cane syrup or sucralose and choose a 100 percent whole wheat bread without the words “enriched flour” in the ingredients list.

Snack size

Make your own snack size. We pay more for those individually wrapped portions and often don’t get as much of what we’re buying on top of that. These portions tend to mimic those at a restaurant: huge and unnecessary. Use your own receptacle to dole out what you’re packing whether it’s almonds or hummus.

Fruit packing

It’s time we face it: Some fruits just don’t travel well. Bananas are black by the time they board the bus and berries wilt when they leave the package. Apples brown, right? Until now! Cut and soak in a bowl of water (enough to cover) with a teaspoon of white vinegar for 30 seconds. Rinse, pack and voila! They’re crisp and delish all the way through lunch!

(Takin’ a break from tuna) Salmon salad4 oz filet baked salmon, cooled (leftover works best)

1 tablespoon dill, chopped

1 tablespoon red onion, finely chopped

1 tablespoon capers, finely diced

2 tablespoons celery, minced

1 tablespoon mayo

½ teaspoon Dijon mustard

Salt & pepper to taste

With a fork, gently break up salmon into flakes.

Add remaining ingredients and mix.

Serve on bread as a sandwich or with veggies or crackers.

Katharine A. Jameson, a certified nutrition counselor who grew up in Williamsville and Townshend, writes about food and health for Vermont News & Media. For more tricks, tips and hacks, find her on Instagram: @foodforthoughtwithkat


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