From new backpacks and lunch boxes to notebooks and pencils, it's the time of year to shift back into that more rigid routine and head back to school. No more on-the-fly lunches and carefully prepared dinners for those who enjoy a less structured schedule during the summer. Instead, meals and snacks require more forethought and preparation in order to ensure healthy wholesomeness at the ready. Of course, the easiest way to do so is to stock up your kitchen with versatile staples.
Start your kids off on the right side of the kitchen table with a nutritious breakfast, including whole grains and fruits for optimal cognitive function. Pack up a lunch with energy-sustaining snacks or mini-meals, such as trail mix, nut or seed butter and jam or hummus and veggie sandwiches, and fresh fruit to perk them up and keep their bodies sharp. Then, aim to end the day with a nutrient-dense dinner filled with legumes, whole grains and vegetables to help them absorb all they learned at school and recover, repair and heal from the stressors of their busy day. Let's break down the pantry and fridge essentials for all your meal and snack needs.
Great foods to stock up your pantry or countertop include:
- Whole grain cold cereals with as little sugar as possible (less than 10 percent of total calories, and ideally closer to 5 percent) and high in fiber.
- Whole grains, such as oats, quinoa, couscous, amaranth and rice (e.g. brown, purple, red, wild) for hot cereals, casseroles, stews, side dishes, stir-fries and burritos.
- Whole grain bread for toast, sandwiches and French toast.
- Whole grain tortillas for wraps, burritos and baked chips.
- Whole grain crackers (rice, corn, wheat) for dipping into guacamole, salsa, hummus and other bean dips; for spreading on avocado, nut or seed butters; and for snacks.
- Whole grain pastas for quick meals. When pasta is done cooking, add in some broccoli, peas and/or leafy greens and blanch for a minute before straining for a kid-friendly veggie addition.
- Fresh, seasonal fruits to serve whole, cut into a fruit salad, blend into smoothies, cube for a fruit kebab, toss into cereal, or cut in pieces (like banana or apple) to smear with nut or seed butter.
- Nut and/or seed butters to spread on fruit, whole grain bread or tortillas; for breakfast sandwiches; or stirred into hot cereals.
- Unopened nuts and seeds (especially walnuts, almonds, flaxseeds, hempseeds and chia seeds) for essential fats and to use in trail mixes, smoothies, DIY protein bars, sauces, and straight up. (Note: Nuts should be placed in the fridge after they're opened to slow down oxidation.)
- Sea vegetables (especially nori sheets) for snacks, wraps, sushi and to sprinkle on foods for a mineral boost.
- Dried and canned beans and lentils (Note: For canned, opt for low or no sodium and BPA-free, when possible) to make hummus, bean dips and to add to salads, soups, stews and anywhere else you can add these nutritional nuggets.
- Jarred/boxed staples to keep on hand for multiple purposes, such as salsa, marinara sauce, olives and vegetable broth.
For nutritionally dense meals and snacks, pack your fridge and freezer with:
- Veggies galore! Pack up the crisper with leafy greens (the most nutrient-dense foods on the planet), asparagus, cauliflower, broccoli, carrots, squash, beets and anything your kids love, or will at least tolerate.
- Fridge-friendly fruits, such as tomatoes, cucumbers and melons.
- Plant-based milks, such as almond, soy, rice, coconut, etc., for cereal, sauces, cooking and drinking directly.
- Tofu, tempeh, miso paste, tamari and other soy foods for stews, soups, stir-fries, dressings, sauces and main dishes.
- Frozen fruits, such as berries, mango, pineapple, etc., to be added to cereals, blended into smoothies or baked into muffins; and veggies to throw into soup, pastas, stews and smoothies.
- Frozen veggie burgers and leftovers for last-minute meals.
Here's to a happy healthy school year!
Julieanna Hever, M.S., R.D., C.P.T., is a registered dietitian who specializes in weight management, disease prevention and management, and sports nutrition. She is the host of Veria LivingNetwork's "What Would Julieanna Do?," author of the best-selling book, The Complete Idiot's Guide to Plant-Based Nutrition, and the nutrition columnist for VegNews Magazine. She is the co-author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Gluten-Free Vegan Cooking, which she wrote with Chef Beverly Lynn Bennett.