If anyone should know how to pack a healthy school lunch, it would be Dr. Dora Anne Mills, former director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention – and a recently converted “veganish” vegetarian.

Yet every year, she still struggles to find good-for-you foods that her children, ages 9 and 12, will actually eat. She has even dreamed up her idea of the perfect school lunch: It’s plant-based, as fresh as possible, very low in fat and high-fructose corn syrup, has gone through little processing, is environmentally friendly and served in a reusable container (and lunch box).

And, oh yes, it can be prepared in five minutes the night before.

“There are days I look in my kids’ lunches, and I see a lot of the opposite,” Mills said.

Still, she and other parents have found creative ways to serve their children foods they like, in packaging that will ensure their lunch makes it safely to lunchtime even if they don’t use insulated lunch bags.

Erin Dow of Winthrop is another busy mom who has the added challenge of packing her three children, ages 11, 9 and 6, lunches that are not only good for them but are also nut-free. Dow is a caterer and the expert chef for the Scarborough-based Guiding Stars program, which awards foods in the grocery aisles zero to three stars based on their nutritional value.

Her children’s school recently went nut-free, and “a lot of parents and friends freaked out because they didn’t know how they were going to get protein without peanut butter.”

“I don’t have a problem getting fruits and vegetables into my kids,” Dow said. “They’ll eat them all day. But it’s the proteins that are going to make them grow tall.”

Turn the page to get some ideas from these two moms that might help other time-starved parents pack a healthier school lunch this fall.

• Most kids like trail mix, but if they can’t eat nuts, most of the trail mixes in the store won’t do. Dow makes her own trail mix, starting with a base of protein-rich Kashi Go Lean Crunch cereal. Then she adds in dried fruits such as raisins, apricots, dried cherries and cranberries, and even a few dark chocolate M&Ms.

“I think of the trail mix as like the chicken breast that would be on my plate at dinner, except it’s a kid thing,” Dow said. “It’s sweet, it’s crunchy, it’s fun, it’s tactile, it’s colorful, and all of those elements I find help improve consumption in children as well. If it looks cute, they’re more likely to eat it.”

• Yogurt and cream cheese are two of the items Dow says she’d be least worried about spoiling in an uninsulated lunch box. But if you don’t want to take any chances, buy some of those tubes of yogurt sold for children and pop them in the freezer.

“If you freeze those and stick them in the lunch box frozen, by the time they eat lunch at 11 o’clock, they’ll be thawed and they can just kind of shake them up and they’re good as new,” Dow said. “If they’re still frozen, then they just think that you gave them frozen yogurt, which is even better.”

• Blend a smoothie with yogurt and fresh fruit and pour into a canning jar, leaving a little room at the top for expansion. Freeze the smoothie. As it thaws in the lunch box, it will keep any other perishables cold. (Dow sends a lot of her children’s food to school in canning jars to stay away from plastics and disposable packaging. “I’ve found that really the only way you can break them,” she said, “is if you drop them squarely on their bottom, and that rarely happens.”)

• Children love to dip their veggies in something. Some low-fat cream cheese and salad dressings come in individual containers that are shelf stable. This kind of packaging can be more expensive, so save them for times when you’re in a big rush to get out the door.

• Dipping works for fruit too. Mills has found that when she sends a whole apple to school, it often comes back with just one or two bites taken out of it. Slice it up, she advises, and send it with some almond butter for dipping.

• Mills makes her own hummus, because she finds commercial brands either too oily or, if it’s oil-free, tasteless. A batch lasts about a week if each child takes it twice a week, and she adds lettuce and tomato to the mix if they have it in the form of a sandwich.

• Choose whole-grain crackers and fortified breads. Dow has developed two high-protein breads, so there’s no need to worry about sending meat-filled sandwiches in uninsulated lunch bags. (She shares the recipes elsewhere on this page.)

Her “secret weapon bread dough,” a white bread dough made with soy flour and white whole-wheat flour, has 8 grams of protein per serving, “so the bread becomes the protein,” she said. “And at that point, it doesn’t matter what you put between it, because you’ve already done your job with the bread itself.”

Dow sometimes sends the bread to school with some fresh-cut strawberries and a little tub of low-fat cream cheese. She also shapes the bread dough into bread sticks, adding a little olive oil, some Italian seasoning and Parmesan cheese. Include a small container of marinara sauce for dipping.

Dow’s homemade pumpkin bread is fortified with flax, wheat bran and soy flour, and has 4 grams of protein per serving.

“You could send your kid to school with a couple of little pumpkin muffins for lunch and get that protein in,” she said.

• Mills stores a few almond butter-and-jam sandwiches in the freezer for those days when she’s in a rush and doesn’t have time to make anything fresh.

• Dow keeps a bin of pre-portioned fruits and vegetables in the refrigerator. When it’s time to pack her children’s lunch, they have to pick two items that are different colors. “That way I can force them to eat across the nutrient spectrum just by color, because different colored fruits and vegetables generally have different nutrient benefits,” she said. “So if they take an orange one and a green one, I know they’re getting a little bit of both of those benefits.”

Mills does something similar, but also throws granola bars and other products into the mix. She buys ready-to-eat, 8-ounce containers of red grapefruit packaged by Del Monte Fruit Naturals. The fruit comes in 100 percent juice, so there’s no need to worry about it floating in a lot of corn syrup.

“I cut corners and do that because, honestly, I’m just not going to cut up a grapefruit,” Mills said.

Her children love grapefruit, but for those who are more finicky, the product comes in blueberry, mixed berries, cherry mixed fruit and tropical medley versions.

Mills also maintains a snack bowl that includes selections such as Kashi granola bars and 100-calorie packages of Emerald Cocoa Roast Almonds. She lets her children choose something from the bowl for their lunch each day.

• Instead of chips, Mills packs Smart Puffs, or sometimes makes homemade popcorn. She sprinkles the popcorn with nutritional yeast rich in vitamin B-12, which is especially important for her vegetarian son.

• Children like color and things that are different. Buy some purple and orange cauliflowers, Dow suggests, instead of choosing the white ones all the time. Buy wax beans instead of green beans.

• Buy some 8-inch, protein-fortified flatbreads. Spray them with a little vegetable oil, give them a light sprinkle of cinnamon and sugar, and bake on a rack at 350 degrees for 12 to 15 minutes until crispy.

• Mills makes big dinners on school nights so that leftovers can be sent for lunch the next day. She makes homemade pizzas with vegan cheese and whatever vegetables she has in the refrigerator.

Other meals include shepherd’s pie made with “fake” meats, whole wheat spaghetti with veggies, and rice and beans with added salsa or other variations to spice it up.

Options are endless, but there is one school lunch rule that Mills insists her children follow:

“I tell them they have to have fruit and vegetables in each lunch. And I do make that non-negotiable.”


Servings: About 36 (makes three 8-by-4-inch loaves)

1½ cup sugar

3 whole eggs plus 1 egg white

¾ cup unsweetened applesauce

¼ cup vegetable oil

2 15-ounce cans pumpkin puree

½ teaspoon salt

4 cups white whole wheat flour

½ cup soy flour

¼ cup flax meal

½ cup wheat bran

4 teaspoons baking soda

2 teaspoons cinnamon

½ teaspoon nutmeg

½ teaspoon cloves

½ teaspoon ginger

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a large bowl, combine the wheat flour, soy flour, flax meal, wheat bran, baking soda and spices. Mix until combined.

In another bowl, beat together the sugar and eggs until the sugar is dissolved (about 2 minutes with a hand mixer), then add in the pumpkin puree, apple sauce, oil and salt. Add the wet ingredients to the dry ingredients and stir until batter comes together. It will be thick.

Divide among three greased 8-by-4 bread pans, smooth the tops, and bake at 350 degrees for about 50 to 60 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.

Bread can be wrapped and frozen for up to 6 months. Thaw in the refrigerator for 24 hours, or slice before freezing, then thaw and reheat at the same time in the toaster.

Cookies made with this batter require between 10 and 20 minutes of baking, depending on size. Muffins take 20 minutes. A toothpick inserted into the middle should come out completely clean in both cases.


Servings: Eight

1 cup white whole wheat flour

1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour

½ cup soy flour

¼ cup wheat bran

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1 cup skim milk

1 tablespoon honey

2 teaspoons active dry yeast

2 tablespoons olive oil

In a large bowl, food processor or stand mixer, combine the flours, wheat bran and salt until well-mixed. Pour the milk into a small bowl and stir in the honey. Stir in the yeast until dissolved, then add the olive oil and set aside.

Follow the directions below for the mixing method of your choice, remembering in all cases that your goal is a smooth ball of dough that won’t stick to your hands but will stick to your fingers if you pinch it.

If mixing by hand: Stir the liquids into the dry ingredients with a spoon until combined, adding a bit of water if the dough seems dry or flour if it seems wet. Move to a lightly-floured surface and knead vigorously for 6 to 8 minutes or until the dough is smooth and elastic.

In a food processor: With the processor running, pour the liquids in a slow but steady stream and allow to mix until the dough balls around the blade. If the dough is dry, add a bit of water. Add flour if the dough is too wet and sticks to the bottom of the bowl. Stop the processor and allow to rest for 5 minutes. Restart processor and allow the ball to rotate about 30 times, then remove the dough and finish kneading by hand on a lightly-floured surface until smooth.

In a stand mixer: Add liquids to dry ingredients and mix using a dough hook on low for 2 minutes or until the dough comes together in a ball. Add a bit of water if the dough won’t come together, or add a bit of flour if it’s too wet. Increase speed to medium, and allow to knead for 6 to 8 minutes, or until the dough is smooth and elastic.

Allow dough to rise in a covered and oiled bowl until it has doubled in size, then proceed with whatever bread-based recipe idea your heart desires. Some options include: cinnamon rolls, breadsticks, mini-pizzas, dinner rolls and sandwich bread.


Staff Writer Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at: [email protected]