The life of the working parent can feel like a collection of scattered decisions, of trying to set up the next step, only to realize it’s already passed them by. Fitting in healthy lunch preparation is just another piece of this puzzle that often gets lost under the couch, though it’s one that really shouldn’t be overlooked.
Studies say that the place where it’s hardest for kids to access good and healthy food is at school—and it’s where they need it most. With most foods consumed at school being quick and easy packaged foods that are loaded with sugar, sodium, and artificial flavourings, children’s dietary habits are at risk. These early food choices soon become established adult lifestyles, where reaching for junk food in the cupboard will act as the norm. Even in looking at the immediate health effects, a lack of nutrition through their day means your little one’s brain activity and energy levels suffer while their focus on education depletes.
Fear not, busy parents, we know that you’re trying to do it all and sometimes you just can’t. You’re not in this alone; you can advocate for support to be brought into your child’s school that will ensure they’re accessing healthier foods during those prime learning hours.
Following Toronto’s “Real Food for Real Kids” program, Dennis Rogers reworked the model to suit Windsor-Essex’s school environment. Since grade schools in Windsor don’t run cafeterias, the idea for “Green Heart Lunch Club” is to serve as a cafeteria service that delivers healthy food as individually packaged meals (in biodegradable packaging). Since their launch in 2012 with two schools—Kingsville Public and Bellewood Public—Green Heart is now catering to 29 schools and seven daycares.
“Looking at the hot lunch options back when I went to school, it was all hot dog days and pizza. We know it’s still out there,” Dennis says about the current options for young kids. He and his wife now have three kids of their own and have seen a minor shift from pizza days to Subway days, but that’s only about halfway down the road to healthy.
The Green Heart program allows the kids to choose between six daily options, where Dennis reworks famous “kid-approved” recipes like mac and cheese, spaghetti and meatballs, and chicken soup, into healthier versions. The parents can rest easy knowing their kids are eating well, while the kids get food that they also love to eat.
Parents are more aware than ever of the quality and origin of the food that their families eat, which is why Dennis and his team commit to three-quarters of their products coming from the local or Canadian regions.
“Where we live, there’s such an abundance of product, be it from greenhouses, farmers, or roadside stands. It makes sense with all of this local fresh food that we would try to incorporate it.” Dennis assures that all meat is hormone- and antibiotic-free, the beef is grass-fed and steroid free from Wheatley or surrounding areas, and the chickens are “happy Ontario chickens.”
“It’s also about being able to tell someone where it comes from, who we buy it from, and being on a first-name basis with your grocer and butcher. People are making better and more educated choices, and we want to honour that.”
Part of long-term healthy eating habits comes from getting the kids excited about the ingredients and preparation of the food they eat, and educating them on why to make these conscious decisions. Green Heart’s cooking classes connect children to their food, from origin, to growth, to what makes it good for them. These classes give the kids the tools to bring healthy eating home to their parents, and to show them the new foods they’re willing to eat.
Another way Green Heart inspires children to make greener choices is through their “Planting Seeds Program.” In collaboration with Mucci Farms, this program promotes and empowers kids who are out in the community making change.
“Once a child is nominated through the website, we pull a name each week and they and their class will receive a healthy lunch from us and snacks from Mucci,” Dennis explains. Children can be nominated for starting gardens, having an acute awareness of parents’ plastic use, or, in the case of one recent winner, be a four-year-old who goes to the park every Saturday and refuses to play until the garbage is picked up.
While parents are on the site nominating their kids or buying meals for their week, they can also donate meals to other children through Green Heart’s Feed It Forward Program. These meals go into an administrative pool, and the admin makes a decision on which children receive the lunches based on income necessity or if they are going through a personal tragedy.
“We’ve also opened the program up for local businesses to be able to donate and we’re now on track to deliver 5,000 fully donated lunches to kids within Windsor-Essex. It’s amazing to see how much of our community wants to give back,” Dennis says.
Another local hot lunch delivery option is The Lunch Lady, which is new to the Windsor area, but not to Canada. Backed up by 26 years of resources from The Lunch Lady family, Karen Towers felt confident to buy into the franchise. This past October, she hung up her children’s hospital lab coat in exchange for an apron, and went down a different path to helping kids stay healthy.
“We’re lucky to have an abundance of food in our country, but larger portions seem to be the most valued,” Karen explains. “Our portions are controlled and the nutrition is balanced to make sure kids are getting exactly what they need.”
In this case, parents can choose from a variety of protein, starch, and fruit and veggie options. Karen says that they will often have meals that kids enjoy, but the fact that alongside their macaroni come peas and carrots, they’ll soon eat it out of habit.
The Lunch Lady offers gluten-free, Halal, and vegetarian options in their menu; all of their kitchens are nut-free; and they have an allergy management program to help make the menus suitable for most kids. Karen also encourages “Boom-a-rang” in the schools, which is a term to describe a child bringing their lunch waste home to properly disposed of it. Their other environmentally friendly practices include using paper-based trays, asking parents to send in cutlery, or supplying cornstarch-based spoons and forks.
The Lunch Lady’s “Breathe” initiative approaches hot lunches as a way to allow the parent a chance to catch their breath and be with their kids. “Since they’re not making lunches, they can use that time to read their kids a bedtime story or just to recharge,” she adds.
Parents can ensure that their children have access to these programs by bringing the information to the next Parent Council Meeting; it’s as easy as bringing the information in and letting the school handle the rest.
Not only are these programs a great way to encourage and maintain the healthy habits for children while they’re at school, but they can also offer parents that much-needed break to be able to be present and available for their children. Who knows? Maybe this could be the start of “new recipe” cooking time for the whole family to enjoy.