It’s that time of year again: back to school. While this season is full of exciting transitions and new beginnings, it can also be a hectic, stressful period. As schedules fill up, certain priorities–like eating healthy and enjoying quality family meals together–can start to slip. That doesn’t need to be the case though, and here to help is Donatella Arpaia, a regular judge on The Food Network’s Iron Chef America and The Next Iron Chef, a NYC restaurant owner and mother to a 4-year-old son. Donatella sat down with us recently to share her favorite tips and tricks for making the shift from summer to school as seamless, healthy and fun as possible. She also created two special kid-friendly recipes to help Libby’s fans kick off back-to-school season in a wholesome, delicious way!
The back-to-school transition can be bittersweet as we bid adieu to summertime fun while welcoming the excitement of the new school year. Do you have any tips for creating special traditions that celebrate this change of seasons?
During this hectic period, I think it’s crucial to create family traditions and not just back-to-school “to do” lists. You can do this by scheduling a last “lazy day of summer” and plan the perfect day with your kids—whether it’s a day at the beach, a movie or a picnic—whatever it is, make it fun and leave all phones at home.
Also, for most families, food is an important part of making traditions. Create culinary memories together by baking a snack with your kids to go in their lunchboxes the first week of school. Celebrate the first day of class with an extra special breakfast and dinner.
With packed schedules, added extra-curricular and crazed morning routines, the start of a new school year can be an especially hectic time for families. What tips do you have to ensure that healthy eating doesn’t fall by the wayside?
It helps to plan meals ahead of time as much as possible. I like to create a menu for the week so I can see if it’s balanced. (For example, you don’t want to serve red meat everyday!). Advance preparation leads to better choices for your family, and I like to prepare recipes the night before that actually taste better the next day like my Quinoa Salad with Corn and Peas.
Healthy after-school snacking is an essential antidote to pre-dinner crankiness. Any favorite snack recipes?
Fruit and cheese is a perfect and easy afternoon snack because it doesn’t fill kids up too much before dinner, but sustains and satisfies. I like to combine Libby’s Pear Slices with a few cubes of cheese.
If we’re being honest, packed school lunches often times feel “blah.” What do you do to keep things healthy, yet creative?
Step 1: Get out of the boring sandwich rut! Buy fun, bento-style containers and create yummy recipes incorporating veggies that your kids will love, like my Sesame Soba Noodle Salad with Green Beans. It’s flavorful and healthy, and you can top it with grilled chicken for extra protein.
Incorporating kids into the kitchen routine can be a great way to spark culinary curiosity and encourage healthy eating from a young age. What tips do you have for bringing young ones on board?
Make your kids feel important by giving them their own work station! Set up a small cutting board and bowl and give them their own tools to cook, mix and bake with. Be sure to do this when you’re not rushing and don’t criticize them or micromanage. It’s important to let them have fun while you do the actual cooking and teach them along the way. I bought my son his own apron and we made a paper chef hat – he felt very proud!
What advice do you have for parents of picky eaters who worry about their kids eating enough fruits and veggies?
I have a picky eater! If it was up to my son, his diet would consist of chocolate, pancakes and ice cream. When it comes to picky eaters, it’s important to be consistent and don’t let them wear you down. Every day, encourage them to eat something new. Find fruits and veggies that they like and build on that. Incorporate new fruits and veggies into their favorite foods. Also, I know some say not to “reward with food,” but it works for me. I tell my son that if he eats his fruits and veggies or tries something new, he can have a small sweet reward! Find what works and don’t feel guilty about it.
Sending youngsters off to school with a nutritious breakfast is crucial, but this is often easier said than done. Any tips for making sure a healthy meal first thing actually happens?
Although I pack my son a healthy lunch, I can’t ensure that he’s actually eating it, but I DO have control over breakfast and dinner. Parents often think that veggies can’t be incorporated into breakfast so they miss this “veggie” opportunity. It is so important to make sure kids get a protein in the morning. I like to sneak peas into scrambled eggs and then add some cheesy goodness so that my son doesn’t even realize he is eating veggies for breakfast! Try this with your kids using my recipe for Scrambled Eggs with Peppers & Peas. It features Libby’s Vegetable Cups,which I’m a huge fan of because they’re a fast, convenient and easy way to provide a healthy portion of veggies any time of day, but especially in the morning.
I recommend starting the transition to a healthier breakfast before the school year begins. Have your little ones help you prepare breakfast and make them part of the process. This way, they’ll be more likely to try your food, and by the time school starts, they’ll be used to seeing green in their eggs!