Carol DeFranca, a chiropractor and clinical nutritionist in Pembroke, constantly exposes her two children to a variety of foods.
“You want kids to have a varied palate,’’ said DeFranca, who also is co-owner of Enhance Wellness in Norwell. “Around age 4 or 5, get them involved in the decision-making.”
At the grocery store, DeFranca tells her two kids to pick out a fruit or vegetable that looks interesting and colorful.
“They can choose green or another color,’’ she said. “Nothing white, no potatoes.”
Like DeFranca, Quincy mother Sage Brousseau empowers her daughter through choice.
“At lunch time we might give her the option to have a cheese stick or a glass of milk with her sandwich,” Brousseau said. “They’re both dairy, but she feels like she’s making the choice. At the grocery store I’ll ask her, ‘Do you want apples or carrots for a snack this week?’ ”
The return of children to school this month means parents again have less control over what their children are eating. DeFranca noted the challenges of dealing with such things as food allergies, a lack of time, or simply a picky eater. But parents, schools, and companies are coming up with varied ways to help children eat safe and healthy meals.
One response was started in 2011 by two Boston mothers, Susan Frigoletto and Cathy Goldman. Their company, Smart Lunches (www.smartlunches.com), provides means to students and staffers at schools that do not have a cafeteria or a formal lunch program, and manages the Smart Snax vending machines for schools, business, and community organizations.
“We partner with the school and sell direct to parents,” said the company’s chief executive officer, Emily Green. The schools agree to tell parents about the Smart Lunches program, and parents can order online directly from the company.
“Our program serves as an ongoing service for parents and as a break when life gets busy or parents are traveling,” said Green. “They may not have time to prepare meals, yet want to make sure their kids have access to healthy foods.”
Already, the company serves more than 150 schools, day-care centers, and summer camps in the Boston area, Green said, including about 20 schools south of Boston.
The Smart Lunches team, which includes a staff nutritionist, develops the recipes. They then contract with local caterers who prepare the meals, which cost $5 for kiddie size (for ages 2 to 4); $5.75 for small (ages 4 to 8); and $5.95 for regular (9 years and older).
“We like to consider the colors of the rainbow when preparing meals,” said Green. “We work with parents and the schools to accommodate food allergies and other dietary concerns.”
For schools south of Boston, the caterer is Lantana, a well-known function hall in Randolph.
Javier Ramirez, a graduate of Le Cordon Bleu in Cambridge, cooks the hot dishes, while Janet Baggs prepares cold foods such as salads and sandwiches.
“I get to prepare fun, healthy meals for kids,” said Ramirez, whose latest creation is a tortilla pie that stacks layers of beef, black beans, corn, and tortilla.
The kitchen prepares 200 to 25o lunches a day between 6 and 8:30 a.m. Meals are packaged with hot or cold gel packs and tinfoil to maintain proper temperatures, Ramirez said. Smart Lunches picks up the meals around 9 a.m. and delivers them to the schools within two hours, he said.
The meals produced in Randolph end up at such places as St. Bridget School in Abington. When Matthew Collins became principal in 2012, the school did not have a formal lunch program.
“Parents were looking for a new option,” he said. “I received a cold call from Smart Lunches and it seemed interesting, especially their focus on healthy foods.”
Food allergies and processed foods are a big concern for Collins.
“I like the focus of Smart Lunches and their diligence in using whole, high-quality foods,’’ he said. “They held a tasting for my parents and students and the food was amazing.”
At the Inly School in Scituate, Smart Lunches offers 10 meal choices that could include turkey and cheese on a bagel, whole wheat pizza, Cobb salad, or vegetable lasagna with carrots, mushrooms, and zucchini. According to the school’s head, Donna Milani Luther, “Smart Lunches has given our students and faculty members a delicious, nutritious alternative.”
For picky eaters, there is a plain pasta with Parmesan cheese. Smart Lunches accommodates food allergies with a sun butter, honey, and banana sandwich on whole wheat bread. All meals are served with a fresh fruit or vegetable.
Even for meals made at home, allergies are a big issue.
Kerry McManama, a Boston writer, and Heather Mehra, a mother of three children who have dealt with food allergies, created a series of children’s books based on six youths, five of whom have food allergies, and called them the No Biggie Bunch (www.nobiggiebunch.com).
“The genre lacked a resource that was direct and kid-friendly,” said McManama.
With titles such as “Everyday Cool with Food Allergies,” the two Newton residents hope to empower children and their caretakers to manage food allergies more effectively.
While they wrote the books to address food allergies, McManama said: “Our message of empower, educate, and engage rings true for a variety of dietary and health issues for kids. Give kids information, keep dialogue open, plan in advance, and encourage them to own their health. Then staying healthy can be no biggie.’’
Does eating healthy mean the end of junk food?
Not according to DeFranca.
“Yes, my kids still get candy. And they have to make a healthy choice after that,’’ she said. “For example, they can have a crunchy fruit or vegetable, like an apple or carrot sticks, or they can brush their teeth. They usually choose to eat the apple or carrots.”