There are several options for providing mid-day sustenance for your school-aged children. Many schools have excellent school lunches, but packing a lunch to send to school is sometimes necessary. If packing an exciting, healthy brown bag lunch that comes home empty at the end of the day is one of your New Year’s resolutions – here’s some help. This blog post is from our Everyday chef partner, Elena Gustavson from RAFFL, and is filled with tips to becoming a better “lunch crafter.”
The dreaded brown bag lunch of yesteryear, filled with bologna sandwiches and mealy apples, is a thing of the past! There are blogs and articles everywhere filled with recipes for creative, healthy lunches, and a booming retail industry cropped up around lunch bags and bento boxes. Nowadays, even the school lunch line looks different from 10 years ago, where Farm to School programs abound in Vermont, and National School Lunch Program Standards have transformed frozen tater tots and cardboard pizza into vibrant salad bars and balanced main courses carried by smiling children.
Or has it?
Let’s face it. Nothing is perfect. As a nation, we are making strides in nutrition and health, but the strides are still uneven. Headlines have abounded in the last few years about children tossing their fresh fruits and veggies under the noses of their teachers or studies showing home-packed lunches being less nutritious than the school. Add to this the time deficit that most of us seem to be working under, and it seems no matter our good intentions, many of us struggle to model healthy eating for our children. Case in point, my kids, have found a cold slice of cheese pizza in their lunch bags more than once this year.
And I would like to remind you that I am a professional cook.
So, in the spirit of “been there,” I offer a few tips that make “lunch crafting” easier on most days along with a tried and true recipe for a creamy chicken salad that, with even a reluctant eater, won’t find its way to the bottom of a compost bin.
Or at least that’s what I keep telling myself.
- Plan Meals: Yep, you know it’s true, and I am here to tell you that it works. Never mind that I am a menu nerd or that I have been known to make up fantasy meals for fun. Spending a bit of time at the beginning of each week to plan out lunches (and supper, for that matter) is very helpful with time management, using up leftovers, creating balanced diets, and saving money. There are millions and trillions (that is only a slight exaggeration) of free planners on the internet, from adorable printables to dense recipe databases on favorite food sites. And, when you are taking the long view of what your family is eating each week, the stress that can accompany serving a balanced meal 3 times a day becomes less if your family is eating healthy over the course of several days instead.
- Be Prepared: It is challenging to make home lunches if your pantry is bare and there isn’t a container in site. Take the time to purchase the ingredients you need, stock your cupboards or shelves with containers and bags for carry-in lunches and send your family off with what they need to eat well. If you can, carve out space to make lunches with relative ease because it is easily accessible and well-stocked. In our house, there is a 2X2 foot counter sandwiched between a drawer with my containers, jars, and baggies and a shelf with our lunch bags, napkins, and non-perishable snacks.
- Eat Seasonally: Even here in Zone 4 Vermont, there is a lot of fresh eating food available that is at the peak of its flavor (translating into “delicious”) and is less expensive than when you try to hunt it down out of season, (say, like, strawberries in January). Use the Vermont Department of Agriculture’s harvest calendar to help you know what is available locally.
- Create a Habit: Get into a rhythm of planning and making lunches so that it becomes a part of your routine. Are the mornings usually hectic? Then carve out a few minutes in the evening to start thinking about and setting up lunches for the next day. Are you an early bird? Take the quiet time in the morning to get lunches started and have them ready by the door before the kids head out for school. No matter how you do it, there are bound to be bumps along the way, but stick with it, and before you know it, your consistency will give birth to a healthy habit!
- Lean Protein + Whole Grain + Fresh Vegetable + Sensible Sweet. Pair a healthy protein with a whole grain option, using fresh from the garden veggies, and add a bit of sensible, satisfying sweet to ward off less sensible choices. With whole grain and fresh garden treats with a sensible sweet. Some quick ideas: +
- Egg salad + whole grain crackers + chopped romaine lettuce + 2 chocolate kisses
- Turkey breast + whole wheat wrap + mashed butternut squash + apple slices
- Black beans + brown rice + pico de gallo salsa and/or guacamole + popcorn with cinnamon and maple sugar
- Think Outside the Box: You do not have to eat a sandwich to have lunch. I have packed up meals that were re-purposed from supper two nights before or a very basic mix of cheddar cheese squares, sliced apples, roasted pumpkin seeds, and whole-grain crackers. It is easy to get caught up in the mundane of day-to-day, but try mixing things up a bit and offer your family some unusual choices. Their interest and desire to try new things just might surprise you!
Does all this mean that you will put together elegant, healthy, AND delicious lunches five days a week, receiving rave reviews from friends and family? Eh, probably not, but you can inch closer to lunch stardom if you plan ahead, create habits, and persevere, even when you hit a bump in the road.
Creamy Dreamy Chicken Salad
Approximately 6 servings
Cook’s Notes: Including yogurt in the dressing gives this chicken the slightest bit of tang, making the salad more interesting. The lower calories from the light mayo and yogurt mean this is all about the chicken, the protein, and the vegetables rather than the dressing. Pairs well as a sandwich filling or on top of greens or both!
Feel free to omit the nuts and dried fruit if you have a finicky eater and if you prefer a drier chicken salad, start with just a third of the dressing and add more as you like. Excellent recipe to make ahead and keep refrigerated for a few days. No time to poach chicken? No problem. Leftover chicken works fantastic!
2lbs chicken breasts or chicken tenders (can substitute with two 10 oz cans of chicken, drained)
⅓ cup chopped celery
⅓ cup chopped bell pepper, green
2 tablespoons of red onion, minced
4 to 7 tablespoons of sliced almonds, roasted pumpkin seeds, or sunflower seeds
¼ to ⅓ cup of dried fruit (cranberries and apricots are delicious)
⅓ cup of light mayonnaise
⅓ cup of plain low-fat or non-fat yogurt
1 tablespoon of dijon or whole grain mustard (can substitute yellow mustard)
1 tablespoon of lemon juice
1 tablespoon of cider vinegar
1 teaspoon or less of maple syrup or honey (optional)
½ teaspoon of salt (or to taste)
½ teaspoon of ground black pepper (can substitute ground white pepper to give it less “bite”)
Fill a large pot ⅔ full of water and bring to a boil. Carefully add the chicken breast or tenders and bring back to a simmer over medium-high heat. Cover and simmer uncovered for 20 minutes (breasts) or 15 minutes (tenders) or until a thermometer reads 165 f. Remove chicken from pot and let sit for 5 minutes or until cool enough to handle. Shred the meat with a fork and refrigerate for 30 minutes or until cooled.
In a medium bowl or large measuring cup, whisk together the mayo, yogurt, mustard, lemon juice, vinegar, and maple syrup. Add the salt and pepper to taste.
In a large bowl, pile the shredded chicken, celery, bell pepper, onion, nuts/seeds, and dried fruit. Pour on the dressing and gently fold together until mixed. Cover and refrigerate until ready to serve.
by Elena Gustavson, RAFFL