Quick & Healthy Family Lunches

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”.

 

Lunch

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 that has 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.

 

Tips:

  • Plan Meals: Yep, you know it’s true and I am here to tell you that it works. Nevermind that I am a menu nerd or that I have been known to make up fantasy meals for fun. Spending a bit of time in 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 very difficult 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 a space where you can 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 a 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!

rutabags HS Oct. 15 for website

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.

 

Helpful Links:

Lunch Planner Printable on Living Locurto: http://cf.livinglocurto.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/08/Free-Printable-Weekly-Lunch-Planner.pdf

 

Eating Well, Healthy Lunches: http://www.eatingwell.com/search/apachesolr_search/healthy%20lunches

 

VT Dept of Ag, Harvest Calendar:

http://agriculture.vermont.gov/buy_local/harvest_calendar

 

18 Tricks to Make New Habits Stick, from LifeHack.Org: http://www.lifehack.org/articles/featured/18-tricks-to-make-new-habits-stick.html

Newbury apple joy

Recipe:

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 means 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!

Ingredients:

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)

 

Dressing:

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”)

 

Directions:

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

White Bean Soup

Having worked in kitchens for several years, Randal Smathers knows how to make a proper soup and has some really great tips to share:

  • Always, always saute veggies well before adding stock or water.
  • Taste the stock alone for flavor. If it’s thin, canned tomato products, bouillon, Worcestershire sauce, soy sauce, wine, lemon juice, leftover mashed potatoes, herbs or even herbal tea (lemon zinger works well and is vegan-friendly) can bolster a stock.
  • Seasoned yogurt adds flavor and creaminess, especially to plain broths and tomato soups.
  • Adding fresh, finely chopped vegetables to a hot stock just before serving restores color and a little texture to a too-uniform soup.
  • Soups store and reheat well, but if you’re going to store a noodle soup, cook and store the noodles separately or they will balloon up and soak up the stock (barley and rice less so). Always reseason soup after reheating. The flavors tend to blend but also mellow.

At a recent EDC cooking demo Randal discussed this white bean soup as well as a winter squash and leek and potato. While his methods are authentic, they do require a slightly greater time commitment than some of our other recipes. However, much of the cooking is unattended – making this and soups in general, great weekend cooking.

White Bean Soup

1-1 1/2 pounds dried Kenearly beans from Yoder Farm or other yellow/white bean
2 pounds ham hocks or ham bone
3 medium onions
1 stick celery
1 leek
2 cloves garlic
4 carrots
Oil
Pepper
Bay leaf
3 tbsp. baking soda
1/2 pound Wallingford Locker bacon ends (optional)

Soak the beans in cold water with baking soda for at least 6 hours (overnight is better).
Drain beans, cover with fresh cold water, bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer until just soft (about an hour), stirring occasionally. Drain cooked beans.

Boil ham hocks in a large pot with one onion (halved), one carrot, the bay leaf, half a dozen peppercorns and the celery. DO NOT ADD SALT. This can simmer for 2-3 hours, adding water just to cover bones as needed. Strain stock and let cool. Pick any meat off of the bones, discarding the fat. If you are preparing this in advance, you can cool the stock in the fridge or freezer and skim and discard the congealed fat.

Meanwhile, roughly chop remaining onions and carrots and leek. Smash garlic.

In your biggest, heaviest pot, saute vegetables thoroughly. If you are adding bacon, cut to 1/4 inch dice and saute it with the vegetables. Add the meat from the bones. Add beans and ham stock. Simmer until beans are mostly broken down and the soup has thickened. Add fresh water, stock, or the water the beans cooked in to thin soup as needed (be aware: the bean water will darken the light soup).
Taste, then season with pepper and salt if needed. If you added extra bacon, you should not need more salt.