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

Five Ways to Stretch Your LOCAL Food Dollar

We know that spending our dollars in local businesses has a big and positive impact, both economically, environmentally and directly within our communities. We also know that those same benefits can be applied when we spend our food dollars with local farmers, which in turn have local cultural impacts as well.

This does not change the fact that local food can often be more expensive, or at least perceived as such, and for most of us, that means making every penny count.

  1. Purchase in Season. Vermont has become almost famous for its season extension techniques, as evidence of the gleaming hoop houses dotting our landscape. Although this is fantastic and beneficial, if you can stand to wait until July for your basil and August for your tomatoes, then you will find that because there is more product being produced, you will find a good price almost anywhere you decide to shop for your local food. Check out the Department of Agriculture’s Harvest Calendar to get a good idea of when food is typically being harvested in Vermont throughout the seasons.
  2. Take advantage of direct to consumer sales. Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), farmers’ markets, farm stands and pick-your-own crops are fantastic ways to get fresh, local produce at a price that works for you AND the farmer. The challenge is that it isn’t as easy as one-stop shopping at the supermarket, but a great way to know your farmer and your food. Go ahead. Compare the prices of a CSA to what you would purchase in the grocery store and you could see a savings of 10% to 25%.
  3. Support local cooperatives, buying clubs/bulk purchasing and online markets. If purchasing directly from the farmer is a little too much running around for a Saturday or you prefer to have more control over what you might get in a CSA box, explore your local co-op and buying clubs for better deals than the supermarket can get you. If you are interested in buying in quantity, either on your own or with friends, many farms are able and willing to give you a discount for a minimum purchase, even if it is just the one time. More recently, online farmers’ markets make purchasing from your local farmer nothing more than a click away and although a bit more expensive than purchasing directly at the farmers’ market, usually less expensive than picking it up from the local supermarket.

frozen chix header

  1. Go whole hog. Or chicken. Or cow. Or carrot. Unlike say, the rest of the world, Americans seem adverse (okay, squeamish) to using certain parts of an animal. Lengua or beef tongue, is delicious and easy to cook for a flavorful filling in a tacos, stew or chili. It is also just a few dollars per pound when compared to a sirloin steak. The same could be said for oxtail or shin steaks, parts of the cow that are both unfamiliar to many eaters as well as cooks, but make the most amazing and flavorful additions to a braising pot. Buy a chicken whole, roast it and after you pick the carcass clean of its meat, pop what is left, bones and all, into a big pot with cold water, a few carrot tops, some onion skin and herbs and make a broth that can be frozen into bags or freezer proof jars. Use the roasted meat for sandwiches, salads, in pot pies and casseroles as well as soup and stews. For my family of seven (of which four are active teens), I can feed several lunches and dinner at least twice in a week with two, 6 lb birds. At $4/lb, it comes to approximately $2.15 per person TOTAL, not including the 4 to 6 cups of broth still in the freezer for future meals. And I haven’t even mentioned carrot top pesto, or roasted broccoli stems or sauteed chard stems or fried green tomatoes or vegetable stock…
  2. Plan. Plan. Plan. Let’s face it. We waste food. Whether it is because we live in a throwaway culture, have eyes bigger than our stomachs or just let things rot in the back of the fridge, Americans waste approximately 30% to 40% of our food supply, which equates to 20 lbs of food per person per month. Twenty. Pounds. So, if you are going to spend your hard earned dollars on local food, try to spend a half hour or so each week, making a simple plan of how to use that food. Make menus, get comfortable with cooking a few key dishes and don’t be afraid to preserve food, turn it into stocks or create make-ahead meals for the freezer. Check the end of this post for some helpful links.

Resources:

  1. Huffington Post: Why Buying Local is Worth Every Cent, Michael Saguero
  2. University of Vermont: Ten Reasons to Buy Local Food, Vern Grubinger
  3. North Carolina Cooperative Extension: Research Based Support and Extension Outreach for Local Food Systems
  4. Forbes Magazine: If You Buy Local, You’ll Have Less Money to Spend Locally, Eric Kain
  5. Vermont Department of Agriculture, Harvest Calendar
  6. Vital Communities
  7. Rutland Farm and Food Link, Farm Fresh Connect
  8. World Food Day USA

by Elena Gustavson, Rutland Area Farm & Food Link Everyday Chef

Slow Cooker Chicken Masala

Easy Crock Pot Indian Chicken

Adapted from: Real Simple Chicken Tikka Masala

I found this recipe while looking for new and different ways to cook a whole chicken. There are lots of local farms that raise and sell broiler chickens, but  most sell whole birds. Cooking a whole chicken can seem overwhelming if you are used to buying chicken at the grocery, where chicken parts and boneless breasts are the norm. I’ll be writing a post in the coming months showing how easy it is to cut up your own chicken, but for now I’ve adapted this recipe to use whole chicken.

Ingredients:

4-6 pound locally raised whole chicken
2 15-ounce cans diced tomatoes (or fresh diced tomatoes from the garden)
2 medium onions, chopped
4 cloves garlic, chopped
4 tablespoons tomato paste
2 tablespoons garam masala (Indian spice blend)
1.5 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon black pepper
1 cup cream (optional)

The beauty of this recipe is how little of your time it takes to get going. You can easily get everything into the crock pot in less than 15 minutes, then let the crock pot do the cooking while you go to work or take the kids to school. Many people put their slow cooker away when spring arrives, but I find that using a crock pot doesn’t heat up the kitchen like the oven can during the heat of summer (this week’s 90 degree days are a perfect time to cook with the crock pot). This is also a great time of year to find fresh, locally raised chickens. Upper Valley-raised frozen chickens are available year-round, but summer and fall are the best seasons to find fresh whole chickens.

chop the onions

Chop onions and garlic. Dice tomatoes if using fresh.

garam

Combine the onion, garlic, diced tomatoes, tomato paste, salt, pepper, and garam masala in the slow cooker. Stir the ingredients. Salt and pepper the chicken inside and out and place on top of the veggie and spice mix.

ready to cook

Cover and cook on low for 5-7 hours depending on the size of the chicken and your slow cooker. Luckily, you can’t overcook the chicken. The worst that can happen is that the meat will start to fall off the bone, but still be heavenly – just be careful and look out for unexpected bones during dinner.

finished

Frozen Meat Primer

A common question I get from customers at farmers’ markets is if I have any meat that is not frozen. They are shopping for that evenings’ meal and don’t have time to thaw it. Occasionally, farmers will have fresh meat for sale, but the majority of locally raised meats are frozen, so knowing techniques for quickly and safely thawing frozen meat can be handy when shopping at your local farmers’ market or farm stand.

 

If time is not an issue, thawing meat in a refrigerator is the best option. Be sure to place the meat in a bowl or pan in case the package leaks during the defrosting process which will help keep the fridge clean and avoid limit the possibility of cross contamination. It is important that you make sure your refrigerator is less than 40 degrees F. The USDA’s Safe Food Handling Fact Sheet has valuable information about food safety including the fact that dangerous food borne bacteria can grow between the temperatures of 40-140 degrees F. It is important to limit the amount of time your thawing meat (any meat or prepared food, really) is in the ‘danger zone’. The refrigerator is the safest method, but in a pinch using a microwave or a cold water bath to speed up the process can work, if done correctly.

frozen chix

 

Cold Water Bath
Submerge your packaged meat in cold water. Unpackaged meat can attract bacteria from the air and absorb too much water, so put the meat in a ziplock bag if needed. Replace the water as it warms (about every 30 minutes) with fresh cold water. This technique will speed up the thawing process significantly.

water chix gallery

Microwave
Using the defrost mode on your microwave is another way to get the meat on the table quickly. When defrosting in a microwave it’s important to cook the meat immediately. The microwave isn’t ideal for defrosting red meats (it negatively affects the quality), but chicken and pork can be ready for cooking in no time using the microwave.

 

Grilling steak

Cooking Frozen Meats
Another option is to skip the thawing process altogether. America’s Test Kitchen  determined that the quality of beef steaks (especially grass-fed beef) improves when cooked while still frozen. For those who like a rare or medium-rare steak, cooking a frozen steak is the way to go.

This cooking technique is courtesy of Cook’s Illustrated chef Dan Souza

  • Heat skillet filled 1/8 inch deep with oil
  • Sear until browned (90 seconds per side)
  • Transfer to wire rack set in rimmed baking sheet
  • Cook in 275-degree oven until desired doneness (18 to 20 minutes for a 1-inch-thick steak)

Another handy tips when you are have a whole frozen chicken and need to have a meal on the table for dinner is to cook it frozen. It will take 50% more time to cook, but you can roast a whole chicken frozen and have a delicious dinner in a few hours. It is not recommended to cook frozen meats in a slow cooker because of the uncertainly about how long the meat will be in the danger temperature zone.

You can also boil frozen chicken. Boiling a whole frozen chicken has the advantage of giving you delicious chicken stock AND cooked chicken for several days worth of meals.

Thawing Frozen Meat FAQ

Can I refreeze meat that has been frozen and thawed?
Yes! If thawed in a refrigerator and packaged correctly you can refreeze meat that has been previously frozen. This is a great tip when you have a large package of meat and don’t want to cook it all at once. If frozen in an air-tight package there should be no loss of quality.

I just found a frozen chunk of meat at the bottom of my freezer – is it still good?
Hard telling, not knowing… You can find the FDA quidelines for storing foods here. Freezing (below zero) keeps food safe indefinitely, it is the quality that can be affected by length of time in the freezer and the type of packaging. Try to clean out your freezer at least once a year to be sure you use all your frozen goodies while they are still good.

Grill happy

How long is my refrigerator thawed meat good for?
Sorry, there is no one answer to this question. It depends on the type of meat (ground vs. whole, seafood vs. lamb, smoked vs. fresh), the type of packaging (vacuum packaging lasts longer), how long is was fresh before being frozen originally. The best advice is to use common sense, use your nose, and don’t take any chances.

These rules are true for all frozen meats!

Chicken and Rice Soup

I think the seasons are finally catching up with the calendar. Temps are consistently ranging from cold to colder and there is snow on the mountains. That means it’s also prime season for just about everyone to get sick. And although the science is inconclusive, chicken soup just has a way of making us feel better.

It’s very much as Steinbeck wrote in East of Eden, “The lore has not died out of the world, and you will still find people who believe that soup will cure any hurt or illness and is no bad thing to have for the funeral either.” So give in to the lore and make yourself a pot of soup, chicken or otherwise, even if you’re feeling fine – it sure can’t hurt.

roastchicken

I was roasting a chicken (for another upcoming Everyday Chef topic) and couldn’t just let the remaining meat and bones go to waste. That wouldn’t be wise. Instead, I pulled off the meat that was left on the bones and saved it for the soup. I then broke up the bones a bit and browned them in a little oil in a large pot. I added a few vegetables I had hanging around – onion, carrot, celery – with a bunch of thyme and covered the contents in water. The pot was left to simmer – not boil, for a couple of hours. Sure, it’s a little time intensive, but not effort. I let this simmer while I did other things. Afterwards, I drained out the solids (you don’t want to use the vegetables or bones directly for the soup at this point, all the flavor has already been drained) and had about four quarts of one nice stock.

broth

Once you have your stock ready to go you’re all set for the soup. If you aren’t using your soup right away the stock can store for about a week in the fridge and a couple of months in the freezer. The longer you let it set, however, the less flavor it will have.

Or, if you’re using broth from the store – that’s fine too. But what’s the difference between stock and broth anyway?

  • Stock is made primarily with the bones, as described. It tends to have a richer taste and texture.
  • Broth is made primarily with the meat and this is typically what you find in stores. And it is really easy to enhance store bought broth. Just simmer it with some cut up vegetables for however long you have.

chickensoupvegetables

Chicken Soup with Rice

As always, use this recipe as a loose guide. I like my soup heavy on the veggies and in this case, low on the meat. I used rice here, but any grain or pasta can work. I would suggest cooking separately and adding in at the end to avoid having it plump up and take over your soup. Make it how you like.

2 Tbsp olive oil
2 onions, chopped
3 carrots, chopped
2 stalks celery, chopped
1 – 2 cups of other favorite vegetables, chopped (optional – I used turnips and rutabega)
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 bay leaf
2 quarts chicken broth or stock
small bunch of thyme
1 cup + chopped, cooked chicken
kosher salt
small bunch of parsley, chopped
lemon juice
2 cups cooked rice or other grain

Start cooking your rice, grain or pasta separately as you would typically to make two cups.

In a large pot, saute the onions, celery, carrot, garlic and other vegetables with the bay leaf. Let cook for about ten minutes and season with salt, to your liking. When everything is mostly tender, pour in the broth or stock with the thyme. Simmer for 20 minutes, tasting and stirring once in a while. Add the chicken and simmer 5 minutes more. If you have some additional, frozen veggies you want to mix in, like corn, this is a good point to do so. Add a splash of lemon juice – this really helps bring out the flavor – and the parsley. Stir. Adjust seasoning, if needed. Turn off the heat. Ladle the soup into bowls and mix some rice into each.