By JeanMarie Brownson, Special to Tribune Newspapers
August 8, 2012
Summer always goes too fast. Back-to-school advertisements fill me with mixed emotions: I like the routine, I dread the monotony. A quick calculation tells me we've made more than 4,500 school lunches. Monotonous? With a modicum of imagination, no.
The biggest lesson learned? Make lunches the evening before; there's never enough time in the morning. So after the dinner dishes are done, the kitchen counter transforms into a sandwich shop, with options to customize.
Most lunches brought from home make less waste and cost less than the school cafeteria options, and prove speedier than standing in lines. Perhaps the best reason to fill the lunchbox: It's easier to eat healthy.
With a little encouragement and trial, our kids learned to prefer whole-grain breads, and low-fat cheeses and meats on their sandwiches. As they matured, they actually ate the fresh fruit, cut vegetables and homemade, higher-fiber, lower-sugar cookies.
Getting the kids involved at an early age helps. My son loves to build sandwich masterpieces — his PB&A (peanut butter and apple butter) on cinnamon-raisin bagels got him through middle school. His salami and cream cheese just might be his all-time favorite lunchbox sandwich; we made it at least once a week throughout high school.
At the beginning of the week, we assemble nibbles into small reusable containers. Bagging your own crackers, popcorn, mini-pretzels and rice cakes proves more economical than store-bought snack bags. Fruit and vegetable grab bags might include mixing dried fruit with cherry tomatoes, baby carrots, grapes or celery sticks. I pile the bags into a larger container in the pantry or fridge for everyone to grab as they fill their lunch bag.
Kids always enjoy dipping their food — who doesn't — so we purchased reusable, resealable plastic bowls with covered sections for dips. Ideas to fill the dip area include honeyed yogurt, dilled hummus, mild salsa and low-fat spinach dip. The other section can hold mini-pita breads, sliced apples (sprinkled with lemon juice to prevent browning), sliced and peeled carrots, cucumber and jicama.
Two secrets to avoid soggy sandwiches: assemble them on frozen bread slices and pack the garnishes separately. The bread thaws during transport, and a bag of lettuce, sliced tomatoes, thin cucumbers or pickles can be easily added just before eating.
A quick, highly seasoned topping, such as the curried carrot recipe that follows, perks up any sandwich or salad. This simple dish takes just five minutes if you use a package of shredded carrots sold in the produce department. It keeps several days in the fridge. Pile it on wheat bread spread with sunflower seed butter for a meatless sandwich.
Salami and cream cheese sandwich
Prep: 10 minutes
Makes: 1 hearty sandwich
Note: Sausage buns or a 5-inch section of a French baguette can be substituted. Split and freeze the pretzel roll in advance so you can build it on the frozen bread and transport it in a lunchbox.
1 oblong pretzel roll, about 5 ounces
2 to 3 tablespoons light cream cheese
1 tablespoon chopped chives or finely chopped drained giardiniera, optional
8 to 10 super-thin slices salami (peppered salami is great here)
2 large romaine lettuce leaves
3 or 4 thin slices of ripe tomato, optional
Split the roll horizontally in half. Spread the cream cheese generously on the bottom. Top with the chives or giardiniera; press it into the cream cheese. Layer the salami over the cream cheese. Spread the mustard on the underside of the top of the roll. Close the sandwich and wrap in plastic. Refrigerate up to 1 day. Pack the lettuce leaves and tomato slices separately in small containers. Add them to the sandwich just before eating.
Per serving: 654 calories, 13 g fat, 5 g saturated fat, 51 mg cholesterol, 102 g carbohydrates, 35 g protein, 1,609 mg sodium, 7 g fiber.
Sunny carrot sandwiches
Prep: 10 minutes
Makes: 2 sandwiches
Note: I like to add raisins and toasted sesame seeds to this meatless sandwich.
4 thick slices wheat or pumpernickel bread, toasted
2 to 4 tablespoons sunflower seed butter (or almond butter or natural peanut butter)
1 cup super-versatile curried carrots, see recipe
Spread each piece of toasted bread with a smear of the sunflower seed butter. Pile 1/2 cup of the carrots on two of the pieces of bread. Top with a second piece of bread to make a sandwich. Wrap tightly in plastic. Refrigerate up to 1 day.
Per serving: 380 calories, 15 g fat, 1 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 53 g carbohydrates, 13 g protein, 643 mg sodium, 6 g fiber.
Super-versatile curried carrots
Prep: 5 minutes
Cook: 5 minutes
Makes: 3 generous cups
Note: Serve these carrots as a salad or add them to sandwiches. They are also great as a salad topping or stirred into coleslaw or creamy tomato or butternut soup.
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 package (10 ounces) or 4 generous cups thinly shredded or finely julienned carrots
2 large cloves garlic, crushed
½ teaspoon curry powder
¼ teaspoon salt or to taste
2 to 4 tablespoons finely chopped fresh chives or parsley
Heat oil in a large skillet over medium-high. Add carrots; cook and stir until crisp-tender and a little golden, about 3 minutes. Stir in garlic, curry powder and salt. Cook and stir, about 2 minutes. Remove from heat, stir in chives and let cool. Refrigerate covered up to 3 days.
Per serving: 123 calories, 9 g fat, 1 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 10 g carbohydrates, 1 g protein, 260 mg sodium, 3 g fiber.
Prep 5 minutes
Cook 8 minutes
Note: Pack small containers of this cooked chicken to add to salads or sandwiches.
1 pound boneless skinless chicken thighs or chicken breast tenders
1/2 teaspoon each: thyme leaves, salt
¼ teaspoon freshly ground pepper
2 tablespoons olive oil
½ medium red onion, cut into ½ inch pieces
3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1. Cut chicken into 1-inch pieces. Pat dry; sprinkle with thyme, salt and pepper.
2. Heat oil in large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add onion; cook and stir until golden, about 4 minutes. Add chicken in a single uncrowded layer. Cook, stirring once or twice, until golden and cooked through, about 4 to 5 minutes for tenders, or 6 to 7 minutes for thighs. Stir in balsamic during the last minute of cooking.
3. Cool. Refrigerate covered up to 3 days.
Per serving: calories, g fat, g saturated fat, mg cholesterol, g carbohydrates, g protein, mg sodium, g fiber.
Chocolate cherry peanut butter oatmeal cookies
Prep 25 minutes
Cook 12 minutes
Makes about 60 small cookies
Note: Be sure to check for peanut allergies before sharing these cookies at the lunch table.
¼ cup unsalted butter, softened
¾ cup each: granulated sugar, packed dark brown sugar
2 large eggs
1 ¼ teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 cup extra-crunchy natural peanut butter
3 cups old-fashioned rolled oats
½ cup salted, toasted pumpkin seeds (pepitas) or hulled sunflower seeds or peanuts
½ cup dried cherries (chopped if large), dried currants or small dark raisins
8 ounces milk, semisweet or dark chocolate bars, roughly broken into 1/4 inch pieces
1. Heat oven to 350 degrees. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper.
2. Beat together butter and sugars in large bowl of electric mixer. Beat in eggs, one at a time, until smooth and creamy. Beat in baking soda and vanilla. Beat in peanut butter until incorporated. Use a wooden spoon to stir in oats, sunflower seeds, cherries and chocolate pieces.
3. Use a teaspoon to make balls about 1 inch in diameter. Place on prepared baking sheets, about 2 inches apart and flatten slightly with spoon. Bake until set and bottoms are slightly golden, about 12 minutes.
4. Cool cookies on pan for 5 minutes. Transfer with a metal spatula to a wire rack to cool completely. (You can reuse the paper-lined baking sheets to bake the remaining cookies.)
5. Store cookies in a covered container up to several days or freeze up to 2 months.