It’s only the third day of school and if you’re already struggling with ideas for school lunches, don’t feel bad. It happens. And stay away from Pinterest. The last thing you need is to be shamed by lunches that look like SpongeBob and Patrick complete with marshmallow eyes with black olive pupils. Do you really have time for that? And who wants to eat marshmallows with olives anyway?
No one knows better than you what your child likes and doesn’t like. Start from there. If your kids loves pasta salad and thinks pesto is cool, that’s a great lunch. You can even pack some for your own lunch while you’re at it if you have a tendency toward sad desk lunches. But if your child has never eaten pesto, don’t pack it in a lunch and risk a cafeteria meltdown. Try it at home first.
So while keeping it simple, keep it interesting also. Use paper or foil muffin tin liners to separate different foods and create visual interest. A container with separate compartments helps to keep things separate. Ziploc divided containers are airtight and leak-proof and do a great job of keeping separate food separate. LunchBots are those cool stainless steel divided containers you see on the Internet. Very cool looking but pricey; they start at about $14.99.
Keeping lunch colorful also keeps it healthy. Kids learn to eat their colors so make sure your child’s lunch is colorful. Write inspirational or silly notes on a paper napkin, if that’s your style. Most importantly, keep it fresh. change things up. Before your kid gets tired of sandwiches, make wraps for a few days.
When you make homemade soup for dinner, freeze eight ounce portions of it. Move one to the freezer the night before, heat it in the morning and pour into a Thermos for a hot component.
Most kids don’t have a long time to eat at school so keep it simple. Lots of finger foods are usually a good idea; cherry tomatoes, baby carrots, olives, fruit, pretzels, stuff your children will munch down on while talking to their friends. And when in doubt, pretty much everybody likes mac and cheese, especially when it’s in the form of a muffin you can hold in your hand to eat.
Mac and Cheese Muffins
50 Ritz crackers, pulsed finely in food processor
2½ cups (10 ounces) cheddar cheese, shredded and divided
4 tbsp. unsalted butter, melted
8 oz. elbow macaroni
2 tbsp. unsalted butter
½ cup milk
¼ cup sour cream
¼ tsp. salt
8 strips bacon, cooked to crispy and pulsed in food processor
⅓ cup chives, finely diced
First, prepare cracker crust. Preheat oven to 350°F. Butter muffin tin and set aside. In large bowl, combine crushed Ritz crackers, 1 cup shredded cheddar and melted butter, mixing well until mixture sticks together and resembles wet sand. Fill muffin cups with mixture, and using your fingers, press crust firmly into bottoms and halfway up sides of each muffin cup. Cook pasta in large pot of salted, boiling water. Cook pasta for about 6 minutes (or until al dente), rinse and pour into large bowl. Immediately add remaining 1 cup shredded cheddar and butter. Mix well until thoroughly coated. In separate medium-sized bowl, combine eggs, milk, sour cream and salt, and mix well. Pour egg mixture into macaroni, mixing until everything is thoroughly combined. Add in bacon bits and chives and mix well. Using cookie scoop or small spoon, fill each muffin cup with 2-3 tablespoons of macaroni mixture. Top each muffin cup with additional cheddar and chives. Bake for 20-25 minutes, or until lightly golden on top. Let cool for at least 10-15 minutes before removing from muffin pan. Use fork or butter knife to gently loosen outer edges of each mac and cheese muffin and gently remove from muffin pan.
Pizza wrap sandwiches
2 flour tortillas
3 tbsp. spaghetti sauce
1 cup shredded mozzarella or Italian cheese blend
Preheat oven to 400°F. Spray tortilla wraps with olive oil cooking spray. Place tortillas on a cookie sheet on the center rack of the oven. Bake 5 minutes, just to toast the tortillas slightly. Spread 1-1/2 tbsp. spaghetti sauce on each tortilla. Top with cheese and Italian seasoning. Return tortilla wraps to oven. Bake 5-7 minutes, until cheese is melted, golden and bubbly. Remove tortillas from the oven. Let cool 2 minutes, then fold over edges to form wrap sandwiches. Serve pizza sandwich wraps immediately, or wrap in foil and put in an insulated lunch container to keep warm or let cool completely and wrap to serve as a cold lunch.
Pesto Pasta Salad
½ lb. Rotini pasta
2 medium cucumbers, peeled and chopped
½ red bell pepper, chopped
½ yellow bell pepper, chopped
½ orange bell pepper, chopped
½ cup grape or cherry tomatoes
1 stalk celery, chopped
½ cup black olives, chopped
½ cup green olives, chopped
1-2 cups pesto (recipe below or purchase)
¼ cup pine nuts
fresh arugula to plate
very light drizzle of extra virgin olive oil (optional)
Cook pasta according to package instructions and cook to al dente. Rinse and allow to cool slightly. In a large mixing bowl, mix together the cooled pasta with all of the chopped veggies. Mix in the pesto until everything is well coated, sprinkle on the pine nuts and mix again gently. Serve on a bed of fresh baby arugula. Hit with a very light dash of extra virgin olive oil if desired.
You can leave out or reduce pepper if your kids don’t like it. For kids with nut allergies, just leave them out.
2 cups packed fresh baby arugula
1 cup packed fresh basil leaves
2 cloves garlic
¼ cup pine nuts and/or walnuts
1-1½ cups extra-virgin olive oil
½ – 1 cup freshly grated (or chunks) of Parmesan
Kosher salt, to taste
Combine the arugula, basil, garlic, and nuts in a food processor and pulse until coarsely chopped. With the processor running, slowly pour the olive oil into the bowl through the feed tube and process until the pesto is thoroughly combined. Add the Parmesan and pulse until well combined. Season with salt.
Cheesy pretzel dippers
This is a clever, child friendly presentation that doesn’t take all day.
8 ounces medium cheddar
16 thin pretzel sticks
honey Dijon mustard or ranch dressing
Cut cheese into 16 cubes. Let stand 10 to 15 minute or until cheese is at room temperature. Insert a thin pretzel stick into each cube. Serve with Honey Dijon Mustard or your child’s favorite dressing.
Quick easy homemade granola bars
Not just for lunch. These would be great for breakfast or snacks as well.
2 cups rolled oats
1/2 cup shredded coconut
1/2 cup honey
2 tbsp. creamy peanut butter
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1/8 tsp. salt
Preheat oven to 325°F. Grease a 9-inch square baking dish. Spread the oats and coconut evenly across a baking sheet. Toast oats and coconut in preheated oven until browned, about 10 minutes; transfer to a large mixing bowl. Mix honey, peanut butter, vanilla extract, and salt in a saucepan over medium-low heat. Cook and stir until smooth. Pour the honey mixture over the oats and coconut; stir to coat. Spread the mixture evenly into the prepared baking dish. Bake in preheated oven until beginning to dry, about 15 minutes for crunchy granola bars, less if you like them chewy. Cool completely before cutting.
whole wheat wrap
Mash an avocado with lemon juice, then spread on a whole wheat wrap. Top with crumbled bacon, halved cherry tomatoes, and thinly sliced romaine lettuce. Roll up and wrap in parchment or wax paper to secure.
Black bean and rice salad
Good main dish for vegetarians or you could add a little shredded cooked chicken breast if you’d like.
1 cup long grain brown rice
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 Cubanelle chile or Italian frying pepper, trimmed and cut in 1/3-inch dice
1 medium red onion, finely chopped
3 garlic cloves, smashed, peeled and minced
2 cups freshly cut white corn kernels (from 2 ears) or 1 box (10 ounces) frozen corn, thawed
1 tsp. kosher salt
1 15oz. can black beans, rinsed well and drained
1 tbsp. distilled white vinegar
Freshly ground black pepper
Bring a medium saucepan of salted water to a boil. Add the rice and cook, stirring occasionally, just until tender, about 25 minutes. Drain and rinse well with cold water until cool. Transfer to a large bowl. Heat 2 tablespoons of the oil in the same saucepan over medium heat until hot. Add the chile, onion and garlic and stir until slightly softened, about 3 minutes. Add the corn and salt and cook, stirring, just until heated through, about 1 minute. Transfer the vegetables to the bowl with the rice and toss to mix. Add the beans, the remaining 2 tablespoons oil and the vinegar and toss well. Season with plenty of pepper and toss again. (The rice is cooked in plenty of water, like pasta, so that it stays tender after you cool it off. If your kids like the spicy stuff, include packets of hot sauce in their lunch boxes.)
May be prepared ahead and heated for a breakfast on the go.
6 large eggs
1/3 cup milk
1/2 tsp. kosher salt
1/4 tsp. freshly-ground black pepper
2 tbsp. chopped fresh parsley
1/4 cup chopped pepperoni
3/4 cup shredded cheddar cheese
Preheat oven to 350°F. Spray a mini muffin tin with cooking spray. Whisk together eggs, milk, salt, pepper and parsley. Stir in pepperoni. Divide cheddar cheese among 24 mini muffin cups. Pour egg mixture into a measuring cup with a spout. Pour egg mixture over cheese, filling cups to the top. Bake 10-14 minutes until mini frittatas are puffed and golden brown on top. Remove from oven and cool 5 minutes before serving.
Nominate your favorite cook to share their love of food with readers of The Mount Airy News.
Reach Bill Colvard at 336-415-4699, on Twitter @BillColvard or by email.