The Secret to Moist, Reheat-able Meatballs (Psst…They’re Perfect for School Lunches)

Spaghetti and Chicken Meatballs
Hot lunch: A slightly messy thermos of spaghetti and chicken meatballs

Last week, the kid and I made a tray of chicken meatballs for school lunches. It turns out that working with raw poultry is a preschoolers’ dream — so many opportunities to wash your hands!  While I’m a former vegetarian and often choose veggies (and, yes, I admit it, carbs) over meat a lot of the time, my daughter is all carnivore, just like her dad. The only thing that trumps meat in her personal codex of dietary laws is chocolate, which reminds me that I really should order mole next time we go out for Mexican.

When my in-laws were in town a few weeks ago, I made a big pasta dinner  — and I struck meatball gold with a recipe I came up with based on what I had in the fridge. I prefer to use ground chicken or turkey in my meatballs, but the meat often dries out because it’s so lean so I improvised a little. The secret to these amazingly light, moist, reheat-able meatballs is the combination of three simple ingredients I always have on hand: milk, bread, and pesto. Here’s my recipe for foolproof chicken or turkey meatballs that are as easy as they are delicious:

Chicken or Turkey Meatballs
1 pound ground lean chicken or turkey
2 slices of whole grain bread, torn into bits
1/2 cup of milk (whatever you have — skim, 2%, whole)
2 cloves of garlic, minced
1 small onion, diced
1 Tbsp pesto
1 Tsp olive oil
1/4 Tsp salt
A few turns of fresh cracked pepper

Chicken Meatballs
Chicken meatball supply is quickly being siphoned off by Dad

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Ask your kid to make a (controlled) mess by tearing up both slices of whole grain bread into tiny pieces in a small-to-medium size bowl. Pour the milk over the bread until every piece is coated; set aside for 15 minutes to allow the bread to absorb the milk. Add 1 Tsp of olive oil to a skillet on medium heat. Add garlic and onion and cook until golden brown. In a large bowl, combine ground meat with the bread mixture, prepared pesto, onions, and garlic. Use a spatula or your hands to incorporate all of the ingredients into the meat. Shape mixture into 20-24 small meatballs and place 1 inch apart on lightly greased baking sheet.

Bake uncovered 18 to 22 minutes or until no longer pink in center.

I serve them with what I call my “basic marinara” — one can of San Marzano crushed tomatoes, a little sauteed garlic or onion, salt and pepper. If I have pesto on hand, I’ll throw that in, too. Pesto is one of my favorite flavor short cuts and just having a little jar of in the fridge inspires me to use it in everything from pasta to rice to sauces to egg dishes.

What’s your favorite flavor shortcut?

Love,

The Lunch Lady

Snack Attack: Healthy Pumpkin “Pop Tarts”

Healthy Pumpkin "Pop Tarts"
Healthy Pumpkin “Pop Tarts”

I can’t believe I’m even typing this. Just last week, I was the person complaining that dreaded “pumpkin spice season” is starting way too early. That said, the kid is going to to her first pumpkin farm field trip next week and I have a can of pumpkin burning a year-old hole in the pantry. Plus, I need snacks for school and activities to keep the kid busy so here I am. While these little snacks are technically a dessert, they’re pretty low in sugar and super-simple to make for school lunches and snacks  … so why not now? (Plus, who am I kidding? I love Halloween…)

Pumpkin “Pop Tarts”

For the crust

1 1/4 cup whole wheat pastry flour
1/8 teaspoon salt
7 tablespoons very cold butter

Mix flour with salt in a bowl. Add cold butter and cut in a in food processor. Add 2 to 3 tablespoons ice water, 1/2 tablespoon at a time, until dough forms into a ball. Gather up and pat into a round disc. While you make the filling (see below), cover and refrigerate dough for 30 minutes before rolling out.

For the filling

1 15 oz. can of pumpkin
2 Tbsp of agave nectar, maple syrup, or honey
1/2 Tsp of cinnamon
1/4 Tsp of nutmeg

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. You’ll also need your Halloween cookie cutters — go grab them or a sharp knife to create pumpkin and ghost shapes. In a small bowl, mix together the can of pumpkin, natural sweetener, and spices until incorporated (go ahead and taste it — you might need to adjust the spice and sweetness, depending on your tastes or your child’s). Using cookie cutters, cut multiple shapes (top and bottom) into rolled-out dough. Take one of the “shapes” and spread a thin layer of pumpkin mixture on each and top with the corresponding piece of dough. Crimp each piece together with your hands or a fork until sealed. Place on a cookie sheet and bake for 10-12 minutes or until golden brown.

You’ll probably have some of the pumpkin mixture left over at the end. Don’t throw it away! Stir it into oatmeal or hot cereal in the morning — it’s delicious!

Only 41 more days to Halloween…

Love,

The Lunch Lady

3 Lunch Box Items I’m Obsessed With Right Now

Hey, it's a lunch box that looks like my kid!
Hey, it’s a lunch box that looks like my kid!

My work schedule hasn’t allowed for many lunch box or recipe posts this week, but I’ve been bustin’ a lunch move anyway. Last weekend, I made a batch of whole grain waffles to freeze for breakfasts and cheese sandwiches, along with a vat of chicken and broccoli risotto which has been a big help because I’ve had to work late or get to work early most days this week. On days where I don’t have backup in the freezer or fridge, I rely on my standby — and, frankly, the kid’s favorite — turkey and cheddar cheese kabobs, along with fruit, yogurt, nuts, veggies, and whatever else I can wrestle up.

On those “easy” days, my lunch bags, boxes, and fixins take center stage. It’s like my version of Bedazzling, minus the sequins, grommets, and studs. Here are my three favorite ways to make her school lunch filling and just a little bit fancy:

  • Personalized lunch box: I’m a huge fan of sarah + abraham and have ordered everything from water bottles to art prints from them over the last few years. This summer, they started offering customized lunch boxes — they’re super lightweight and come with a built-in chalk board for daily lunch box love notes.

    Ballerinas eat lunch
    Ballerinas eat lunch, too (I think)
  • Meri Meri cupcake kits: I use all sorts of cupcake liners and picks to pack lunches, but Meri Meri is my favorite. They stock evergreen items like these ballet-themed sets, but also have the best Halloween, Christmas, and Easter party supplies as well. I use the cupcake picks to create the much-adored turkey and cheese kabobs (or just poked into sandwiches for a bit of fun) and the baking cups to keep dry items like nuts, carrots, and other sides in place in the lunch box. (Knock on wood, my kid hasn’t stabbed anyone at school with the toothpick — yet).
  • Reusable napkins: Truth be told, I could be a better citizen of the planet. Yes, I recycle, use reusable cups (um, except for the cupcake variety, see above) and shut off lights when I’m not in the room (okay, I’m not very good at that), but I could do more. When I found Funkins, it was so easy to ditch the paper napkins — the adorable patterns and fun colors punch
    Funkin napkins
    Bento cuteness!

    up any lunch, even when this mom phones it in (hello, PB&J!).

That’s all I’ve got for tonight. What do you do to Bedazzle your boxes?

Love,

The Lunch Lady

10-Minute Roasted Cauliflower Soup

Shivering under a light blanket this morning, I was certain it was officially fall. It was 50-something degrees and didn’t seem to be getting any warmer — even as it got closer to noon. I could feel the call of hibernation deep in my bones — that yearly, seasonal pull to stay home, cook, bake, and live out my domestic fantasies (those fantasies that seem to drop, along with my mop and broom, as soon as the mercury rises). Alas, it ended up being 75 degrees and the pull of an outdoor restaurant on the water (with seafood, beer, friends, and a sandpit for the kids) was stronger. Still, I know fall is coming and when it does, this cauliflower soup recipe from Sweet Paul will be there. I’ll probably swap the cup of cream for Greek yogurt to take it from a weekend treat to a weekday lunch, but it will be good just the same. Until then, I’ll enjoy the last of the Jersey peaches, roasted corn, clams, Brooklyn Summer Ale, and the sun on my face.

Roasted Cauliflower Soup
Photo Credit: Dana Gallagher

Serves 4

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 onion, finely chopped
1 cauliflower, broken into pieces
3 cups chicken stock
1 cup cream
salt and pepper

  1. Start with the toast, use a cookie cutter and cut out stars from toasted bread.
  2. Preheat oven to 380F.
  3. Place onion and cauliflower in a large oven proof dish and drizzle with olive oil.
  4. Sprinkle with some salt and pepper.
  5. Roast until golden.
  6. Place the cauliflower and onions in a large pot and add stock.
  7. Bring to a boil.
  8. Let it boil 5 minutes, add stock and season with salt and pepper.
  9. Pure in a blender and serve with a toasted star, a little olive oil and some pepper.

Recipe: Sweet Paul 

The Sunday Dinner That Keeps On Giving

Guess what? 1 whole chicken can = 5 great lunches for kids

I know about whole chickens and their magical ability to provide a Sunday dinner, plus several dishes later in the week. Sometimes on a particularly hectic weeknight, a store-bought rotisserie chicken is the only healthy thing standing in the way of me and a frantic call to Chinese takeout joint. Still, I need to be reminded about the power of the chicken every once in a while.

As part of our Brown Bag Challenge at Everyday Health, Melissa d’Arabian blogged about her favorite ways to use one whole chicken to make five work lunches for the rest of the week. There are some great ideas here for kids, too. My favorite is the Slow Cooker Tortilla Soup, which essentially make itself and cooks while I’m work — how magical is that?

Slow Cooker Tortilla Soup
Slow Cooker Tortilla Soup / Photo credit: Ben Fink

It got me thinking about other things I could do with a whole chicken that would be perfect for Lady M’s lunch box. Here are four more ideas I know my daughter will love. A couple of these ideas include pasta — particularly spaghetti noodles — so it might be a good idea to make a pound of pasta while the chicken’s in the oven.

Vietnamese Chicken Salad: Shredded chicken, chopped mint, shredded carrots, shredded cabbage, thinly sliced onion (more for flavor than bulk), the juice of one small lime, and a tiny bit of agave syrup for sweetness. Let sit in the fridge overnight and add a sprinkle of chopped peanuts before packing in a thermos.

Sesame Noodles With Chicken: Boil spaghetti noodles, coat with a 1/4 cup of peanut butter, 2 Tbsp. of sesame seeds, then add shredded chicken. I try do this when the noodles are still warm so it “melts” the peanut butter. I’ll probably sprinkle some chopped cilantro or green onion on top, which she will promptly pick off.

Cheesy Chicken Quesadillas: This one is so simple you can prepare it in the morning before school starts. Grab a whole-wheat tortilla, fill with shredded chicken, mashed black beans or avocado, and shredded cheese. Fold the quesadilla over and toast in a toaster oven or “grill” in a frying pan with a small amount of oil. Cut into triangles and pack it up.

Chicken and Cheese Pesto Noodles: Similar to my pasta dish last Sunday, the hardest thing about this dish is boiling the noodles. Just add a Tbsp. of pesto, shredded chicken, and some grated cheese to the pasta and you’re good to go (er, pack).

What are your favorite ways to use up a whole chicken?

Love,

The Lunch Lady

Hey Moms, Up Your Brown Bag Skills With This Easy Trick!

Hearty fruit salad
Hearty fruit salad

It’s only the second week of school and we’ve been felled by the flu — or some other kind of school-borne illness (did I mention she’s only been back for 4 days?). Since both Lady M and I are both sick, I have the patience for just 5 minutes of “extra” tonight. As a result, I’m dusting off this fruit salad with yogurt dip for tomorrow’s lunch. I’ll use the seasonal stuff from the fridge: cantaloupe (you need a large firm fruit to make the hearts), peaches, and apples. Lady M likes plain Greek yogurt with a splash of agave (as shown), but you could use any prepared yogurt your child likes for the dip.

Love,

The Lunch Lady