Stave Off Sandwich Boredom With This Quick Fix

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A new Asian market opened up in my neighborhood a few months ago and I finally ran in to check it out. An hour (and an overflowing cart) later, I came home with frozen mini Chinese buns to add to my lunch arsenal. I ended up dragging them out on a day I needed a quick fix, and threw together a low-rent version of chicken “banh mi.” The kiddo loved it and I used up some leftovers and death-row veggies from the crisper in the process. This might be my version of #winning.

Chicken Banh Mi

2 mini Chinese buns
1 small cucumber
4 baby carrots, shredded or sliced
1/2 shredded chicken
1/2 Tsp. hoisin sauce

Defrost mini buns, slice veggies and chicken, assemble sandwiches, squirt with a little hoisin, and go!

Chicken "banh mi" sandwiches with sesame sticks, apples, and veggies
Chicken “banh mi” sandwiches with sesame sticks, apples, and veggies

(Hello) Kitty Bento Box Lunch

The kid has finally mastered staying upright under the weight of the backpack so I dragged out the PlanetBox this past week. It was  depressingly dreary in the mornings so these photos are a bit drab. The lunches, however, have been a hit!

Kitty Bento Lunch

In this lunch box:

  • Turkey and cheese sandwich (cut with kitty cat cookie cutter)
  • Celery and carrots
  • Apples and pears
  • Edamame
  • Dark chocolate, raisins, and dried cranberries

Here’s to better-looking photos this week!

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

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

5 Healthy Back-to-School Snacks for Kids

Japanese egg molds become bunny eggs!
Ho-hum ovum to hooray!

This school year, my nightly pack-it-up routine has expanded to include two snacks.  I’m trying to make snacks as turnkey as possible by making a list of go-to items I can get from fridge to lunch box rather quickly. That way, I can focus on the main event, which is, of course, LUNCH (said in my best Oprah voice!). Fruit, yogurt, cheese, and cut-up veggies are natural go-to items, but here are some other favorites in rotation at the moment. As I sat down to write this list, I realized that the reason they’re so popular with the kid is because they’re all associated with FUN and LOVE.  And, well, I love that.

  1. Edamame. Is there another healthy snack that’s as delicious and satisfying as edamame? Maybe it’s just me, but edamame really activates the pleasure center in my brain normally reserved for salty/crunchy/bad-for-you things like potato chips. The kiddo loves them, too — and especially loves squirting them out of the pod and popping them into her mouth. They’re available everywhere I shop from Whole Foods to Trader Joe’s to Costco to the regular grocery store so I stock up on whatever’s available at the time — individual snack packs or larger bags that I separate into other containers. I take them out of the freezer the night before, let them thaw in the fridge until morning, and pop ’em into the lunch bag. So easy.
  2. Trail mix. For Take Your Kids to Work Day at Everyday Health, my team and I organized a healthy trail mix bar for the kids. It inspired me to think harder about just packing snacks like Cheddar Bunnies and calling it a day. Now, I mix fun finger foods like snack crackers with nuts, seeds, dried fruit, cacao nibs, and coconut chips (they’re SO good!) to even out the nutritional profile a bit. She loves the variety and I like finding new items to add to our make-shift trail mix bar at home.
  3. Popcorn. The addition of popcorn to a Friday night movie takes the weekend from ho-hum to hooray for my kid. She loves adding the popcorn kernels to the oil (safely, of course) and then waiting for that tell-tale pop-pop-pop to happen. We love to experiment with different herbs, oils, and toppings. Parmesan cheese is the current favorite, but I’m trying to get her out of her comfort zone. Mexican Lime is on my list of toppings to try.
  4. Muffins. Muffins are for Mommy-and-me time at my house. Lady M and I have gotten so good at finding ways to make our muffins healthier from adding brown bananas to cut sugar to Greek yogurt and black beans to cut the fat. But we’re not Nazi about it — we swap out so we can swap in. That way, there’s nothing standing the way of our muffins and a few delicious chocolate chips. We experiment with whatever’s on hand or in season. Last week, we went raspberry picking so we made raspberry and dark chocolate mini muffins (using up some sad-looking bananas from the fruit bowl for the win!). We gave a bunch to her new teachers and froze the rest for lunches for the weeks ahead.
  5. Bunny eggs. I bought Japanese egg molds back when she was a toddler as a way of getting out of making scrambled eggs every morning. You boil the eggs, allow them to cool, and then press the whole egg into an adorable shape. “Bunny Eggs” have been breakfast stars ever since! Now that she’s eating two snacks at school, I’m adding Bunny Eggs to the snack-time mix as well. With the edamame and the egg, I like the fact that she’s getting at least one protein-packed snack per day that isn’t processed or complicated.

Now that I’ve got this list to refresh my memory when mommy brain strikes, I have another problem to solve. This morning, the kid almost toppled over under the weight of  a backpack full of lunch, snacks, and her water bottle. 30 pounds of  preschooler + 8 pounds of food and food accoutrement = oy vey. If anyone has any ideas on now to lighten the load, let me know. My friend Nicole over at The Humble Larder, reminded me of wax paper and paper bags last night. I’m placing my right order now.

What are your favorite school snacks?

Love,

The Lunch Lady

Back to Brown Bagging: Cheesy Chicken and Kale Pasta

First day of school
First day of school: Reunited and it feels so good

Lady M went back to school this week. Her nerves were a bit frayed because she’s going to a new school and a lot of her friends have been scattered to the school district winds. The snapshot to the right captured her and a friend in a very relieved and heartfelt embrace. It was a short, but emotional week.

It was also incredibly hot so I stuck to easy things like Applegate Farms turkey breast and Cabot cheddar cheese kabobs and chicken fried rice (inspired by one of Weelicious’ blogs), along with fruit, veggies, and some muffins we made from raspberries we picked on vacation the week before. Today, we foraged at the farmers market in the park for fixings for the week. We ended up with corn, peaches, kale, green beans, red bell pepper, cucumbers, bread, and some gorgeous wildflowers.

Farmers' Market Booty (+ Baby Doll)
Farmers’ market booty (+ baby doll)

We had ambitious lunch plans for today. I woke up imagining a seamless, get-it-all-done-on-Sunday assembly line. The park had other ideas. We stopped to take a free yoga class, hung out with friends on the playground, and took a stroll around the pond. Along the way, we completely forgot about our lunch plans so we had to quickly improvise when we got home.

I had just a few minutes to throw together today’s lunch, which will eventually get thrown into a thermos this week.

Cheesy Chicken & Kale Pasta With Red Pepper Sticks
Cheesy Chicken & Kale Pasta With Red Pepper Sticks

Pasta with Chicken Sausage, Wilted Kale, and Romano Cheese

1 box of whole wheat pasta
2 chicken sausages, precooked
1 Tbsp. pesto
1 bunch of kale, chopped
1/4 cup Romano cheese (or any other good hard cheese you have on hand)
Salt and pepper to taste

While the pasta was boiling, I threw the two chicken sausages under the broiler until they were done. I quickly trimmed and chopped the kale and sautéed it in 1 tsp of olive oil until wilted. Then, I cut the sausage links into bite-sized pieces and set them aside. The last thing to do was to drain the pasta, return it to same pot, add the pesto, the chicken sausage, wilted kale, and stir! I served it with a sprinkle of grated cheese (and then a little bit more — the girl likes her grated cheese!).

It makes about 7-to-8 servings for the preschool set. If you want to tone down the carbs, you can mix up the proportions so it’s not so pasta heavy. To accompany my less-than-svelte physique, my lunch featured more kale than pasta (cue the sad trombone).

It really needed a pop of color so I served it with bell pepper strips. If I had my s%Zt together, they’d be in the pasta dish. Better luck next time.

Join me over at Recipe Rehab for the Brown Bag Challenge this week. We’ll be sharing great lunch ideas and giving away fabulous prizes.

Love,

The Lunch Lady