Healthy Treat: Dark Chocolate-Covered Apples

Dark Chocolate-Covered Apples

Okay, I know what you’re thinking: Chocolate-covered apples for lunch? I get it — they’re not exactly brown-bag material. But after an amazing day at the pumpkin and apple farm, it seemed like the right thing to do.  I melted dark chocolate baking chips in a make-shift double boiler and started dipping. I let them rest on parchment paper in the fridge until the chocolate was set. The next day, I cut the apples and packed a couple of slices in her lunch bag. They were a hit!

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On This Week’s Menu: Roasted Pumpkin & Apple Soup

Roasted Pumpkin & Apple Soup

Ingredients

4 lbs fresh pumpkin (two small) peeled, seeded and cut into chunks
4 large Granny Smith apples, unpeeled, cut into quarters
1 cup onion, chopped
6 cups fat free chicken broth (I used Pacific brands, which is lower in sodium)
1 cup low-fat plain Greek yogurt
2 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
2 tbsp chopped fresh herbs (sage is better, but I had thyme)
1 tsp nutmeg
1/2 tsp ground cardamom (ginger would also be good)
2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp freshly ground pepper

Instructions

Toss together pumpkin, apples, onions, olive oil, 1 teaspoon salt, and pepper and spread evenly onto a baking sheet. Roast, mixing once, for 30 minutes.

Add in herbs, mix again, and continue roasting until very tender and starting to brown, about 15 to 20 minutes more.
Transfer to a Dutch oven and add one or two cups of broth. Use a hand blender to smooth, adding more broth as you blend.
Add in yogurt, cardamom, nutmeg and remaining salt and heat through over medium-low heat, stirring constantly for about 5-7 minutes.

LUNCH TIP: I found the soup was even better the second day — the apple really came through and the overall flavor was more balanced. It ended up being more dense than I wanted so I added more stock to thin it out (you could even use water without sacrificing flavor).

What’s your favorite fall soup?

Love,

The Lunch Lady

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

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

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