Beyond Miracle Whip and snack packs
Creativity and nutrition in packing school lunches
My mother, amazing cook though she was, did not pack a very good school lunch, at least from a kid perspective. She really didn’t do breakfast at all, and lunch was usually leftovers from dinner the night before. This was in the 80s, before the wonder of celebrity chefs and Food Network-obsessed gourmet kids. I remember being tormented for bringing red pepper strips and (gasp!) a tuna salad sandwich. What I wanted more than anything in the world was to open my lunch box to discover a turkey and Miracle Whip sandwich on soft white bread with the crusts cut off, carrot sticks and maybe, just maybe, a pudding snack pack.
My mother didn’t roll like that. She showed her love with leftover eggplant moussaka, and maybe a slice of semolina olive oil cake with rosemary. Looking back on it, I certainly turned away some fabulous lunches that I would now happily devour. But at the time, my third-grade credibility was way more important than being culinarily open-minded. Once middle school hit and we were allowed free choice in the lunch line, I stopped bringing lunch from home and opted instead for a “meal” of curly fries, soft-serve ice cream and a package of Famous Amos cookies from the cafeteria.
Now as a parent myself, I’m totally on board with Mom’s sensible and frugal strategy of sending leftovers for lunch. Usually leftovers from a home-cooked meal are far more nutritious than a bread and deli meat sandwich.
However, if they don’t get eaten, nothing is gained. Often I repurpose leftovers into a different, more lunch-type meal. Leftover chicken cutlets can be cut into strips and served with a small amount of ketchup or yogurt ranch dip, alongside some fresh veggies and fruit. Steak from dinner the night before reappears in a steak and cheese quesadilla. Whenever I make soup, chili or stew I always package 8-ounce portions in Mason jars and freeze them to send for lunch (make sure there’s a microwave available to rewarm food). It’s so much easier than making sandwiches every morning, and more nutritious to boot.
Breakfast is my biggest mealtime struggle during the school year. Usually, we are halfway to school before I realize that, after getting everyone else fed, I forgot to feed myself. This usually leads to another cup of coffee (if I was lucky enough to actually finish my first cup), followed by a hastily downed English muffin or a sugar-laden pastry to answer the cry of low blood sugar. Ideally, I would start the day with eggs and veggies, but, honestly, getting out a cutting board and skillet is utterly unappealing at 7a.m.
Enter the Breakfast Egg Bake. Essentially a crustless quiche baked in a loaf pan, this make-ahead breakfast keeps well for a week in the fridge. It is baked in a loaf pan, and can be sliced and turned into quick egg sandwiches or simply warmed and topped with salsa for a low-calorie, low-carbohydrate breakfast.
I’ve also been making these delicious whole-wheat banana muffins lately and storing them in the freezer. They thaw best when left out on the counter overnight, and are a cost-effective and nutritious alternative to a drive-thru breakfast pastry.
Good Morning Muffins
These muffins are simple to make and contain no added sugar, making them perfect for school-day breakfasts. Serve with a smear of Neufchâtel cheese for added protein and some fresh whole fruit for a nutritionally balanced meal that will keep little Jimmy full and focused until lunchtime.
• 4 very ripe bananas
• 1 egg
• 1/3 cup neutral oil (such as canola, olive or grapeseed)
• juice from one orange (about ¼ cup)
• 1 teaspoon orange zest
• 1 ½ cup whole-wheat flour
• 1 teaspoon cinnamon
• 1 teaspoon baking soda
• 1 teaspoon baking powder
• ½ teaspoon salt
• ½ cup toasted walnuts or chocolate chips (optional)
Preheat oven to 425 degrees.
Mash the bananas in a medium mixing bowl. Add the egg, oil, orange juice and zest, and mix well to combine. In a separate bowl, whisk together the flour, cinnamon, baking soda, baking powder and salt, then add to the banana mixture. Mix gently to combine, then add nuts or chocolate (if using).
Spoon into muffin tins that have been greased or lined. Insert the muffins into the hot oven, then immediately turn the heat down to 325 degrees. This will help to give the muffins a high, rounded top. Bake for about 18 minutes, until muffins are golden and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean.
Baked muffins freeze well and are best when allowed to thaw at room temperature overnight.
Breakfast Egg Bake
This keeps beautifully in the fridge for up to five days – perfect for making on Sunday and enjoying through the week. Tailor the fillings to suit your preferences.
• 10 eggs
• 2/3 cup plain full fat yogurt
• ½ cup shredded or crumbled cheese of choice
• up to 2 cups cooked vegetables or meats (A perfect way to use leftovers. It’s important that filling ingredients be precooked to prevent a soggy egg bake.)
• Chopped parsley, basil, chives (optional)
• Salt and pepper to taste
• A dash of nutmeg (optional)
• Preheat the oven to 325 degrees.
Line a loaf pan with a piece of greased parchment large enough to completely cover the pan. Arrange your cooked and cooled fillings and cheese (greens, bacon, mushroom and Gruyere is my favorite) in the parchment-lined pan.
Beat the eggs well with the yogurt until fully incorporated. Add the herbs, then season to taste with salt, pepper and nutmeg (if using). Pour the egg mixture over the vegetables and cheese in the pan, then bake in the 325-degree oven for 45-50 minutes, or until the top is golden and the center is set. Check for doneness by depressing a spoon gently into the top of the egg bake. If no liquid egg pools around the spoon, it’s done. Let cool completely before cutting.
Contact Ashley Meyer at Ashley@realcuisine.net.