AUSTIN, Texas – Are your children’ lunch boxes ready?
Unless you are among the lucky parents whose children love the school lunch or are bold enough to ask your children to make their own school lunches you face the daily task of putting together a lunch that your children will actually eat.
Two new cookbooks take totally different approaches to solving this all-too-familiar problem.
We’ll start with “Weelicious Lunches: Think Outside the Lunch Box with More Than 160 Happier Meals” (William Morrow Cookbooks, $29.99), by Catherine McCord, a pretty traditional kid-focused cookbook aimed at parents of the younger set.
McCord, a former television host who founded weelicious.com about six years ago, has two preschool children. Unlike her website, which focuses on baby and toddler food and some family meals, her second cookbook is aimed at helping school-age children expand their palates and enjoy a wider variety of foods at lunch.
Think jam-filled breakfast bars, cinnamon pita chips, homemade fruit leathers, tomato soup with grilled cheese croutons, pancake PB&Js, hummuses – or would it be hummi? – made out of roasted carrots, avocados and black beans, and a trio of banana sandwiches.
Here’s how she introduced one of her creations:
“Have you ever thought about how many peanut butter and something sandwiches you’ve made for your children? I lost count about two years ago. To alleviate the monotony of day-in, day-out sammie making, I started whipping up these Banana Dog Bites. Kenya couldn’t stop laughing the first time I asked him, ‘You wanna make banana dogs?’ He just kept shrieking, ‘What’s a banana dog? That’s so silly!’ But he loved spreading the nut butter on the tortillas, peeling the banana, laying it in its ‘tortilla bed’ (that got another big laugh), and rolling it up so the banana could ‘sleep tight’ (still more giggles). Then I simply sliced the banana dogs into adorable half-inch sushi-style pieces and sent him off to school with them. But it wasn’t until his lunch box came home totally empty that I realized just how yummy they were.”
McCord also tackles food allergies by offering tips about using nonallergenic substitutes, and she includes a chart for all the recipes in the book to indicate which are gluten-, dairy-, egg- and nut-free.
If you’re looking for healthier-than-usual recipes for muffins, cookies, bars and even baked doughnuts for birthday parties and school celebrations, this book is also for you.
On the other end of the spectrum is “Beating the Lunch Box Blues: Fresh Ideas for Lunches on the Go!” (Rachael Ray Books, $18), by J.M. Hirsch, the food editor of The Associated Press who on the first page of his new book decries what he calls the “lunch box cookbook.”
“If you’re one of those people who somehow finds the time to craft sandwiches into cutesy animals, or carve cheese into flowers and hearts ... congratulations! And good luck with your therapy. Now go away,” he writes.
I love Hirsch’s recipes and his 2010 cookbook “High Flavor, Low Labor,” but he actively avoids traditional recipes in this photo-centric “un-cookbook,” which was inspired by Hirsch’s lunchboxblues.com blog that he started a few years ago to chronicle the lunches he made for his now 9-year-old son, Parker.
Hirsch is very much a realist about how most parents put together lunches for their children and themselves: by mixing and matching whatever’s already in the fridge into something that you don’t dread eating a few hours later.
His better tips include making too much dinner so that you purposefully have leftovers to work with and using a Thermos to keep food, even nonsoups such as scrambled eggs or steamed broccoli, warm. These go a long way in keeping your lunches fresh.
He also includes about 30 recipes for extra-large dinners with plenty of ideas for how to turn the extra food into something else the next day. Five-spice pot roast becomes a roast beef sandwich. Fettuccine with pesto and chicken is the starting point for a grilled cheese-and-pesto sandwich.
This is a technique that I, as a leftovers lunch-eater myself, can appreciate, but my children aren’t the kinds of eaters who will go for a sweet pepper and white bean salad or hoisin-glazed meatloaf sandwich made with extras from last night’s dinner.
Adults battling the lunch box blues might get more out of Hirsch’s book than their children, but it’s also a good buy for middle and high school students with evolving palates.
Banana Dog Bites
1/4 cup peanut butter or al-mond or sunflower butter
2 bananas, peeled
Place 1 tortilla on a flat surface and spread 2 tablespoons of peanut butter on the tortilla to coat it evenly. Place one whole banana near the edge of the tortilla and roll it up. Slice the banana dog into 1/2-inch rounds. Repeat to make a second banana dog and serve.
From “Weelicious Lunches” by Catherine McCord.
Penne With Sausage And Broccolini
12-ounce box penne pasta
2 pounds loose sausage meat
1 large yellow onion, diced
1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
2 bunches broccolini (about 1 pound total), roughly chopped (see cook’s note)
14-ounce can artichoke hearts, halved
1 1/2 cups grated Parmesan cheese
Kosher salt and ground black pepper
Cook’s note: Regular broccoli florets, baby spinach (reduce the cooking time) or even peas can be substituted.
Bring a large saucepan of salted water to a boil. Add the pasta and cook for 5 minutes. Set the pot aside off the heat. Do not drain.
Meanwhile, heat a large saute pan over medium-high. Add the sausage, onion and pepper flakes and brown for 8 minutes or until the meat is nearly cooked. Add the broccolini and saute for another minute. Add the artichoke hearts and saute for another minute.
Using a slotted spoon, transfer the pasta from the cooking water to the saute pan. It’s OK to get some of the water; this helps form the sauce. If your pan is not large enough to accommodate everything, you can combine everything in a large bowl. Stir in the Parmesan cheese until melted. Season with salt and pepper.
Makes four servings, plus leftovers.
From “Beating the Lunch Box Blues” by J.M. Hirsch.