Happy Meals: Fun fresh ideas for school lunches

Heard the one about being able to lead a horse to water but not make him drink? The same could be said for school lunches.

Pack something your kid doesn't like, or gets mushy or bruised in transit, or doesn't stay hot/cold like it's supposed to, and the nutritious midday meal you stressed over while sleepily gulping coffee just might end up in the trash.

It's enough to drive even seasoned parents crazy.

But pack away we must, because no child should go an entire school day without eating something that's good for them. Study after study has shown that kids do better in class when they refuel with a nutritious meal at lunchtime, which this year for my senior daughters rolls around at 10:30 a.m.

A well-balanced lunch is even more important if your kid is athletic. Kicking a soccer ball or running pyramids at after-school practices burns up calories, so if she's not eating properly at lunchtime, she might not able to keep up. Whereas a sedentary teenaged girl should eat between 1,600 to 1,800 calories per day (2,000 to 2,400 for boys), one who plays sports requires up to 2,400, depending on the length and intensity of her workout. That includes 46 grams of protein each day to grow and develop properly. Active teenaged boys need even more -- between 2,800 to 3,500 calories per day and 58 grams of protein.

So what's the trick in packing a lunch your kid, big or small, will actually eat?

For starters, says J.M. Hirsch, national food editor for the Associated Press, you need to include him in the shopping, prepping and packing.

"The sense of ownership this fosters pays dividends when it comes to getting them to actually eat the food," he writes in his excellent new book "Beating the Lunch Box Blues" (Rachael Ray Books, Sept. 2013, $18).

Mr. Hirsch has lots of other good ideas for packing the perfect school lunch, including swapping pancakes and waffles for bread in sandwiches, and choosing lunchboxes with multiple containers/compartments.

"Having choices makes lunch more interesting," he writes. "It also spurs creativity when you're packing them."

Below, we offer a few kid-chosen and -tested recipes from his book we think your children will love, too. We also explore two other new books that aim to take some of the pressure off packing the perfect school lunch:

• "Best Lunch Box Ever" by Katie Sullivan Morford (Chronicle, July 2013, $24.95).

• "Weelicious Lunches: Think Outside the Lunch Box with More Than 160 Happier Meals" by Catherine McCord (William Morrow, Sept. 2013, $29.95).

Assemble and enjoy!

Chinese tacos

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Kids will love these because they're fun to assemble. That includes my daughters, who are newly minted seniors. Two days into the new school year, and they've asked for it both mornings.

If your kids don't like cashews, substitute peanuts. Or, leave the nuts out altogether and make up the difference with diced red pepper and/or shredded carrot.

  • 1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon hoisin sauce

  • 1 teaspoon soy sauce

  • 1 tablespoon seasoned rice vinegar

  • 1 cup leftover cooked chicken, beef or pork

  • 1/2 cup coarsely chopped mung bean sprouts

  • 1/4 cup finely chopped English cucumber

  • 2 tablespoons chopped roasted cashews or peanuts (I omitted)

  • 1/4 cup shredded carrot or diced pepper (optional)

  • 4 medium crunchy Boston or bibb lettuce leaves

In a medium bowl, whisk together hoisin sauce, soy sauce and rice vinegar. Add chicken, bean sprouts, cucumber, cashews and carrots/peppers and stir until the ingredients are evenly coated with sauce.

Divide chicken mixture between 2 containers and pack the lettuce in 2 other containers.

Makes 2 servings.

-- Adapted from "Best Lunch Box Ever" by Katie Sullivan Morford (Chronicle, Aug. 2013, $24.95)

Chicken Caesar Sandwich

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I made the chicken dinner recipe below and used the leftovers, as per the book, for lunch sandwiches, made with 100-percent whole-wheat flat breads, but you also could stuff the filling into a pita.

For chicken

  • 1 cup all-purpose flour

  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt

  • 1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper

  • 4 eggs

  • 3 tablespoons Dijon mustard

  • 4 cups panko breadcrumbs

  • 2 teaspoons chili powder

  • 4 1/2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken breasts


For sandwiches

  • 4 whole-wheat flour tortillas or pita breads

  • Bottled or homemade Caesar dressing

  • Julienned carrot

  • Lettuce

Heat oven to 375 degrees. Line 2 rimmed baking sheets with foil, then coat them lightly with cooking spray.

In a wide, shallow bowl, mix flour, salt and pepper. In a second bowl, whisk together eggs and mustard. In a third, mix panko and chili powder.

One at a time, lay each chicken breast flat on cutting board. Slice lengthwise into 3 or 4 strips.

One at a time, place each strip in flour, lightly coating both sides. Next, dip tender in the egg, coating it but shaking off any excess. Finally, dip in the panko mixture, coating it evenly. Place finished tender on baking sheet. Repeat with remaining tenders,

Bake for 25 to 30 minutes, until lightly golden.

To make sandwiches, spread 1 to 2 tablespoons dressing down the center of each tortilla or inside each pita. Layer the carrots and lettuce over the dressing. Top each tortilla with 3 or 4 chicken tenders.

Roll the ingredients in each tortilla to form a tight bundle. Cut crossways in half. Wrap well or store in snug containers.

Makes 4 sandwiches.

-- "Beating the Lunchbox Blues" by J.M. Hirsch (Rachael Ray, Sept. 2013, $18)

Oriental Rice Salad

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  • 1/2 cup brown basmati rice

  • 1/2 red bell pepper, seeded and diced

  • 2 scallions, thinly sliced

  • 3 baby corn, quartered

  • 2 tablespoons toasted sunflower and sesame seeds

  • Dressing

  • 1 tablespoon apple juice

  • 2 teaspoons tamari or soy sauce

  • 2 teaspoons rice wine or white wine vinegar

  • 1/2 teaspoon Chinese five-spice powder

  • 1 teaspoon honey

  • 1/2 to 1 teaspoon grated fresh ginger

Put rice in pan with plenty of salted water, bring to a boil and simmer 10 minutes or until cooked. Drain and rinse under cold running water until cold.

Put cooked rice, vegetables and toasted seeds in a bowl.

Mix together the ingredients for the dressing, then pour over the salad, turning it gently until it is well coated.

Serves 2.

-- "The Top 100 Recipes for a Healthy Lunchbox" by Nicola Graimes (Duncan Baird, 2007).

Crunchy Sweet Potato Chips

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My kids never quite jumped on the kale train, but they do love their sweet potatoes. These crunchy chips pack a nutritional punch -- one sweet potato provides 65 percent of the day's requirement of Vitamin A and it's also high in calcium, folate, potassium and beta-carotene. In other words, no guilt!

For more spice, sprinkle with chili powder and cumin before baking. Or experiment with your favorite spice combinations.

  • 2 sweet potatoes, unpeeled

  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil

  • Salt to taste

  • Cooking spray

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Slice potatoes into 1/8-inch-thick "chips" using a knife or mandoline.

Combine potatoes, oil and salt in a bowl or resealable bag and toss to coat. Spray 2 baking sheets with a thin coating of cooking spray and spread potatoes in a single layer.

Bake for 15 to 20 minutes, or until chips start to turn golden. Flip chips and bake for 15 minutes more.

Makes 2 to 3 cups of chips.

-- "Weelicious Lunches: Think Outside the Lunch Box with More Than 160 Happier Meals" by Catherine McCord (Morrow, Sept. 2013, $29.95)

Roasted Carrot Hummus

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Roasting the carrots in this easy, protein-rich hummus recipe adds a caramelly sweetness. This holds up well unrefrigerated, making it perfect for lunch bags. Serve with toasted whole-wheat pitas cut into wedges or your child's favorite fresh vegetables.

  • 3 large carrots, peeled and cut into 1-inch pieces

  • 1 garlic clove

  • 2 teaspoons olive oil

  • 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

  • 15-ounce can chickpeas, drained and rinsed

  • 2 tablespoons lemon juice

  • 2 tablespoons peanut butter, almond butter or tahini (sesame paste)

  • Toasted whole-wheat pitas, cut into wedges

  • Cauliflower, broccoli, cucumbers, pretzel sticks or rice cakes for dipping

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Place carrots and whole garlic clove on baking sheet. Drizzle with olive oil, sprinkle with salt and toss to coat. Roast for 45 minutes, or until carrots are fork tender and starting to caramelize.

Place all ingredients except pitas in food processor and puree until smooth. If it seems a little thick, thin with additional olive oil or hot water, a tablespoon at a time, until desired consistency is reached.

Makes 2 cups.

-- "Weelicious Lunches: Think Outside the Lunch Box with More Than 160 Happier Meals" by Catherine McCord (Morrow, Sept. 2013, $29.95)

Quinoa with Mango and curried yogurt

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This is an oldie but goodie in our household. I love this recipe because few foods can match quinoa's nutritional profile while at the same time knocking your socks off with good taste. A complete protein, quinoa contains all eight essential amino acids, and it's also rich in calcium, iron, fiber and potassium. Perfect for growing bodies.

  • 1/3 cup plain yogurt (I used Greek yogurt, which is creamier than regular yogurt)

  • 1 tablespoon fresh lime juice

  • 2 teaspoons curry powder

  • 1 teaspoon finely grated peeled fresh ginger

  • Salt

  • 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

  • 2 tablespoons vegetable or peanut oil

  • 1 1/3 cups quinoa

  • 1 pound firm but ripe mango, peeled, pitted and cut into 1/2-inch chunks

  • 1 red bell pepper, cored, seeded and cut into 1/4-inch dice

  • 1 jalapeno chile, seeded if desired (for less heat) and minced

  • 1/3 cup chopped fresh mint

  • 1/2 cup salted roasted peanuts, chopped

Whisk together yogurt, lime juice, curry powder, ginger, 3/4 teaspoon salt, and pepper in large bowl. Add oil in a slow stream, whisking until combined.

Rinse quinoa in 3 changes of cold water in a bowl, draining in a sieve between changes. Cook in a 4- to 5-quart pot of boiling salted water (2 teaspoons salt), uncovered, for 10 minutes. Drain in a large sieve and rinse under cold water.

Set sieve with quinoa over a saucepan containing 11/2 inches boiling water, cover with a kitchen towel and the lid, and steam quinoa until fluffy and dry, 10 to 12 minutes.

Toss quinoa with curried yogurt and remaining ingredients in a large bowl. Serve warm or at room temperature. Can be made up to 1 day ahead and refrigerated. Bring to room temperature before serving.

Serves 6 as a side dish, or 4 a main-course salad.

-- "Gourmet Today" (Houghton Mifflin)

Easy pizza cups

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What kid doesn't like pizza? 'Nuf said.

  • 30 frozen mini phyllo shells

  • Shredded mozzarella cheese

  • Pepperoni slices

  • Cherry tomatoes, sliced in half

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Fill cups with shredded cheese, pepperoni and sliced cherry tomatoes. Bake until cheese is melted and lightly browned, 15 to 20 minutes. Let cool and pack.

Makes 30 pizza cups.

-- "Beating the Lunchbox Blues" by J.M. Hirsch (Rachael Ray, Sept. 2013, $18)

Chocolate Chip-Pretzel Cookies

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  • 3/4 cup whole-wheat pastry flour

  • 3/4 cup rolled oats (not quick oats)

  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda

  • 6 tablespoons unsalted butter at room temperature

  • 1/4 cup granulated sugar

  • 1/2 cup firmly packed brown sugar

  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

  • 1 egg

  • 2/3 cup bittersweet or semisweet chocolate chips

  • 1/2 cup salted roasted shelled pistachios

  • 1 1/2 cups salted mini pretzels (preferably whole-grain)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line 3 baking sheets with parchment paper.

In a medium bowl, add flour, oats and baking soda and stir with a fork.

Using an electric mixer on medium speed, in a large bowl, beat together the butter, granulated sugar and brown sugar until creamy, 1 to 2 minutes. Add vanilla and egg, and beat again until smooth, about 30 seconds.

Add chocolate chips and pistachios to dough, and continue beating on low speed until just combined. Add pretzels and beat for another 10 seconds to break them up a little and incorporate them into the dough.

Drop rounded teaspoons of dough about 2 inches apart on the prepared baking sheets.

Bake until cookies are golden brown around the edges, 10 to 12 minutes. Let cool on baking sheets for a few minutes, then transfer to a wire rack to cool completely. Store in an airtight container for up to 5 days in the pantry or up to 2 weeks in the freezer.

Makes about 3 dozen cookies.

-- "Best Lunch Box Ever" by Katie Sullivan Morford (Chronicle, August 2013, $24.95)

American Chop Suey

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In his new book , Associated Press food editor J.M. Hirsch is all about making dishes that will provide leftovers for lunch. One unusual idea: Make Ham and Cheese Muffin Cups for breakfast by coating a muffin tin with cooking spray, pressing a slice of deli ham into each cup, then filling each with an egg, cheese and chopped veggies.

This dish he says can be sent for lunch in an insulated container warm. You can even spoon it onto a bun, a la sloppy Joes, or spoon it into large Boston lettuce leaves for make-your-own lettuce wraps.

  • 1 large yellow onion, chopped

  • 3 red bell peppers, cored and diced (about 3 cups), divided

  • 15-ounce can tomato sauce

  • 1 tablespoon soy sauce

  • 2 teaspoons Italian seasoning

  • 3-ounce package diced pancetta

  • 3 garlic cloves, minced

  • 2 pounds ground bison or lean turkey

  • 14 1/2-ounce can diced tomatoes

  • 2 cups beef broth

  • 12 ounces whole-wheat elbow macaroni

  • Kosher salt and ground pepper

In a blender, combine onion, two-thirds of the diced bell peppers, the tomato sauce, soy sauce and Italian seasoning. Puree until smooth. Set aside.

In a large saucepan over medium-high heat, brown the pancetta for 3 minutes. Add the garlic and remaining bell pepper and saute for 3 minutes. Add the bison and brown, breaking up any large clumps. Add the onion-bell pepper mixture from the blender, the diced tomatoes, broth and pasta.

Bring to a simmer, then cover and cook, stirring occasionally, until the pasta is tender, about 15 to 20 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.

Makes "4 mains plus ample leftovers."

-- "Beating the Lunch Box Blues" by J.M. Hirsch (Rachael Ray, Sept. 2013, $18)

Gretchen McKay: gmckay@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1419 or on Twitter @gtmckay. First Published September 5, 2013 4:00 AM


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