I can't believe it's almost that time of year already when I have to start thinking about packing school lunches.
It's a real challenge to come up with healthy options that my children will actually eat.
At home, I can give my son a sandwich and a little pile of carrot sticks, and he knows he has to eat the carrot sticks if he wants a cookie. At school, it's all packed away in the lunch bag -- so he eats the sandwich and cookie, and the carrots come back home uneaten. I've even tried reducing his lunch to nothing but a sandwich and carrots (or some other fruit or vegetable) in hopes that he'll be hungry enough to eat the darn carrots, but apparently goofing off with friends at the lunch table is more appealing than the carrots. Irritating.
And then there's my daughter. She's great at eating plain fruits and vegetables. A standard lunch bag for her contains two selections of items such as cherry tomatoes, apple slices, cubed melon in a little container, or some peeled and sectioned oranges. But the kid won't eat a sandwich. I send her to school every blessed day with vegetables and Cheez-Its.
So... How the heck do I get these kids to eat a good, balanced lunch at school? I've tried little containers of ranch dressing for dipping (for my son). I've tried pasta salad with veggies in place of sandwiches. For some reason, these have not worked.
However, there is a glimmer of hope. Picnicking over the summer has led me to a couple of fantastic new discoveries.
In desperation one night when we were about to meet some friends at the park, I sliced a loaf of Italian bread in half lengthwise, smeared on a little pizza sauce, layered it with pepperoni slices and grated mozzarella, closed the lid, wrapped the loaf in foil and heated it in the oven. I shoved the loaf in a canvas bag alongside our picnic cooler, and that tempting pepperoni aroma wafted through the minivan all the way to the park. When we got there, I unwrapped the foil and sliced off chunks of sandwich for each family member -- and voila, I discovered that there is, in fact, one type of sandwich that my daughter will eat.
As long as she'll also eat it cold (which is yet to be determined), we've got a school lunch option besides the Cheez-Its.
Meanwhile, I have also found a dipping sauce that my son will lick down with gusto: homemade hummus (see recipe). I can envision lunch bags filled with a little container of hummus and a variety of dippers: pepper strips, cucumber slices, carrot sticks, pita wedges. He has eaten plates loaded up with these options on family picnics this summer; now we'll just have to see if the hummus beats goofing off at the school lunch table.
Readers, here's your chance to sound off about a couple of topics:
• Do you make an unusual sandwich? I asked this question in last week's Food & Flavor when I mentioned my dad's favorite: Peanut butter, Miracle Whip, lettuce and tomato on white bread. What's on your favorite thinking-outside-the-box sandwich?
• Send us your favorite time-saving or labor-saving kitchen tip. Now that the school year is almost upon us, with its typical uptick in activity levels, we could all stand to save a few minutes in the kitchen -- so let's share our wisdom.
If you would like to contribute to either discussion, e-mail your comments to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Include your full name and the section of the city where you live. You may see your comments in an upcoming Food Column. But act quickly -- we might revisit the sandwich topic as early as next week.
Laurel Highlands Garlic Festival: Garlic food samples, speakers, growing tips, live music, play area and cooking demos. 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Aug. 17-18 at Faranda Farm in Hollsopple. $5 ($2 for children 12 and under). 1-814-479-7109.
Ukrainian Festival: Ukrainian foods and baked goods, live performances, collectibles, games. 5 to 10 p.m. Aug. 28-30 and 5 to 11 p.m. Aug. 31 at St. Mary's Ukrainian Orthodox church in McKees Rocks. 412-331-2362.
Western Pennsylvania Mushroom Club: Jeff Berkowitz, owner of New Life Kitchen, demonstrates delicious and nutritious mushroom recipes. 7 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 20, at Beechwood Farms Nature Reserve, Fox Chapel. wpamushroomclub.org.
"Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Growing Figs" Class: 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Aug. 24 or Sept. 14 at Penguin Bookshop in Sewickley; includes guided tour of fig tree gardens in the area. $40 per person; reservations required. italiangardenproject.org.
Peaches with Slow Food Pittsburgh: Learn to make preserved peach halves, peach jam, pickled peaches and peach blackberry soda, plus enjoy a freshly baked peach dessert. 1 to 4 p.m. Aug. 25 at Kaelin Farm Market in Franklin Park. $20 ($15 for students). Bring your own chair. For an invitation, e-mail email@example.com.
Cooking with Beer: Chef Javier Vazquez teaches a beer-based bunch of recipes. 6 to 9 p.m. Aug. 30 at Giant Eagle Market District in Robinson. $45. marketdistrict.com.
Early American Hearth Cooking: Learn to make a variety of dishes using accurate cooking methods for the time period. Aug. 31 at the Old Stone House, Slippery Rock. $25 per person. 724-738-4964 or oldstonehousepa.org.
2 garlic cloves
15- or 16-ounce can chickpeas, rinsed, and drained
Juice of 1 lemon
1/2 cup tahini
1 teaspoon salt, or to taste
1/2 cup (or more) water
Place garlic in a food processor and process until finely minced. Add the chickpeas and process. Then add lemon juice, tahini and salt, and process. Gradually add water until you achieve the desired consistency. Serve with vegetables, pita wedges or other dippers.
-- Adapted from "The Food and Feasts of Jesus" by Douglas E. Neel and Joel A. Pugh (Rowman & Littlefield, 2012)
Rebecca Sodergren: firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @pgfoodevents.