School Packed Lunch Menus

School lunches have caused much frustration in our household. Simply being vegetarian makes it almost impossible for the girls to eat the lunches offered by the schools. Certainly getting any variety in their meals would simply not happen, so I pack lunches for them.

So, what foodstuffs are child friendly, vegetarian, dairy free, non-junk, portable, and still appetizing by the time they’ve sat in a backpack (along with all the jostling that those bags get) for 4 or 5 hours? I also have a preference for preparing gluten free lunches, so that I can check flavors and avoid contaminating my kitchen with items that will have a noticeably adverse effect on my system. The girls both like cashews, candied pecans, candied walnuts, cranberries, dried blueberries, and raisins, and they can eat them at break time or on the bus home. Dried fruit and nuts also have the advantage of not going to waste or going rotten, if they’re not eaten up on the day you pack them.

Dried apricots, cranberries, cherries, salted cashews, and candied pecans.

Dried apricots, cranberries, cherries, salted cashews, and candied pecans.

I invested in a couple of wide necked stainless steel Thermos flasks with collapsible spoons for carrying stews and suchlike; a couple of Wrap-a-Mats for drier items; and some snap shut plastic containers of various sizes for salads, dried fruit and nuts, and relishes.

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We’ve finally come up with the following:

1. Meetoo with pasta

Meetoo and GF pasta packed in an insulated container.

Meetoo and GF pasta packed in an insulated container.

The meetoo is a fairly dry sauce and doesn’t carry on softening the pasta while it’s in the Thermos flask. My kids were both very positive about this lunch. It does, however, take a while to make, so you either have to get up early to make it (my choice), or make it the night before and then just heat up the sauce and cook the pasta in the morning. I warm the insulated flask with boiling water before draining and adding the food. Apparently it makes a difference to how hot the food is when the girls get to it. The meetoo recipe mixed with 6 oz of dried GF pasta (cooked), makes enough food for 3 to 4 people, so I tend to have some for lunch, too.

2. Cauliflower/Broccoli cheez with small chunks of potato

Veggies in cheeze sauceThe girls love this cheez sauce. They tell me that the cauliflower and potato need to be kept in small chunks so they don’t have to try cutting the pieces with their collapsible spoons. We initially had this with pasta, but the sauce was sufficiently wet that the pasta was stodge by the time the girls came to eat it (they still ate it, but they got ‘looks’ from some of their mates). I cook the vegetables on the firm side to try to help them keep their integrity. I’m sure small chunks of other vegetables would go down well, here too.

Stir the hot cheez sauce with pre-cooked vegetables (~1 1/2 cups of veggies per person), and pack in preheated, wide necked Thermos flasks along with a spoon.

3. Bean and Rice Salad

Packed rice saladThis cold salad is easy to pack in snap shut containers. I confess that I add an elastic band (taken from the stalks of broccoli) and double wrap with a plastic freezer bag, as we have had an accident before now, with the lid not being completely shut. The quantities given are approximate, and you should fudge them according to taste and appetite. My girls think the fresh cilantro (coriander leaf) is essential, though, so I wouldn’t miss that out. Personally, I think the lemon/lime juice adds a sparkle to the dish, and shouldn’t be missed either.

Serves about 2

1/2 cup of dry rice
1/4 tsp salt
~7 oz firm tofu
1  – 2 tsp oil or non-hydrogenated vegan margarine (Earth Balance)
2 tbsp Braggs (or other GF soy sauce alternative, to taste)
1 can of black beans, drained
1/2 cup frozen sweetcorn
1/2 – 1 cup (3/4 – 1 1/2 oz) finely chopped fresh cilantro (coriander leaves)
1 cup (~16) of baby tomatoes, cut into quarters
1/2 cup or 1/8 of a medium onion, finely diced
a good squeeze (2 – 3 tsps) of fresh lemon or 1 – 2 tsps lime juice

Rinse the rice to remove starch, and cook (tightly covered) with 1 1/2 cups water (or 2 cups water if the rice is brown) and the salt, until the water is no longer visible, or according to packet instructions. Turn off the heat, and allow to cool, still covered.

Drain the tofu and cut it into chunks (~1/2 inch cubes). Pat dry with kitchen paper or clean towel. The drier it is, the less it will stick in the pan.

Heat the oil/fat in a well seasoned cast iron or non-stick pan until hot, and fry the tofu for about 5 minutes, stirring frequently with a sharp edged plastic spatula, until brown.

In a large mixing bowl, combine the tofu with the Braggs (or other GF soy sauce alternative).

Stir in all the other ingredients, check for seasoning, and pack into tightly sealed transportation containers. Don’t forget to pack a spoon or fork. 🙂

4. Pate Sandwich

sundried tomato pate sandwich

Sun-dried tomato pate with coleslaw in almond bread, sitting on the Wrap-a-Mat that I was about to wrap it in.

Two slices of almond bread with either Sun Dried Tomato Pate or Mushroom Pate, with an optional thin layer of coleslaw. This lunch gets 2 thumbs up, though daughter #2 STILL won’t eat her crusts! I pack this in a Wrap-a-Mat.

5. Creamy Mushroom and Broccoli Sauce with Pasta

This is a deliciously rich affair, which is good enough for a dinner party, as well as good enough for school dinners. Cook this sauce, substituting 8 oz of broccoli for 1/2 of the mushrooms, and mix with 8 oz dried GF pasta (cooked).

Alfredo sauce with broccoli and mushroomsI send this off in a warmed thermos and with a fork. Note that it serves about 4 people, so not all of it walks off to school. There’ll be some left for other folks.

6. Tagine and Mashed/Creamed Potato

Mashed pots and tagineThis seems much more in keeping with old-school style meals, but daughter #2 will clean out the pot with enthusiasm. I mash the cooked potato with salt, pepper, Earth Balance (vegan non-hydrogenated margarine) and a little plain rice milk, then squish it down one side of the Thermos container. I then spoon hot tagine down the other side of the container so that she can eat a bit of both all the way through the meal.

7. Artichoke and Pepper Dip with Chips

dip in a bowl This is another hot weather lunch. It takes about 5-10 minutes to put together, and is best served with tortilla chips or pita bread. I don’t send my girls off to school with their lunches in a china bowl (as in the picture), but I do have plastic snap top boxes that come with a fitting ice pack. Note that the recipe in this blog includes green and lima beans for saucing with this dip, but those are not necessary here!

8. Beany Potato Salad

DSC_0024My daughters likes the version of this that has plenty of sun dried tomatoes. Actually, my husband also likes it, so I make plenty and put what the girls don’t eat, in the fridge.

Amaranth Quickbread Pizza Crust

A while ago, I blogged a yeasted amaranth pizza crust recipe (superseded since then by this much quicker version), but I don’t always want to wait for yeasted doughs to rise. The amaranth dough took especially long to rise. This recipe is pretty similar to the original, but it’s a quick bread, and rises higher to give a thicker based pizza. I considered just amending the original blog (have you noticed that I tend to tweak them?), but there are sufficient differences that it would get confusing, so here’s the new one. From start to finish, it’s done in 45 minutes. Note that I used tapioca starch here, which gives a  softer texture than corn starch. However, the pizza is still sturdy enough to take the toppings before going into the oven. The kids and I wolfed this one down this evening.

Thick crust Amaranth Pizza

8 oz amaranth flour
5 oz tapioca starch
1 oz flax seed meal
1 1/2 tsp salt
1 tbsp xanthan gum
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
3 large eggs
non-dairy milk to make eggs up to 12 fl oz (I used rice milk)
1 tbsp lemon juice
1 – 2 tbsp maple syrup or sugar
1/4 cup margarine (480 kcals)
rice flour for generously dusting the rolling surface
toppings (e.g. marinara sauce, artichokes, black olives, vegan mozzarella cheese ……)

Pre-heat the oven to 375F.

Put the dry ingredients into a food processor.

Put the eggs in a measuring jug, and fill with non-dairy milk to the 12 fl oz mark.

Add the other (non-topping) ingredients to the food processor and process, adding the liquid ingredients over a ~10 second period, and continue processing for about 30 seconds.

The dough will be soft, but cohesive, and look slightly stickier than wheat dough at this point, and not so smooth.

Now, quickly turn the dough onto a parchment lined cookie tray or perforated pizza pan, and lightly spread it out in an even layer with hands (or a rolling pin on top of another layer of oiled parchment paper) to more or less cover the tray/pan, or on a pizza paddle to the size of your pizza stone. You don’t want to compress it much, as the baking soda will already have done some of its job.

Top with your favorite pizza sauce and toppings.

Cook in the middle of the oven for 25 minutes at 375F.

Moussaka

My husband loves eggplant (aubergine), but I don’t cope well with all the oil that is often associated with cooking it. My kids will also eat it, but only if the skin doesn’t cause them trouble by being stringy, so my moussaka recipe addresses both of those issues.

The moussaka dish I made here was a family version, but it’s easily converted to one that you’d present to friends, just by duplicating the layers, or adding a middle tomato sauce layer separated from the other layers with grilled aubergine to make a thicker dish. This moussaka (from the bottom up) is simply a layer of garlicky black olive and mushrooms; a layer of grilled (broiled) aubergine; and a layer of creamy white sauce. The strong flavor of the salty black olives and garlicky mushrooms contrasts well with the mild tasting white sauce; and the aubergine imparts body. I have also made moussaka with meetoo instead of the mushrooms, which went down well with my daughters.

Choose young fruit. Older eggplants will have developed seeds (which are brown and have a tough coat) and might even have developed a cavity in the center which leaves your slices with holes in the middle! Cut the stem end off the eggplant. Take a fork, and score the skin from stem end to flower end. Scoring eggplantThis makes it much easier to eat, but the skin still helps the eggplant to retain its integrity. Now slice the eggplant into 1/4″ thick rounds. Make them as even as possible so that they cook evenly. If you have a problem with bitter eggplant (not so common these days), you can taste a small raw piece. If there is any bitterness, then you should consider salting the slices before continuing. This not only draws out any bitter juices, but reduces the amount of oil needed for cooking. That’s got to be a good thing, right?

To salt the sliced eggplant, sprinkle about 1 tsp of salt evenly over all surfaces, and leave to drain in a large bowl for about 20-30 minutes, turning occasionally with a spoon. 2 or 3 tbsp of clear brown liquid will be released, and the eggplant will ‘relax’ and turn slightly brown. Rinse the eggplant under running water, and then carry on cooking as per the recipe.

DSC_0017

1 or 2 batches of white sauce
1 egg (omit for vegan version)
1 large or 2 small aubergines (eggplants), scored lengthwise and cut into 1/4″ slices
~2 tbsp olive oil for cooking the aubergine
1 tbsp vegan margarine or olive oil
1 1/2 lbs white mushrooms
3/4 tsp salt
1 cup black olives, halved
3 cloves garlic, crushed or minced

Make the white sauce and leave on one side to cool slightly.

Lightly oil a baking (cookie) sheet with olive oil (~1 tbsp). Place the eggplant slices on the baking sheet, and quickly use a pastry brush to lightly oil (~1 tbsp) the tops of the eggplant slices. Note that all oil will be almost instantly absorbed, so don’t try to leave an oil film on the surface.

DSC_0001Place the aubergine slices 4 or 5 inches under a hot broiler (grill), and cook until lightly browned. Turn over the slices, and return to the grill (broiler) again until lightly browned and softened.

Heat the margarine/ olive oil in a large frying pan, add the mushrooms, and sprinkle them with the salt. Saute until the mushrooms have softened and released their juices. Add the garlic and black olives to the mushrooms, and allow to warm through.

Beat the egg, if using, into the cooled white sauce.

In a medium sized lasagna dish (use individual serving dishes for vegan version, as the white sauce won’t set solid), make a layer of the mushrooms, cover with a layer of the grilled aubergine, followed by a layer of white sauce, smoothed over with the back of a spoon/spatula.

Cook on the top shelf of the oven for about 30 to 40 minutes at 350F-400F (it can sit in the oven while the latter is warming up) until the egg has set the white sauce, and the bake is heated through.

Brown under a hot grill/broiler if necessary to leave brown spots on the white sauce, and serve hot or cold with a leaf based salad

White Nut Sauce

My husband loves eggplant, so I set to, to make moussaka last night. I use the following sauce to top lasagna and moussaka, as it browns well, and doesn’t dry up and crack in the oven. I’ve made it using both almonds and cashews (on separate occasions), and both work well. I felt the almonds especially needed to be allowed to soak for a little while to soften before the final blending, so make this sauce such that it can sit and wait for about 20 minutes before being used. The final product is mild in flavor, and it takes kindly to flavor variations, if required.

If you want to use the sauce to top a baked dish, you can add an egg to the warm (not hot) sauce before using in the bake, so that it solidifies in the oven to make a cohesive layer that stays on top of the bake. For vegan moussakas and lasagnas, you could either add another tbsp or two of starch, or bake in individual serving dishes so it doesn’t matter if the sauce is liquid.

I’ve recently been branching out in the brands of miso that I buy. The miso you need here is a light, rich, almost cheesy one. My favorite is still the chickpea miso from South River, but I’m starting to look at other less expensive varieties. Misos vary in the amount of salt they contain, so you’ll need to adjust the amount of salt you add to accommodate that.

This sauce makes enough for 2 generously, 3 reasonably, or 4 for folks keeping an eye on calories. It makes a thin layer for a medium sized lasagna/moussaka, so double up if you like a thick layer, or want to make a larger dish.

The kids gave it two thumbs up.

White nut sauce topping a mushroom lasagna.

White nut sauce topping a mushroom lasagna.

4 oz (1 scant cup) raw almonds or cashews, finely ground
2 tbsp potato or corn starch (do not substitute tapioca starch, it gives the wrong texture)
2 cups water (or plain dairy free milk, e.g. rice or soy)
1 tsp nutritional yeast
1 tbsp light colored miso
1 tsp white balsamic vinegar or lemon juice
1/4 tsp salt
pepper to taste
1 oz vegan cream cheese (optional for a creamier sauce)
1 egg (optional)

Mix the cashews, nutritional yeast, and cornstarch in a saucepan and gradually add the liquid, stirring with a whisk.

Stir in the other ingredients (except the egg), and bring to a gentle boil, whisking until thickened.

If using the egg, allow the sauce to cool for 5 minutes or so before adding, as you don’t want the heat to cook the egg at this stage.

Use an immersion/stick blender to smooth the texture if necessary.

Check for seasoning before using.