Eats: Add love and lusciousness to those lunchboxes

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It doesn’t seem like it was that long ago when I was a working mom with four kids to feed. Believe me when I say I know how to pack a lunchbox, but more importantly, I taught those kids, at a very early age, to pack their own lunches.

Filling up the lunchboxes was an evening ritual at our house, happening immediately after supper and in the midst of kitchen cleanup. More often than not, dinner leftovers were incorporated into the next day’s noontime meal, and sometimes we prepared special lunchbox treats together to fill in the gaps.

Taught well by my own mother, I’ve never been one to waste food. And I was, and still am, all for being economically minded, yet imaginative when it comes to getting some solid, made-from-scratch food into my kids. Oh sure, we had our share of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, Spaghetti-O’s, and ramen noodles. But more often than not, my kids opened their lunchboxes on any given day to find leftover casserole, homemade cake or cookies, meatloaf or roast beef sandwiches, and plenty of crunchy homegrown veggies staring up at them.

Another daily item they found in their lunchbox was a paper napkin with an encouraging note or just a simple heart or smiley face drawn with a colored marker.

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I’m proud to say that my granddaughter Lucy has taken over the job of packing the family lunchboxes at their house and has gotten off to a grand start with this new school year. With two little brothers, a mom in college and a working dad, this 6th-grader is tapping into her passion for food as she assists her family with staying organized and eating healthy.

Lucy and I got together the first week of school to discuss and taste test recipes to be packed in her new bento-style lunchbox. We also made sure to consult her little brothers, as it’s no fun to have messy lunchboxes with uneaten food to throw out at the end of the day. Today’s particular recipes were whipped up in just under two hours. You may be able to do it even faster, depending on the age and ability of your helpers!

Pizza Gems, made with straight-up pepperoni and mozzarella with a dash of oregano, are voted a No. 1 lunchbox choice by Lucy and the boys. The gems can be made ahead and frozen, and do double-duty as an after-school snack. These cheesy bites are also great mini-vehicles for the dibs and dabs of leftover meat and vegetables taking up valuable real estate in the fridge drawers.

The fried-up bacon or sausage from Sunday’s breakfast, the stub of pepperoni from Saturday night’s pizza party, and the strips of red pepper and last stalk of broccoli can be stirred into the simple dough, along with some shredded cheese. The gems are delicious warm or cold, and can be served with pizza sauce, ranch dressing or even ketchup. They can also be made in regular-size muffin tins instead of mini-muffin tins. Just bake an extra five to 10 minutes.

Crunchy chicken salad is another favorite because it can be modified to suit everyone’s taste, including the adults in the house. A rotisserie chicken from the deli department of your favorite supermarket can be used if you don’t have the time to roast one yourself. Boneless, skinless chicken breasts poached in boxed broth with a pinch of thyme is another way to build in flavor.

Yummy on its own, this salad can also be served on greens, sandwiched between whole-grain bread or two big Romaine lettuce leaves, stuffed into a pita or used as a wrap filling. The balsamic dressing is a nice departure from mayonnaise.

And what kid doesn’t love pasta, especially when it’s stuffed with cheese? This pasta salad has more “sticktoitiveness” than ordinary pasta salad and can be enjoyed warm or cold. Make this big batch and serve it as a side for supper, then pack up the leftovers into lunchbox containers, allowing the kids to stir in any extras they like first. As in all the other recipes, just about anything you can think of can be added.

Every lunchbox needs a special treat so we chose the Mississippi Mud Ball recipe I got from a friend back in the ’70s, renamed by our family because hey, this isn’t Mississippi. These bursts of fudginess go together quickly, then we doll them up or eat the mixture straight out of the saucepan with a spoon. We just can’t help ourselves.

A favorite addition of mine to the Maine Mud Balls is dried blueberries, which make these candy-cookies extra Maine-y. We also like to press an M&M on top after they’ve cooled for a few minutes because it makes them look festive and stands for Maine Mud.

Ready to pack those lunchboxes? Don’t forget that napkin note. It could be the most important thing your student reads all day!

Karen Schneider is the editor of Northern Journeys, a quarterly publication that supports the arts. She is also a book editor and a writer who has contributed to the Lewiston Sun Journal for 20 years. She can be contacted at iwrite33@comcast.net.

Sixth-grader Lucy Lajoie, the author’s granddaughter and an aspiring food critic, packs lunches for herself and her brothers that include homemade items prepped ahead of time.

Pizza Gems start with flour, baking powder, an egg, and milk. The remaining ingredients are up to you.

Pizza Gems

Makes two dozen mini-gems or 1 dozen cupcake-size gems.

3/4 cup flour

3/4 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 – 1 teaspoon fresh or dried herbs (oregano, Italian blend, etc.)

3/4 cup milk

1 egg, beaten

1 cup cheese, shredded

1 cup cooked or deli meat and/or vegetables, diced

1/2 cup pizza sauce for dipping

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Grease mini-muffin pan. (Do not use cupcake liners as the cheese will stick to them like glue.) In a large bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder and herbs. Stir in milk and egg. Add cheese and other ingredients. Let stand 10 minutes. Stir again and divide between 24 mini-muffin cups. Bake until puffed and golden, about 20 minutes.

Crunchy chicken salad

Makes four servings.

1 1/2 cups cooked chicken, shredded

1/2 cup apple, diced

1/4 cup walnuts, cashews or almonds, chopped

1 cup celery, diced

1/4 teaspoon fresh or dried tarragon (optional)

1 1/2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar

2 tablespoons olive oil

Optional add-ins: cut-up grapes, chopped green onion, crispy chow mein noodles, crushed potato chips.

Place first five ingredients in a large bowl. Whisk together olive oil and vinegar. Pour over chicken and mix well. Chill. Garnish with some crunchy add-ins of your choice.

Stuffed pasta salad

Makes eight servings.

2 9-ounce packages refrigerated cheese tortellini or ravioli

1/2 cup olive oil, divided

1/2 cup fresh basil, chopped

1 tablespoon fresh oregano, chopped

1 clove garlic, chopped

1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar

1/4 teaspoon cracked pepper

1/8 teaspoon salt

1 6-ounce package cherry tomatoes

1 cup red and/or yellow peppers, chopped

Optional add-ins: Parmesan cheese, diced deli meat or meaty leftovers, olives, chopped artichoke hearts, other vegetables.

Prepare pasta according to package directions. Drain well and place in a large bowl. Toss with 1/4 cup olive oil. Cool to room temperature. To make dressing, combine basil, oregano, garlic, vinegar, remaining oil, salt and pepper. Pour over pasta, add vegetables and any other optional ingredients you choose. Toss and chill.

Maine Mud Balls

Makes two dozen.

1/2 cup butter

2 cups sugar

1/2 cup milk

3 tablespoons cocoa

2 1/2 cups oatmeal

2 teaspoons vanilla

Optional add-ins: 1/4 cup peanut butter and/or nuts, broken pretzels, raisins, dried fruit, coconut, M&Ms.

Combine butter, sugar, milk and cocoa in saucepan. Bring to a boil. Continue to boil for 2-3 minutes. Remove from heat. Stir in oatmeal, vanilla and peanut butter if using. Let cool in pan about 10 minutes before dropping by spoonfuls on waxed paper, otherwise they may spread. As they cool, give them an occasional little pinch to shape them.

A main dish, like this chicken salad, can be packed in a wide-mouth Mason jar. Leave room for dressing or an accompaniment in a recycled snack cup to be nestled on top. Screw on the jar lid and off you go!

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