I have to pack lunches for the boys, both of whom go to school outside the basement. As the beginning of a school year approaches, I get very revved up about making them great lunches … then as the end of the year approaches, they may or may not get Uncrustables every day. We do what we can with the energy we have when we have it.
When I was still pretty revved up, someone appealed to my ego and asked for a list of lunch ideas. Hence this post, which I actually wrote in October right before we hit a major flurry of activity that caused a cessation in blogging. I am celebrating a head cold by doing some bloggy catch-up.
Lunchboxes, Equipment, and Accessories
(Please do not hate me for being hardcore enough to have “equipment and accessories” for lunch. This was my overachievement for 2011.)
I have a stash of different lunchboxes, but my kids like Easy Lunchboxes the best. They have three compartments (a big sandwich size one and two smaller ones), and the lids are easy for the kids to deal with. I have a small collection of cute silicone baking cups that I picked up at World Market. I use these as compartments-on-demand. In other words, I can stash several different items in the big compartments of the Easy Lunchboxes, or I can use them as compartments in true bento lunchboxes. I use these almost daily. I also have some 2-ounce baby food freezer containers that I use for sauces or anything that needs to be in a small hard-sided compartment, and I use these often as well. My favorite drink containers are 9-ounce Lifefactory glass bottles with silicone sleeves … but we’re really getting into geekery now.
I also snag the sandwich cutters that tend to be for sale on the bread aisle at the grocery store. The one with four hearts is my favorite and it also makes the best. cookie cutter. ever. It is axiomatic that heart-shaped food tastes better than food of any other shape (except possibly dinosaur shapes, but I don’t have any dinosaur-shaped cutters, so I can’t test this).
Muffins, Biscuits and Pies: Homemade Frozen
Every now and then I go on a baking spree. Here are some recipes I like to make and store in the freezer for tossing in lunches:
Sweet potato angel biscuits. I’m not saying these are “healthy,” but they are definitely “heavenly.” Sweet potato does have a lot of great nutrition in it, so these are a cut above cookies.
Zucchini muffins. My boys “don’t like vegetables,” and it’s not like I’m going to be able to argue with them about this at lunch. This recipe has sugar, but not very much. If you use dried cranberries, you can probably cut the sugar to one cup. I’ve also made this with half whole wheat flour and half white flour with good results. Since zucchini is going out of season, I’ll probably switch to pumpkin muffins soon.
Pies made with this yeasted whole wheat pie crust. I make this crust, roll it out, cut it into strips about 2 or 3 inches wide and maybe 6-7 inches long, put a dollop of canned refried black beans and some grated cheddar cheese in the middle, fold the strips around the filling, seal the sides, parbake, and freeze. Then, I can brown them in the oven while we’re having breakfast, let them cool, and pack them in a lunch with some canned salsa.
Easy Make-Ahead Lunch Items
Boiled eggs are a great source of protein and fat. I discovered that I actually do love to make them heart-shaped, although I thought the first time I did it that it may be too much trouble. They look really great sliced in half, stuck in a silicone baking cup, and sprinkled with a little salt and pepper. When I realized that Buddy wasn’t eating the yolks, I started popping out the yolks, mixing in a little mayonnaise and pickle juice, restuffing them, and sprinkling smoked paprika on them for “deviled” eggs.” I am happy to report that this process takes no more than one extra minute. Even when I don’t overachieve and make them heart-shaped, I try to keep boiled eggs in stock. I’m in the “bring the water to a boil, turn it off, and do something else for awhile” camp when it comes to cooking them.
Little Man is a big fan of dipping bites of meat in barbeque sauce at lunch, which is an extremely handy trait in a kid. This means that I can just stick some leftover meat into his lunchbox, add a container of sauce, then add a muffin or biscuit and a fruit. He often has leftover pulled pork, bites of chicken, pieces of steak, or meatballs. This is maybe the only thing about Little Man that is easy for me!
Buddy loves roasted chickpeas, and so does The Bean. If you go to the trouble of roasting chickpeas, use at least two cans of chickpeas. They go FAST.
If you have a dehydrator and are the sort of person who stocks up on local produce in season to store and eat year-round, try dried strawberries, dried watermelon slices, dried peaches, dried pears, fruit leathers … there are lots of easy make-ahead possibilities here.
Sandwiches Other than PB&J
I have nothing against peanut butter and jelly except that my boys tend not to eat it when I send it in their lunchboxes. Buddy loves cheese and jelly sandwiches, though. A slice of cheddar and some jam make a dandy sandwich. For a while, his favorite was cream cheese and homemade pear butter on wheat toast. He also tends to like salami on a bagel or, for that matter, smoked salmon and cream cheese on a bagel. (I really can’t account for my kids’ tastes. They’re all different and all strike me as odd. My daughter likes sushi and she likes peanut butter and jelly, but she won’t eat macaroni and cheese.) Sometimes I’ll send them with sandwiches made of Maranatha Dark Chocolate Almond Spread, which is yummy and has less sugar than Nutella. Other times I eat the whole jar myself.
Stuff From a Can
My kids love olives, and they are a lunchbox staple here. I dump a can into a mason jar for refrigerator storage rather than pay extra for a recloseable container, then spoon them into the little lunchbox compartments.
My kids also like some kinds of pickled vegetables and regular nonpickled baby corn; these too are easy to add to a lunchbox.
Normal kids like mandarin oranges, but my boys haven’t yet found the love. Maybe next week. Their favorite canned/packed fruit product is applesauce. There’s a French brand that comes in squeeze packages (that I found on sale Buy One Get One Free at Publix) that they love, and it contains nothing but apples and spices. We made a lot of pearsauce this summer, and sometimes I send a baby food container of that.
Fresh Fruits and Vegetables
Honestly, my kids usually don’t eat the fresh veggies I pack for them. I’ll keep trotting some out every now and then, though, to keep from having my parenting license revoked. They do well with fresh fruit, and I usually do send fruit with them. Buddy likes his fruit in small bites, whereas Little Man will eat a whole apple, peach, or pear with no preparation having been done except (hopefully) washing. I pack their fruit accordingly.
I don’t often buy summer sausage, but we sometimes receive it in gift boxes, and slices then find their way into lunch boxes, to the great joy of my kids. Another meat I’ll sometimes add is the Octodog. This rare creature is found in your hot dog package; just cut in half, cut the cut ends into legs, and fry.
I am always getting packages full of packing material I just KNOW has a higher purpose. I’ve had a roll of this corrugated packing material staring at me for a few months:
I finally found its purpose: pillow boxes for treats for Little Man’s preschool class. I feel pretty brilliant about this. (The brilliant part actually comes later, though. Hold on to your seats.)
Step One: Cut the corrugated packing material into a square or rectangular shape. My square here is about 5″ by 5″. Or maybe it’s 6″ x 6″. It doesn’t really matter unless you’re creating pillow boxes for something specific, in which case I have absolute faith in you to figure out how big to cut your corrugated stuff. Experimenting is fun!
Step Two: Create a tube out of your corrugated. I used packaging tape for this. It seemed appropriate, since I’m dealing with packing material. It’s a mailroom kind of project.
Step Three: Put the seam side down and squish the tube.
Step Four: Prepare yourself to be amazed.
Are you ready?
As any good origamist knows, the key to a good fold is a good score. You must score the corrugated cardboard in a curved line in order to be able to create a neat curved fold. You can’t have a pillow box without a neat curved fold. It’s just physics. If you’re making pillow boxes out of cute cardstock or something, you’ll need a scoring tool and something curved to guide your scoring tool.
But if you’re making pillow boxes out of recycled corrugated packing material, all you need is a drinking glass. (Or maybe a canning jar.) (That’s the brilliant part, in case you missed it.)
Step Five: Fold on the scored lines.
Step Six: Put something in your pillow box, embellish it however you like (if you have a glue gun and some buttons, you know what to do), and tie a ribbon around it. DONE.
This year we’ve been focusing more on art than we have in the past. The Bean has always taken out-of-home art classes, and some have been better than others, but this year we’ve ramped up our homeschool art experience a notch or two. I credit Pinterest and School Arts magazine.
I found School Arts when I was on a magazine binge. I love the folks at Carus Publishing, and we subscribe to a few of their magazines (Cricket, Calliope, Cobblestone, and Odyssey … yikes, that seems like a lot, but The Bean devours every one of them so I believe they’re resources well used). Oddly enough, Carus doesn’t have a magazine devoted entirely to art. (If you know of a kids’ art magazine other than the classroom magazine published by Scholastic, PLEASE let me know.) Anyway, my kids love magazines, and I really wanted to bring the world of art to them in a way they would enjoy. So I started looking for kids’ art magazines.
What I found was School Arts. It’s not for kids. It’s for art teachers. Um, THAT’S ME. That’s me even though I don’t think I have ever taken an art class in my life. I’ve decided not to let my abject lack of qualifications to be an art teacher get in the way of my teaching art.
School Arts has become the power source for our homeschool art program. Each issue has had projects for early childhood, elementary, middle school, and high school, with lots of information about how to do them, what to expect from the kids, how long they take, what supplies to use, how to use the supplies, and what outside information to share with the kids. I LOVE IT.
Which brings me to: the banana collage. Now, this is NOT a project from School Arts, but it is INSPIRED BY a project from School Arts. The actual project featured in the January issue of School Arts was done by 8th graders and was not a collage. The students drew all of their work directly onto the paper. I sensed that The Bean would find that frustrating. She’s been known to abandon art projects because of minor goofs. Also, the pressure to draw a colorful fruit or vegetable with some sense of realism in the middle of a bunch of other intricate designs was not something I wanted her (or me) to have to deal with.
To make the project more Bean-friendly, I had her create several different designs with a Sharpie, draw the banana separately, and then create a collage using Mod Podge to glue and seal the pieces. (That way, if she didn’t like her banana, or a particular design, she could ditch the offending element rather than the whole project. Interestingly enough, she actually used all of the elements she created.)
To help her draw the banana, I took a picture of a banana in Instagram and applied the Lomo-fi filter, which is fairly contrasty. This turned the banana into a 2-D image and also made it easier for her to focus on where to shade and the different colors that are in the shadows. Taking a tip from the magazine, she colored the whole banana with marker first, to make it vibrant, then she added details with colored pencils.
I think the finished product is really cool and am looking forward to our next art project!
I don’t have pearl onions, but chicken legs were on sale at the Western and I did have some leftover red wine and some regular, non-miniature vegetables, so I thought I’d give a nod to the concept of Coq au Vin for our dinner tonight. So, here’s what I did:
1. I rendered some duck fat. Keep reading; this step is optional. I happened to have served slices of smoked duck breast at our fossil-hunting picnic Saturday. Before slicing it, I ripped off its lovely layer of fat, stuck it in a baggie, and tossed it in the fridge. I figured it would come in handy sometime. I mean, some ideas are just obvious. Tonight I threw that fat in my Le Creuset French oven and rendered it over low heat, then removed and tossed out the solid parts.
2. I diced a purple onion into small dice and sliced 2 cleaned ribs of celery into 1/4 inch slices.
3. I cut 4 well scrubbed carrots into bite-size chunks.
3.5. I preheated the oven to 325F.
4. I cooked all the vegetables in some fat in my French oven … duck fat, bacon fat, olive oil … whatever good fat you want to use is fine with me. Then I scooped them out of the pot and set them aside in a bowl.
5. I seasoned 7 chicken legs with kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, put them in a big zipper bag with about a quarter cup of flour, and tossed the coat them in the flour. I used 7 chicken legs because they were on sale and that’s how many there were in a “family pack.” Chicken thighs would work too, or a combination of legs and thighs. Definitely use dark meat though. I wash my hands of you if you try to use boneless skinless chicken breasts for this.
6. Then I added some bacon fat, butter, and olive oil to the French oven, heated it over medium heat, and browned the chicken legs well on all sides in two batches. Then I set aside the chicken legs. At this point, there was a lot of black stuff in the bottom of the pot; I thought it looked sketchy, so I wiped it out with paper towels. No sense dirtying another pot.
7. I returned the vegetables to the French oven and added a pint of homemade turkey stock, about half a bottle of red wine, and about 2/3 of a small can of tomato paste. In retrospect, I don’t think there would have been anything wrong with adding the whole can. Go with your gut on this one. I assume that canned chicken broth would also work here, but in the interest of disclosure, I used true stock — the kind made by slowly simmering bones — the kind that turns into turkey gelatin in the refrigerator. I don’t always have this lying around (because The Bean “doesn’t eat soup”), but I did have a pint in a freezer and it seemed like the thing to use. The wine was left over from a previous meal. I store leftover wine in screw-cap bottles in the fridge for just this sort of thing. My current wine-storage vessel is a swanky bottle from some swanky bottled water we purchased for a dinner party. Some bottles are just too swanky NOT to store leftover wine in.
8. I stirred the veggies, tomato paste, and liquids all together, added the chicken legs, brought the whole business to a simmer, then covered it and put it in the oven for about two hours, turning the chicken pieces over after an hour.
9. Real Coq au Vin is served with noodles. To me, that seems about as silly as peeling 20 pearl onions. We are Southern, and we know the value of grits with a good tomato-and-meat based gravy, so I hauled my three children to the nearest grocery store for grits (because *gasp* I was out of grits), cooked them up, and poured them into an 8 x 8 casserole dish.
10. Fifteen minutes before dinner, I put the grits in the oven and took the lid off the pot-of-deliciousness that was NOT Coq au Vin. At this point, grab a spoonful of the gravy, let it cool, taste it, and adjust the seasonings accordingly.
11. I served the grits and NCaV with some leftover arugula salad and … some red wine. Here is an unretouched, non-fancy photo of my dinner of not-Coq-au-Vin served on my awesome Corelle dinner plate on a completely pedestrian placemat:
So, let’s go over the ingredients here one more time:
7 chicken legs (a “family pack” that cost about $3.50; you could use thighs too)
1 purple onion
2 ribs of celery
1 small can of tomato paste
1 pint of turkey broth
1/2 a bottle of red table wine
Various kinds of fat (duck fat, bacon fat, butter, olive oil)
Salt and pepper
I’m not going to tally up the cost here, but this was pretty cheap. Also, most of the work was done in the early afternoon, before the children went totally bonkers and I lost my will to cook, so BONUS. I am calling it a win; I hope you enjoy this recipe sometime!
Things have been busy! I can’t believe it’s the middle of October. How’d that happen?!
Last week, we went with some friends to the Native American Festival at Moundville Archeological Park. We stayed until the kids were DONE and didn’t get to half of the activities. Nevertheless, we did some great things.
I don’t know the name of this artist, but I love him. He was carving a soapstone sculpture of the Cherokee corn goddess, Selu. He was carving it for permanent display at the park. The fun thing about this project is that he invited all the kids to help, so that when they visited the park in the future, they would know they helped make it, and that’s something they can tell their children and their grandchildren.
We ate “Indian tacos,” which are basically taco salads on fry bread, and other Native American fast food, bought trinkets, and learned lots of other little tidbits about Native American history, handicrafts, and culture. Little Man tried his hand at grinding corn:
And The Bean learned how to make corn husk dolls. She just happened to have dried some corn husks from this summer’s corn, so she soaked them and made this cool doll:
The Bean’s history studies bring us to the New World this year, so we will be spending a lot of time on American history in the coming months. Last Friday we went on a fun field trip to The American Village in Montevallo, where we participated in or watched several vignettes in which reenactors took us through several scenes in Revolutionary America.
We started out at a Stamp Act riot, in which the reenactor stirred up the mob of students against King George, his taxes, and most especially his Lord of the Treasury, George Grenville. The mob scene culminated in hanging Grenville’s effigy. I found it quite disturbing, actually, but it gave me a good reason to talk about propaganda and mob manipulation with the Bean, so there’s that.
Next we had a visit with Thomas Jefferson, who mused about his upcoming project: writing the Declaration of Independence. Unfortunately, the acoustics in the chapel were pretty awful, so we only got about every fifth word. Also, the lighting was bad, so there is no picture. Oh well. We’ll get plenty of TJ this year anyway.
The kids all seemed to enjoy their musket training with Alexander Hamilton, one of George Washington’s lieutenants. He informed them that he would not be wasting muskets on such raw recruits, so they had to train with broomsticks.
Being a costume enthusiast, the Bean particularly enjoyed the discussion of Colonial fashion. A lady would wear a chemise under her petticoat(s) and “coat.” A coat could extend to the floor as the one shown below or be a shortcoat or simply a bodice. She would wear a mob cap to cover her seldom-washed hair, and when she was going out she would put on a hat over the cap and also wear a neckerchief for modesty and sun protection.
We also had a visit with George Washington, who explained some confusion about his birthday. Hew as born in Virginia on February 11, 1731, according to the Julian calendar. However, according to the Gregorian calendar, which the British adopted in 1752, he was born on February 22, 1732.
Finally, we participated in a spy mission with our hostess Mrs. Darrough, a Quaker in whose home British officers were quartering and planning their strategy. She would hide, listen to the strategy, then sew a note into a covered button on her son’s jacket. Her son would go to a tavern and inform the tavern keeper he had no money to pay for his meal. She would accept his buttons as payment, then relay the secret message to patriots.
We had to shop the gift shop, of course, where we picked up a mob cap (necessary gear for learning about the American Revolution), a copy of the Newberry Award-winning book Johnny Tremain, and some awesome Revolutionary War toy soldiers, which Buddy has thoroughly enjoyed.