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My week at Girls Camp is over, now.  I have hauled the last bucket of water, heated (and thrown out) the last tub of dishwater, chopped the last case of cantaloupe, and cleaned the last dutch oven that I care to see this summer.  No more 100 yard hikes uphill to go to the “biffy” in the middle of the night. . .at least until next year. (Oh, I hope I get to go next year!)  It was a grueling week of long days and hard work.  As an assistant cook, I learned a lot about outdoor cooking methods, packing, cooking, and timing meals in large quantities without electricity.  Baking 120 potatoes at one time is an on-the-job lesson you don’t really practice ahead of time, so it’s an experiment that I’m glad to say, was successful this time.  The girls were cheerful helpers and grateful diners and it was all worth it.  Now I’m just recuperating from cracked fingertips, achy knees, and finishing all the campfire-scented laundry.

I barely have time to get my feet under myself and I’m off running in another direction.  I’m amazed at how subtly Fall takes over our Summer days.  I saw the first pinkish orange leaves in the canyon on Saturday; and student instruction packets have arrived in the mail for my kids.  How is it that the dreaded beginning of another school year has arrived, and suddenly our hearts jump in excited anticipation when we see spiral notebooks for 10 cents apiece in the grocery store?  It’s as though we really do look forward to the discipline of a rigid schedule and the achievement of compulsory tasks.  One thing’s for sure, like it or not, the taskmaster is cracking the whip again.

Stopping behind bright yellow buses, stocking up on school supplies, waking up to the alarm clock again, registration fees and frosty mornings–one thing I never have learned to look forward to is the whole lunch packing issue.  It always gets old so quickly.  But, having been a lunchroom escort for young students in the past, I’ve had a glimpse of what gets thrown away from school cafeteria-bought lunches (OUCH!) and I am well aware of the quantity of sugar and junk food that makes its way into kids’ lunch boxes from home.  I also see, first hand, the effects of poor eating habits on students’ ability to focus on learning.  For these reasons I’ve always been highly motivated to provide lunches for my kids from home:

  1. HEALTHY FAMILIAR FOODS (Moms know which healthy home cooked meals won’t be traded to classmates for junk food.)
  2. BALANCED DIET (Moms see what’s left in the lunchbox as well as what’s on the breakfast and dinner menus.)
  3. Finishing favorite leftovers is far more BUDGET-FRIENDLY than buying prepackaged foods with all their preservatives and additives.

My kids can fix their own lunches, but I’ll admit I’m dragged down by having to make sure there’s a healthy assortment of packable food in the pantry.  Make-ahead assembly style lunches are definitely the way to go, but they take a bit of planning! It wouldn’t be so bad if I’d just keep up the momentum I always start with at the beginning of the year.  Having the proper containers to keep foods hot or cold is the key to variety–and will be the topic of another post.  Today I am thinking of recipes that can be made ahead and frozen or kept in the pantry so I have a good answer when I’m asked the inevitable “what can I pack for lunch?”

I use these guidelines:  there must be representation from each of the food groups, and they will contain a main dish, a side, a fruit or vegetable, an occasional treat, and (an absolute must) a water bottle.  (My kids drink milk at home.  Giving them a water bottle is a good idea for the school day because it’s impossible for them to get enough water when they have to drink from a fountain with a dozen other students in line telling them to hurry.)

So, in lieu of the traditional sandwich, here are a few thoughts on make-ahead and leftover MAIN DISHES:

  • A baked potato bar:  cut it open, top with butter, sour cream, grated cheese, frozen peas, or a gravy made of cream of chicken soup with leftover chicken chunks and green beans.  This is always a hit, and very simple.  The potato can be warmed up from last night or fresh baked for about 4 minutes in the microwave just before leaving for school.
  • Leftover spaghetti noodles is a favorite of my son–even more so if there aren’t leftover meatballs and sauce.  He particularly likes melting butter over them, dousing them in parmesan and a sprinkling of Italian seasoning.  Toss in a few frozen peas or corn, leftover broccoli or sprigs of asparagus before you warm them.
  • I never would have survived teenage growth spurts without homemade burritos in the freezer.  They make excellent easy packing lunches, too.  Simply spoon refried beans, reconstituted taco flavored TVP (or browned and seasoned hamburger) and a sprinkle of cheddar cheese on flour tortillas, then wrap and freeze them.  I always lay them out and freeze them on a baking sheet for about an hour before I pack them in a gallon sized zip storage bag.  At the rate my teenagers go through these, it’s definitely budget friendly to make them myself.  Warm them up in the microwave for a minute or two (depending on their size) before eating or packing them in an insulated container.  I pair these with a small container of lettuce, chopped tomatoes, and a dollop of sour cream for a healthy meal.  Another container with salsa and a zip bag of tortilla chips and they won’t even think of dessert.
  • Corn dogs are easy fiber and protein foods, too.  I’ve kept a big box of them in the freezer in the past.  I’m trying a home made version by baking cornbread in my twinkie pan with a half turkey hotdog or stick of cheese in the batter.  (They worked great!  Check them out HERE)  These will freeze and make great packable school lunches or after school snacks.
  • Taco soup, chili, or hearty vegetable beef stew are hearty and thick, and pack surprisingly well if you put them in a thermos and wrap them with a small kitchen towel.  Be sure to include the toppings (cheese, sour cream, chips; crackers or cornbread) in separate containers.  (Look for my “Sunday Stew” and taco soup recipes in upcoming posts.)
  • Macaroni and cheese from a box can be made in a jiffy before school if you start the water boiling when you sit down to your bowl of Wheaties.  Throw a can of green beans in with the noodles to heat for a few minutes before you drain the water off, and you have a one dish meal.
  • Cold Pizza.  Need I say more?  Be sure to include a container of Ranch Dressing (for the fresh veggies on the side, of course!) Take a look at my post on home made pizza!
  • Our favorite zucchini casserole dinner makes an excellent packable leftover.  (See the bottom of the post for the recipe.)
  • Pack a half-dozen eggs (or more) in a small saucepan, cover with cold water, and put the lid on.  Set it on the stove on high.  When it starts to boil, I turn it off and leave it covered for ten minutes.  Done!  Serve hot for breakfast, or refrigerate for grab-and-go lunches.  Hard boiled eggs disappear as fast as candy, particularly if you peel them and put them in a small container with a bit of salt.
  • Of course, you could always include a sandwich, if you wanted to.  Besides peanut butter and jelly, jam, or honey; consider cold cuts, meatballs, tuna, chicken salad, egg salad; or shredded beef or pork (recipe to follow) with barbeque sauce.  I have found that the most common objection to sandwiches is that the bread gets soggy by the time the lunch bell rings.  I resolve this by presenting the bread and the fixings in separate containers to be assembled at school, and by offering a variety of heartier, heavier breads, like whole grains or hoagie buns.

SIDE DISHES could include:

  • a cup of yogurt or frozen “go-gurt”
  • cottage cheese
  • potato or macaroni salad
  • a roll
  • some Chex Mix
  • crackers
  • a few slices of cheddar or a stick of string cheese

FRUIT OR VEGGIES could include:

  • an apple
  • an orange or easy to peel “clementine”
  • a banana
  • fresh strawberries
  • cut cantaloupe or watermelon
  • raisins
  • dehydrated banana chips
  • canned mandarin oranges
  • applesauce
  • Stretch Island 100% Fruit Leather is always an option in our home.  (I understand the texture issue some kids have with fruits.)  I buy it by the 48 count box at Costco–Sam’s doesn’t carry it.
  • carrots
  • celery sticks
  • cooked broccoli
  • green beans
  • a green salad with dressing

OCCASIONAL TREATS might be:

  • Jell-O, pudding
  • a homemade brownie or cupcake
  • a small bag of chips (bag them yourself in Ziploc sandwich bags)
  • cookies
  • dehydrated fruit and nuts (“trail mix”)
  • a granola bar
  • a juice drink box
  • a package of fruit snacks
  • a few pieces of holiday candy.

This morning I baked up a batch of Raisin Oatmeal Cookies and filled a popcorn tin with Ziploc bags containing 3 small cookies each.  They’re all ready to go in the freezer and will last a few weeks there, at least!  My mom used to make healthy substitutions to her cookie recipes until they were jammed full of whole grains and antioxidants.  Sure, they were still delicious cookies, but if cookies can be nutritious, they surely were.  I don’t usually change my recipes, but I like to start out with ones that have some substance–like oats, whole wheat, raisins, or walnuts to feed their growing brains.  YUM!  Check out my recipes below.

Spending the time to think ahead about what to serve for dinner so you’ll have leftovers, and using your freezer and pantry to store an assortment of easy (and healthy!) grab-and-go choices for lunch is so worth it!  Ideally, spending a few hours a week restocking will maintain your stores–I’m working on that!  If it’s all ready to go in assembly line fashion, lunch packing is an anxiety-free process.  You could even consider it the first mental health investment of the new school year!

ZUCCHINI CASSEROLE

Using a rice cooker, use 3 scoops of rice and fill to the “3” line.  Stir and begin cooking.  (If you don’t have a rice cooker, see below.)

In a saucepan, brown the hamburger on medium heat  (about ½ pound or two hamburger patties) with a couple tablespoons of dried onion flakes and about 1/4 cup water.  When it’s browned, add about 2 cups grated fresh or frozen zucchini. (You could use bite sized zucchini and fresh cut onions, but I find that, even when they know it’s there, it’s easier for some kids to eat veggies when they’re hidden in the rice.)  Continue cooking on medium heat.  When it’s hot throughout, add a can of cream of mushroom soup and turn it to low heat.

When the rice has finished cooking, add the hamburger mixture and stir in the rice cooker.  Top with grated cheddar cheese and leave on warm setting until it’s melted. Enjoy!  Note: We still call it Zucchini Casserole even if I substitute green beans or broccoli.

You can make Zucchini Casserole without a rice cooker following these directions: Bring 5 cups of water to a boil in a large sauce pan with a tight fitting lid.  If desired, you may add salt and butter to the boiling water.  Add 2 1/2 cups rice, stir, turn to low heat and cover with the lid.  Let it cook on low heat undisturbed for about 20 minutes.  Test for done-ness by making sure all the water has been absorbed and the rice kernels are evenly soft.

Continue by mixing rice with zucchini and meat mixture and pour into a 9X13 baking pan.  Top with cheese, and bake in the oven (about 350˚) until the cheese is melted.

SLOW COOKER PULLED PORK

  • 1 T oil
  • 2 chopped onions
  • 6 minced garlic cloves
  • 1 T chili powder
  • 1/2 tsp black pepper
  • 12 oz chili sauce (1 small bottle)
  • 1/4 cup brown sugar
  • 1/4 cup cider vinegar
  • 1 T Worcestershire
  • 3 lb. pork shoulder

Sauté the onions in the oil until soft. Add garlic, chili powder, and pepper and cook another minute or so. Add chili sauce, brown sugar, vinegar, and Worcestershire sauce. Heat till boiling stirring constantly.

Put the pork shoulder in the crockpot and pour the sauce over it. Cover and cook on low 12 hours or on high 6 hours, until pork is basically falling apart. (Longer never hurts.) Shred the meat with a pair of forks and return to the pot and keep warm in the sauce. Serve over buns.

This makes a LOT of pork.  Freeze leftovers in zip freezer bags in appropriate sized portions for sandwiches.

RAISIN OATMEAL COOKIES

Preheat oven to 350º F.

  • 2 cups butter
  • 2 2/3 cups brown sugar
  • 4 large eggs
  • 2 tsp. vanilla extract
  • 3 cups flour
  • 2 tsp. baking soda
  • 2 tsp. cinnamon
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 6 cups rolled oats
  • 3 cups raisins
  • 1 cup chopped walnuts (optional)

Mix and refrigerate for a couple of hours or overnight.  Drop dough by rounded teaspoonfuls 2 inches apart onto ungreased baking sheet.  Bake about 10-12 minutes.

NEIMAN-MARCUS CHAIN LETTER COOKIES

(Yes, I really did get this recipe in a “chain letter” about 30 years ago, during the hey day of “snail mail”–you know sometime between pony express and the advent of instant messaging!)

  • 2 cups butter
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 2 cups brown sugar
  • 4 eggs
  • 2 tsp. vanilla (or almond when I’m out of vanilla)
  • 5 cups rolled oats, blended (measure oats then blend to a fine powder)
  • 4 cups flour
  • 2 tsp. baking powder
  • 2 tsp. soda
  • 24 oz. chocolate chips
  • 1- 8oz. Hershey bar grated
  • 3 cups chopped nuts (optional)

Cream butter and both sugars.  Add eggs and vanilla. Mix together with flour, oats, salt, baking powder, and soda.  Add chocolate chips, Hershey bar, and nuts.  Roll into balls and place 2 inches apart on a cookie sheet.  Bake for 10 minutes at 375˚F.  Makes 112 cookies.  Recipe may be halved.

PEANUT BUTTER COOKIES

  • 1 cup margarine
  • 1 cup peanut butter
  • 1 cup white sugar
  • 1 cup brown sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1/2 teaspoon almond extract
  • 2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt

Preheat the oven to 375˚F.

In a large bowl, cream together the margarine, peanut butter, white sugar and brown sugar until smooth. Beat in the eggs one at a time, then stir in the vanilla and almond extracts. Combine the flour, baking soda and salt; stir into the peanut butter mixture. Roll dough into 1 inch balls and place them 2 inches apart onto the prepared cookie sheets. Use a wet fork dipped in sugar to make the crisscrosses on the top.

Bake for 8 to 10 minutes. Allow cookies to cool on baking sheet for 5 minutes before removing to a wire rack to cool completely.

RANGER COOKIES 

  • 1 cup shortening
  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • 1 cup brown sugar (packed)
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 tsp. vanilla
  • 2 cup flour
  • 1 tsp. soda
  • ½  tsp. baking powder
  • ½ tsp. salt
  • 2 cups quick cooking oats
  • 2 cups wheaties or total cereal (or rice krispies)
  • 1 cup shredded coconut

Heat oven to 375˚F. Mix shortening, sugars, eggs and vanilla thoroughly.  Stir in remaining ingredients.  Drop dough by rounded teaspoonfuls 2 inches apart onto ungreased baking sheet.  Bake 10 minutes.  Let stand about 3 minutes before removing from baking sheet.  Makes 6 dozen cookies.

THE ORIGINAL CHEX PARTY MIX

  • 6 tablespoons butter or margarine
  • 2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
  • 1 ½ teaspoons seasoned salt
  • ¾ teaspoon garlic powder
  • ½ teaspoon onion powder
  • 3 cups Corn Chex cereal
  • 3 cups Rice Chex cereal
  • 3 cups Wheat Chex cereal
  • 1 cup mixed nuts
  • 1 cup pretzels
  • 1 cup garlic-flavored bite-size bagel chips or regular-size bagel chips, broken into 1-inch pieces

Heat oven to 250˚ F.  In large, ungreased roasting pan, melt butter in the oven.  Stir in seasonings.  Gradually stir in remaining ingredients until evenly coated.  Bake 1 hour, stirring every 15 minutes.  Spread on paper towels until cooled.  Store in airtight container.  Makes 24 servings (1/2 cup each.)

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