Monday 19 March 2018

Box clever: Tips for school lunches

Healthy, active children need plenty of calories and nutrients, says Brenda Costigan, and tasty lunch boxes can provide the nourishment they need to grow and brain fuel for school

Many teens still bring a packed lunch to school
Many teens still bring a packed lunch to school

Brenda Costigan

The schools have begun to reopen, and everywhere we can see eager children bursting out of cars, looking forward to the schoolday ahead. They all need a lunch box.

Healthy children expend more energy in proportion to their size than most of their parents do. Just watch the way children rush, run and skip, unlike the sedate adults. On top of all this energy, their bodies are growing. However, being physically much smaller, they require food in a fairly concentrated form. There's no point in filling a lunch box with raw carrots and celery, as these foods provide minimum calories. Instead, choose a nice carrot muffin. As well as raisins -- rich in iron -- carrot muffins are also made up of eggs, fat and flour, so they are rich in calories and important nutrients. In addition, the fibre from the carrots results in a more sustained release of energy into the system. Don't pack a bar of chocolate in your child's lunch box, as the resulting energy boost will be followed by exhaustion when the sugar levels drop . Happily, most schools can help you to make wise food choices.

Most adults will agree that any food they were forced to eat as a child never became a favourite food. It is suggested by nutritionists that the period between five and 11 years of age is the best time to influence your child's eating habits. In fact, teaching a child to cook at this stage is well worth the effort, not just the usual buns and things, but show them how to make simple snacks, soups or meals too, as it will give them a greater appreciation of food.

The main item in most lunch boxes is usually a sandwich. Wraps using flour tortillas are a popular choice, as are pitta pockets and regular sandwiches, using a variety of breads and rolls. Fillings such as eggs, ham, chicken, cold sausages, tuna and peanut butter can be used. Either of the tasty, savoury muffins described below can make a clever substitute.

Lunch-box nibbles

Avoid highly salted packets of snack-type foods. Instead, choose a handful of grapes or a few strawberries or raisins, and wrap them in clingfilm. Freshly popped popcorn, cooled and put in a little plastic bag, is also a good option, but avoid adding salt. All kinds of fruit, such as small apples, bananas, and easy-peel oranges are excellent. Small, attractive packages are always more enticing.

Cream cheese and ham warps

The cream cheese can be flavoured with a little pesto or mayonnaise. Serves 1.

You will need:

1 tablespoon cream cheese

1-2 teaspoons pesto or mayonnaise

1 flour tortilla

1-2 slices cooked ham

1-2 tablespoons coleslaw

Mash the cream cheese on a plate with a fork to soften it and blend in a little pesto or mayonnaise, whichever you are using. Spread this mixture thinly over the flour tortilla. Cover with a slice or two of cooked ham. Spoon the coleslaw in a line down the centre of the ham, then roll up the tortilla. Cut in half, or in short lengths.

Couscous salad

To make a change from sandwiches, try this couscous salad. The ingredients can be varied -- for example, use chopped, cooked chicken instead of feta cheese.

You will need:

125g (4 1/2 oz) couscous

150ml boiling chicken stock

1 tomato, chopped, or 6 cherry tomatoes, halved

7 1/2 cm (3in) cucumber, peeled and chopped

8 black or green olives, pitted and chopped

75-110g (3-4oz) feta cheese, cut in little cubes

2 tablespoons French dressing

Put the couscous into a bowl, and then pour the boiling chicken stock over it. Stir, and cover the bowl with a plate. Leave the couscous for about five minutes to allow the grains to swell. Then, to loosen the grains, stir them with a fork. Leave the couscous to cool. When it is cold, add the chopped tomato or the halved cherry tomatoes, whichever you are using, the peeled, chopped cucumber, and the chopped black or green olives, whichever you are using. Mix everything together well, then add the cubes of feta cheese and the French dressing. Mix again. Put the couscous salad into plastic containers with lids. And don't forget to pack a spoon.

Ham and cheese muffins

A combination of ham and cheese is ideal for savoury muffins, which are suitable not only for lunch boxes, but also for breakfast or brunch. This is a recipe from Tana Ramsay's Family Kitchen. Makes 12.

You will need:

300g (10 1/2 oz) self-raising flour

1/2 teaspoon mustard powder

1/2 teaspoon paprika

75g (3oz) butter

6 slices honey-roast ham, chopped into 1cm pieces

185g (6 1/2 oz) mature Cheddar cheese, grated

1 egg, beaten

250ml (9fl oz) milk

6 tablespoons finely grated Parmesan, to sprinkle on top

Preheat the oven to 190 C, 375 F, Gas 5.

Lightly grease a 12-hole muffin tin, or put muffin cases in the holes.

Sieve the self-raising flour, the mustard powder and the paprika into a large mixing bowl. Rub the butter in until the mixture closely resembles breadcrumbs.

Add the chopped honey-roast ham and the grated mature Cheddar cheese, then stir in the beaten egg and the milk. Spoon equal amounts of the mixture into the 12 muffin cases and sprinkle a little finely grated Parmesan on top.

Bake for 20 minutes. Remove to a wire cooling rack.

Tip: It's a good idea to make these in bulk and freeze the muffins individually. You can then take them out of the freezer the night before.

Carrot muffins

More than 200 years ago, when sugar was very expensive, carrots were frequently used to sweeten baked items. Carrots have an advantage over sugar: their fibre content. The standard bun tray is grand for these, rather than the larger muffin tray. Work quickly so that the melted butter remains soft and easy to mix, because when it cools, it stiffens.

You will need:

75g (3oz) butter

110g (4oz) brown sugar

110g (4oz) carrot, grated

1 large egg

175g (6oz) self-raising flour

110g (4oz) raisins or sultanas

50g (2oz) chopped walnuts

1/2-1 teaspoon cinnamon

1/2-1 teaspoon nutmeg

Put paper cases into the bun tray and preheat the oven to 200 C, 400 F, Gas 6.

Melt the butter and take it off the heat to add in the brown sugar and the grated carrot. Allow the mixture to cool just a little, but not too much or it will set. Then add the large egg and mix thoroughly. In a separate bowl, mix together the self-raising flour, the raisins or sultanas, whichever you're using, the chopped walnuts, the cinnamon and the nutmeg. Add the butter-and-carrot mixture, and mix to make a soft dough. Spoon into paper cases, filling them up well. Bake until cooked through -- about 25-35 minutes. Cool on a wire tray.

Sunday Independent

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