By Elena Gustavson, RAFFL's Everyday Chef. The days of the dreaded brown bag lunch, filled with bologna sandwiches and mealy apples, are over. Today, there are blogs and articles everywhere filled with recipes for creative, healthy lunches and a booming retail industry that has cropped up around lunch bags and bento boxes.
Even the school lunch line looks different from ten years ago. Farm to School programs abound in Vermont, and National School Lunch Program Standards have transformed frozen tater tots and cardboard pizza into vibrant salad bars and balanced main courses carried by smiling children.
Or has it?
Let’s face it. Nothing is perfect. As a nation, we are making strides in nutrition and health, but the strides are still uneven. Headlines have abounded in the last few years about children throwing away their fresh fruits and veggies under the noses of their teachers, and studies suggest that some home-packed lunches are less nutritious than school lunches. Since most of us seem to be working under a time deficit, it seems that - despite good intentions - we struggle to model healthy eating for our children. Case in point? My kids have found a cold slice of cheese pizza in their lunch bags more than once this year.
And, I would like to remind you that I am a professional cook.
So, in the spirit of "been there", I offer a few tips that make "lunch crafting" easier on most days along with a tried and true recipe for a creamy chicken salad that with even a reluctant eater, won't find its way to the bottom of a compost bin.
Or at least that is what I keep telling myself.
Quick and Healthy Lunch Tips:
- Plan Meals: Meal planning really works. Spending a bit of time in the beginning of each week to plan out lunches (and supper for that matter) is very helpful with time management, using up leftovers, creating balanced diets, and saving money. There are many free planners on the internet, from adorable printable planners to dense recipe databases on favorite food sites.
- Be Prepared: It is difficult to make home lunches if your pantry is bare and containers are scarce. Take the time to purchase the ingredients you need, stock your cupboards or shelves with containers and bags for lunches, and send your family off with what they need to eat well. If you can, carve out a space in your kitchen where you can make lunches with relative ease. In our house, there is a 2X2 foot counter between a drawer with my containers, jars, and baggies and a shelf with our lunch pails, napkins, and nonperishable snacks.
- Eat Seasonally: It is October, and even here in Zone 3 Vermont, there are a lot of fresh fruits and vegetables at the peak of their season. Eating in season is often less expensive than out of season - like trying to buy strawberries in January. Use the Vermont Department of Agriculture’s harvest calendar to help you know what is available locally.
- Create a Habit: Get into a rhythm of planning and making lunches so that it becomes a part of your routine. If your mornings are often hectic, carve out a few minutes in the evening to start thinking about and setting up lunches for the next day. Are you an early bird? Take the quiet time in the morning to get lunches started and have them ready before the kids head out for school. No matter how you do it, there are bound to be bumps along the way, but stick with it. Your consistency will give birth to a healthy habit.
- Remember this Formula: Lean Protein + Whole Grain + Fresh Vegetable + Sensible Swee. To create balanced lunches, pair a healthy protein with a whole grain option and then add some fresh veggies and a sensible, satisfying sweet to ward off less sensible choices. Some ideas include:
- Egg salad + whole grain crackers + chopped romaine lettuce + 2 chocolate kisses
- Turkey breast + whole wheat wrap + mashed butternut squash + apple slices
- Black beans + brown rice + pico de gallo salsa and/or guacamole + popcorn with cinnamon and maple sugar
- Think outside the box: You do not have to eat a sandwich to have lunch. I have packed up meals that were repurposed from supper two nights before or a very basic mix of cheddar cheese, sliced apples, roasted pumpkin seeds, and whole grain crackers. It is easy to get caught up in the mundane of day-to-day, but try mixing things up and offer your family some unusual choices. Their interest and desire to try new things just might surprise you!
Does all this mean that you will put together elegant, healthy, AND delicious lunches five days a week, receiving rave reviews from friends and family? Eh, probably not, but you can inch closer to lunch stardom if you plan ahead, create habits, and persevere, even when you hit a bump in the road.
To get started, try this easy, tasty chicken salad recipe.
Creamy Dreamy Chicken Salad
Approximately 6 servings
Cook’s Notes: The yogurt gives the chicken the slightest bit of tang, making the salad more interesting. The lower calories from the light mayo and yogurt means this is all about the chicken, the protein, and the vegetables rather than the dressing. Use it as a sandwich filling or on top of greens or both! If you prefer a drier chicken salad, start with just a third of the dressing, and add more as you like. No time to poach chicken? No problem. Leftover chicken works fantastic!
2lbs chicken breasts or chicken tenders (can substitute with two 10 oz cans of chicken, drained)
1⁄3 cup chopped celery
1⁄3 cup chopped bell pepper, green
2 tablespoons of red onion, minced
4 to 7 tablespoons of sliced almonds, roasted pumpkin seeds or sunflower seeds
1⁄4 to 1⁄3 cup of dried fruit (cranberries and apricots are delicious)
1⁄3 cup of light mayonnaise
1⁄3 cup of plain lowfat or nonfat yogurt
1 tablespoon of dijon or whole grain mustard (can substitute yellow mustard)
1 tablespoon of lemon juice
1 tablespoon of cider vinegar
1 teaspoon or less of maple syrup or honey (optional)
1⁄2 teaspoon of salt (or to taste)
1⁄2 teaspoon of ground black pepper (can substitute ground white pepper to give it less “bite”)
Fill a large pot 2⁄3 full of water and bring to a boil. Carefully add the chicken breast or tenders and bring back to a simmer over medium high heat. Cover and simmer uncovered for 20 minutes (breasts) or 15 minutes (tenders) or until a thermometer reads 165 F. Remove chicken from pot and let sit for 5 minutes or until cool enough to handle. Shred the meat with a fork and refrigerate for 30 minutes or until cooled.
In a medium bowl or large measuring cup, whisk together the mayo, yogurt, mustard, lemon juice, vinegar and maple syrup. Add the salt and pepper to taste.
In a large bowl, pile the shredded chicken, celery, bell pepper, onion, nuts/seeds and dried fruit. Pour on the dressing and gently fold together until mixed. Cover and refrigerate until ready to serve.
Elena Gustavson is a food enthusiast and the Coordinator for RAFFL’s Everyday Chef Food & Cooking Education program.