Read: The Echo | Back to school: think outside the lunchbox
And so we’re back!
After a summer of irregular hours, scratch meals and general mayhem, there’s a certain amount of relief – for both parents and children – in returning to a systematic school day structure. September and the start of the new school year always brings a new opportunity to reset. No matter what bad habits have crept into the household during the last few months, it’s now time to face forward with firm resolutions and get a little more organised.
Despite kids’ excitement at going back to school, it’s often not easy, leaving them wrestling with new rooms, classmates, teachers and challenges. Make life easier by starting the day off right with a decent breakfast. Then, once everyone has been fortified,, pack a lunch that serves as a tasty punctuation to the school day. When the children are back home, make sure that they have a nutritious snack that can carry them through to dinnertime.
Deirdre Doyle, who set up The Cool Food School in 2017 and has been running online cooking workshops since the lockdown, has a couple of classes focusing on school lunches. Her Inspiring Lunchbox Ideas for Adults and Fun Lunchbox Making for kids are Zoom events that can be taken separately or together. Pre Covid, Doyle, who has three children of her own, had held sandwich making classes with kids in schools. This year she decided to offer the option of doing it online. “It seemed like a logical next step,” she tells me. “And then I thought it would be good to offer a similar class to [both] parents and children so everyone can be on the same page, so to speak, when it comes to making lunch boxes!”
One way of getting lunchboxes sorted is to put the kids to work. “This is my top tip for parents,” says Doyle, “and it is part of the reason why I’m running the online classes! My children have been making their own school lunches for years, since they were about six.” A great advantages of getting children involved is that they’re more likely to actually consume the food. “The key is to provide them with food that you want them to eat – a selection of fruit, veggies, meats or cheeses for sandwiches etc. – and let them put the lunchbox together themselves.”
Despite all the efforts at getting kids to eat a healthy school lunch, it’s important to realise that they’re not the be-all and end-all of your child’s diet. Doyle sums it up: “remember that school lunches are only one meal in a child’s day – if you feel their lunchbox choices are not the best, then compensate at the other meals you provide.”
Just remember: we will survive.
Online back to school prep
- Deirdre Doyle’s Cool Food School classes on lunchbox making take place on 26 and 28 August. (€28 for the two classes) www.thecoolfoodschool.ie
- Starting on 6 September, The Bunnery has an online group back to school class (€30) focusing on healthy bakes that can be used in lunchboxes and as afterschool snacks. thebunneryonline.com
- Kids Cook Cookery School runs a cookalong lunchbox workshop (€25) on 25 August. Kidscookcookingclub.com
SET THEM UP FOR GREATNESS: BREAKFAST
Between uniform emergencies, missing copybooks and disappearing water bottles – while also trying to get yourself ready for work – school mornings are never less than peak madness. There may be no extra time to linger at the kitchen table, but it’s important to make time for breakfast, especially for young bodies who need fuel for growing, learning and playing. With a little organisation the night before it’s possible to feed the family and still get out the door in time.
1. Feeling your oats
One of the best moves you can make in the morning is to change from sweet breakfast cereals to wholegrain options or, better yet, start the day with a bowl of oats. This time of year, it’s best to start with overnight oats, cool from the fridge and topped with fruit – especially if that includes the last of the Irish summer strawberries – then move on to steaming bowls of porridge when the weather changes.
50g porridge oats
Fruit, eg strawberries, sliced banana, chopped apple etc
Honey or maple syrup
Optional: chopped almonds or nut butter
The night before, put oats into a jar, cover with milk and put the lid on the jar. Shake well and refrigerate overnight.
At breakfast time, mix well, adding extra milk for the desired consistency, and tip into a bowl. Top with fruit and yogurt to taste, drizzle with honey or maple syrup and, if your kids are amenable, sprinkle with almonds or add a spoonful of their favourite nut butter.
2. Go to school on an egg
Eggs, in any format, will keep kids filled up until lunchtime and one of the easiest options is a simple boiled egg, paired with some wholemeal toast fingers for dipping. Bring a small pan of water to the boil, lower room temperature eggs carefully into the bubbling water, cover with a lid and simmer for 6 minutes for soft boiled eggs. Toast and butter a couple of slices of bread, cut into fingers – every little helps, when you’re trying to persuade kids to eat something fast! – and serve.
3. Make ahead muffins
There are mornings when organisation is more important than any kind of cooking and that’s when a stash of these muffins will come in handy. Lightly sweetened with honey and packed with milk, oats, apple, carrot and seeds, these are delicious, filling and nutritious. Take some breakfast inspiration from the lovely Praline Café in Mitchelstown and serve one of these warm with a dollop of natural yogurt and some fruit compote.
The seeds are optional for those kids who don’t like “bits” in their muffins. Just don’t tell them about all the other good stuff! These muffins freeze and reheat well. Makes 12.
80g rolled oats
60ml olive oil
125g wholemeal flour
75g plain flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
1/2 teaspoon ground mixed spice
Pinch of sea salt
1 small carrot, grated. Approx 80g.
1 small apple, grated. Approx 80g.
50g mixed seeds eg sunflower, poppy, sesame, pumpkin seeds (optional)
For sprinkling on top: a handful of extra oats and/or seeds
Preheat the oven to 180C (160C for fan ovens) and use paper cases to line a 12-hole muffin tin.
Mix the milk, yogurt, rolled oats, honey, olive oil and egg together.
Measure the wholemeal and plain flours, baking powder, bicarbonate of soda, mixed spice and salt into a large bowl and mix well. Tip the liquid ingredients into the bowl and stir gently to combine. Sprinkle the grated carrot, apple and (optional) seeds on top and fold into the mixture. This is a thick mixture.
Divide between the prepared paper cases, sprinkle with oats and/or seeds and bake for 22-25 minutes or until a skewer inserted into the middle of a muffin comes out clean. Cool in tin for 5 minutes, then remove to a cooling rack. Allow to cool thoroughly before freezing.
PACK FOR PERFECTION: SCHOOL LUNCHES
According to the HSE Healthy Lunchbox leaflet, a healthy lunchbox should contain:
At least one portion of vegetables / salad or fruit.
Protein: One portion of meat or meat alternatives eg eggs, fish, beans and pulses.
Carbohydrate: One portion of wholemeal breads or cereals.
Dairy: One portion of dairy eg milk, yogurt, cheese.
A good lunchbox is essential to help your child to remain alert and active throughout the school day. This is something that schools recognise and encourage through their own healthy eating policies. Check with your own school for any rules regarding treats. Schools may also have policies prohibiting nuts – or items that may contain nuts – due to allergies in the school, so that’s Nutella off the menu.
Now, knowing what you can’t include, get the kids involved in planning before school starts. Get a big page of drawing paper, divide it into four columns to correspond with the HSE lunchbox guidelines and get your children to fill it in with lunch ideas. Make sure that there are lots of options, not just the same sandwich every day. Give them plenty of guidance – and do bear in mind that it is part of our job as parents to encourage them to try different foods occasionally. When it’s all complete – colours and illustrations are a very necessary part of the process! – stick this chart up in the kitchen as a reminder for mornings when you can’t think what to pack.
Five simple lunchboxes
Leftover roast lamb, feta and humus in wholemeal pita pockets
A handful of carrot sticks
Small bunch of grapes
Tuna and sweetcorn in granary bread
Cheddar cheese + crackers
Chicken and pesto pasta salad
Handful cherry tomatoes
Greek yogurt with chopped dried fruit to sprinkle on top
Egg mayonnaise with green salad leaves in wholemeal rolls
A kiwifruit, cut in half with a spoon to scoop it out
Small tub of yogurt
Savoury puff pastry pinwheels with cheese and bacon
A wholemeal scone
Always include a drink of water in a bottle that they can manage to open, close and refill themselves. No other drinks need apply.
AFTER SCHOOL SNACKOLOGY
The first question when I pick up the girls from school – often before we’ve even taken a step from the school gate – is “what’s for snack?” Unless I’m well prepared, a wrong answer to hangry smallies can set a dismal tone for an afternoon of homework. Turns out that I’m not the only parent that gets caught on the hop: in Joshua David Stein’s Cooking For Your Kids (Phaidon 2021), a collection of recipes from renowned chefs around the world, he writes “snacks strike terror into the hearts of parents everywhere, especially afternoon snacks during the no-man’s-land between lunch and dinner.” He elicits some inventive ideas from his contributors, however, including courgette bread from Brazil, Korean jumeok-bap (rice and seaweed balls) or warming parsnip and apple soup from Newfoundland. Some ultra-cheffy twists aside, it’s a book worth checking out for any parents looking for something different to feed their kids.
For these ideas, I’ve taken inspiration from Cooking For Your Kids, focusing on ideas that have gone down well in my own kitchen.
1. Fruit smoothies
This is a great option for warm, post-school afternoons. I freeze overripe bananas so that I always have a stash ready to go, making the smoothies extra creamy and perfect for kids who come home hot and bothered. Use this recipe as a template and add whatever blendable fruit you have handy. Serves 2.
1 frozen banana, chopped up
125ml apple juice
250g natural yogurt
Optional add ins: a handful of soft fruit (extra points for reusing what they haven’t eaten in their lunchbox), 1 tablespoon of rolled oats, a spoonful of nut butter, a teaspoons of crunchy cacao nibs
Put banana, juice and yogurt into a deep jug along with any desired add ins. Using an immersion blender, blend until smooth and creamy. Pour into tall glasses.
Serve immediately with a straw and long spoon to ensure they can scoop up every last delicious drop.
2. French toast
Best way to use up stale bread? French toast! Some breads soak up more of the egg mixture than others and start to fall apart so keep a close eye on the soaking slices. This can also be made with stale bagels, slices of sourdough or even leftover sandwiches, especially anything involving ham and cheese. Serves 2.
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
4 thick slices of stale bread
1 teaspoon oil
1 tablespoon butter
Whisk the eggs, milk and vanilla together in a large shallow baking pan, or quiche dish, that can take all the slices of bread in a single layer. Soak the slices for 2 minutes on each side, until soaked all the way through.
Heat the oil and butter in a large heavy frying pan over a medium high heat until the butter foams. Carefully transfer the bread to the pan and cook, turning once, for approximately 3 minutes per side until golden brown. Serve with fruit compote, fresh berries, maple syrup or, for a savoury option, grated cheese.
3. Baked semolina pudding
Semolina was a milk pudding that I loved as a child and it is still especially good to bolster morale when you come home from school on a dreary autumn afternoon. This is delicious, rib-sticking stuff, perfect for when the weather turns colder. Serves 2.
1 teaspoon butter
1 teaspoon brown sugar
To finish: caster sugar and / or a couple of squares of dark chocolate for grating over.
Preheat the oven to 200C (180C fan oven) and butter two oven-proof ramekins.
Pour milk into a saucepan and warm over a medium heat. Gradually whisk in semolina and butter. Simmer for 5 minutes until thickened, cool slightly then sweeten with brown sugar and beat in the egg.
Divide between buttered ramekins and sprinkle with a little caster sugar. Bake for 20-25 minutes until slightly risen and brown on top. Grate a little dark chocolate on top and serve.