Back to lunch

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It’s that time of year again, moms and dads. For the past few weeks, we have been bombarded with print and television ads promoting everything kids need for back-to-school. In my day, we toted new schoolbags. Today, kids pull on backpacks filled with pencils, pens, erasers and shiny new notebooks.

Older kids store their brown-bag lunch in their backpacks. But little ones can’t wait to go shopping for the perfect lunch box and matching thermos. (OK, maybe they can wait, because the first day of school means vacation is over.) For moms and dads, they get the house back.

I like to conduct highly unscientific surveys. I have been meeting an increasing number of children who shy away from sandwiches. Let’s face it, peanut butter and jelly isn’t for everyone. Although teenagers like to tuck into ham and cheese or corned beef on rye, smaller children seem to prefer different kinds of food for their school lunch.

What’s a parent to do?

Just call me the school-lunch fairy godmother. My mission was to find foods kids love — no sandwiches, please.

Fast-food restaurants may have been the first to serve chicken fingers, but now nearly every family restaurant offers them. You can buy chicken fingers in the frozen section of the supermarket, but it’s easy to make them fresh at home. Children also enjoy small chicken legs. You can brush them with barbecue sauce or simply season them before popping them into the oven.

Pasta salad affords the chance to be creative. Any type of diced vegetable can be added to the salad. Dress it with a light vinaigrette. A small container of hummus and a handful of peeled baby carrots are also good for the lunch box. Seedless grapes, small apples, oranges or pears and a cookie are excellent choices.

When buying juice boxes, make sure you read the label carefully. You want to purchase 100-percent juice, without added sugar, corn syrup or water.

Here are recipes for the lunch box.

Crispy Oven-Baked Chicken Fingers

from Desperation Entertaining by Beverly Mills and Alicia Ross

Ingredients:

Cooking oil spray
1 cup milk
1 cup already-grated Parmesan cheese
1 cup fine bread crumbs
1 teaspoon onion powder
1 teaspoon garlic powder
8 skinless, boneless chicken-breast halves (about 2-2/3 pounds)

Directions:

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.

Spray a large baking sheet and wire rack with cooking oil.

Pour the milk into a shallow dish such as a pie pan. In a large zipper-top plastic bag, combine the Parmesan cheese, bread crumbs, onion and garlic powders. Zip the bag closed and shake to mix.

Slice each breast into six to eight thin strips. Dip the chicken strips into the milk, pop eight to 10 into the bag, zip it closed and shake to coat. Place the chicken strips on the prepared rack. Repeat until all of the chicken is coated well. Sprinkle any remaining breadcrumbs over the coated chicken.

Bake without turning, until the chicken is cooked through, about 16-18 minutes.

Serves eight.

Pasta Salad

Ingredients:

1 pound pasta of kids’ choice, such as frozen tortellini or tri-color corkscrew
Handful peeled baby carrots, diced into small chunks
1 (10-ounce) package frozen baby peas, defrosted
1 (8-ounce) jar roasted red peppers, sliced into thin strips
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Directions:

Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Cook the pasta according to package directions, drain in a colander, run cold water over the pasta and drain well. When the pasta is cool, place it in a large mixing bowl.

Add remaining ingredients and toss well. Dress the salad with olive oil and lemon juice or with a top-quality bottled vinaigrette-style salad dressing.

Cover and place in the refrigerator.

Serves four to six.

Note: Small children have unusual tastes. You also could add cooked broccoli or sliced asparagus spears to the salad. Fresh herbs such as parsley or basil, snipped with a scissors, can be added as well.

Broccoli Salad

Ingredients:

1 bag already-cut broccoli florets
1/2 cup grated carrots
Sprinkling of seedless raisins
1/4 pound grated cheddar cheese
Salt and pepper, to taste

Directions:

Bring a pot of water to a boil. Add the broccoli and blanch for one-two minutes. Drain in a colander and run cold water over the broccoli. Drain well. Cool completely.

Place the broccoli in a large mixing bowl. Add remaining ingredients and toss well. Dress with olive oil and lemon juice or top-quality bottled vinaigrette salad dressing. Cover and chill in the refrigerator.

Serves four.

Double-Chocolate Chewies

from The Cake Mix Doctor by Anne Byrn

Ingredients:

Solid vegetable shortening for greasing the cookie sheets
1 package (18.25 ounces) plain devil’s food cake mix
1/3 cup water
4 tablespoons salted butter, melted
1 large egg
1 (6-ounce) bag semisweet chocolate chips
1/2 cup chopped walnuts, pecans or hazelnuts

Directions:

Place a rack in the center of the oven and preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Lightly grease two cookie sheets with solid vegetable shortening. Set the sheets aside.

Place the cake mix, water, melted butter and egg in a mixing bowl. Blend with an electric mixer on low speed for one minute. Stop the machine and scrape down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula. Increase the speed to medium and beat for one minute more. The cookie dough will be thick. Fold in the chips and nuts until well distributed.

Drop heaping teaspoons of the dough 2 inches apart on the prepared cookie sheets. Place the sheets in the oven and bake until they have set but are a little soft in the center, 10-12 minutes. Remove sheets from the oven. Let the cookies rest on the sheets for one minute. Remove the cookies with a metal spatula to wire racks to cool completely, about 20 minutes. Repeat the baking process with the remaining dough.

Makes 48 (2-inch) cookies. You can drop the dough by heaping tablespoons, leaving 3 inches of space between the cookies. This will yield about 24 (4-inch) cookies.