Yet, another special day, one more of our little dotes had her hair brushed, (no mean feat), donned her school uniform, shiny new shoes and school bag for the very first time, always a bitter sweet moment and an anxious one.
She’s really excited now but how will she take to school? Her big sister and brother will take special care of her so she will hopefully settle in a couple of days….
In the UK and US children are provided with a school lunch, a subject of much controversy.
Jamie Oliver did much to highlight the poor quality of the school food in the UK. A few schools do a brilliant job and where extra effort is made, the teachers find a tangible difference in the children’s behaviour and concentration levels in the classrooms. Some are convinced that this results in happier kids who miss less school days through colds and flus.
One way or another, school lunch is vitally important for children’s health and wellbeing yet it seems to be very low on many governments list of priorities. In the US, Alice Waters original Edible School Yard Project in Berkley in California has been an inspiration for many more initiatives across the country and indeed the world.
Each school has a school garden where the children learn how to grow some of their own food, then cook it and sit down at the table with their friends to enjoy the fruits of their labour.
They love the experience, learn lots of skills and get credits for eating school lunch- what’s not to love about that model.
Stephanie Alexander’s Kitchen Garden project is similar and has been rolled out into over 650 schools in Australia and still counting….
I have visited both these projects and several others, and have been blown away by the enthusiasm of both children and teachers, as well as the deeply grateful parents.
Most recently at the MAD food Symposium in Copenhagen I attended two sessions on school food given by Dan Giusti who was originally sous chef in Noma (the top restaurant in the world). After years of feeding 45 or 50 privileged guests a night, he felt the need for a change and yearned to feed more people. So after much thought and consideration, he decided to create a school lunch project called Brigade, www.chefsbrigaid.com based in a small town in Connecticut called New London where 1 in 4 children are below the poverty line. Many are certified homeless so the food they eat on Friday at school is most probably the last meal they will eat until the following Monday…..
The challenge for Dan and his team on the Brigaid project is not easy. There are 85 pages of government nutritional guidelines, allergies, ethnic preferences, logistics…
Plus the budget for each child’s food is $3.31, which must include a glass of milk and cover other expenses so $1.25 in real terms.
In that case one has to let go of deeply held preferences for local sustainable produce and do ones very best within the restrictions. Dan has gradually changed the system to do ‘from scratch’ cooking and uses plates as opposed to disposable moulded plastic containers. The kids have become much more engaged and now it will be rolled out in some schools in the South Bronx in New York City, where a million kids get a free school lunch every day.
I asked Dan what was the kids favourite lunch – he told me barbequed bone-in chicken with warm corn bread and potato salad.
So back to the reality in Ireland – where like everywhere else much depends on the quality of our children’s school lunch. It’s a constant concern and hassle for parents, it needs to be nutritious, delicious and not too nerdy. It’s quite a tight rope to navigate. If it is too different from the norm, we run the risk of our kids being teased or ridiculed by their friends which may be ‘water off a ducks back’ to parents but can devastate a child and may well result in them skipping lunch altogether.
It’s fun to involve older children in making their own packed lunches, many are now becoming very adventurous, hummus, wraps, dips, chunky soups, yoghurts, rice bowls and salad jars are becoming the norm but ham sandwiches are still the favourite so the quality of bread is super important, ditch the processed ham for a piece of thinly sliced home-cooked bacon and a piece of good cheddar. A mixture of nuts or spiced seeds make a delicious nibble, chunks of melon with berries tossed in honey, lemon juice and a shred of mint – delicious.
A little rainbow salad in a jar or hummus pots are easy to transport and eat. A grated carrot and apple salad is another winner and if your child likes avocado, it’s a brilliant option or you might like to try a guacamole dip. Alternatively, sticks of raw vegetables and a little pot of aioli (garlic mayo) may make an irresistible nibble. A hard-boiled egg is full of protein, a super easy option and also great with a dollop of mayo.
When the weather gets a little colder, think how your child would enjoy a warm glass of soup and a little buttered brown scone.
One Dad who take his kids foraging on a regular basis, told me how they love to have wild sorrel and sprigs of purslane and pennywort in their salad – how wild and cool is that and super nutritious. Fortunately their school friends and teachers are curious rather than dismissive, so gently does it.
Dan Giusti made another interesting observation, when they sliced the apples particularly for younger children, they ate the slices rather than throwing away the apple after taking a bite or two- obvious when you think about it (slice and tightly wrap the apple or half apple again)
Here are a few suggestions that I hope will prove enticing…
Hummus Bi Tahina
Hummus bi Tahina is a very inexpensive and delicious source of protein, this recipe makes quite a lot but you could half it. It can be stored in the fridge for a couple of days
Serves 4-8 (depending on how it is served)
170g (6oz) chickpeas, cooked, save the cooking liquid
freshly squeezed juice of 2-3 lemons, or to taste
2-3 large or small cloves garlic, crushed
150ml (5fl oz) tahini paste (available from health food shops and delicatessens)
1 teaspoon ground cumin
pitta bread or any crusty white bread, raw vegetables cut in to batons.
Drain the chickpeas, save the cooking liquid. Whizz up the remainder in a food processor with the freshly squeezed lemon juice and a little cooking water if necessary. Add the crushed garlic, tahini paste, cumin and salt to taste. Blend to a soft creamy paste. Taste and continue to add lemon juice and salt until you are happy with the flavour. Pop a lunch-box sized serving into little jars. Layer up the hummus with a selection of fresh vegetables in the jar, could be diced carrot, diced cucumber, maybe a few peas whatever you have to hand but make sure it tastes delicious
Rachel’s Bulgur Wheat Salad
Rachel likes to serve this bulgur wheat salad with roast chicken as an alternative to roast vegetables. It does a great job of soaking up the chicken juices and the ruby-like pomegranate seeds bring their gorgeous sweet-sour flavour. Any leftover chicken and salad can be simply mixed together for a divine school lunch the next day.
200g (7oz) bulgur wheat
finely grated zest and juice of 1 lemon
1 pomegranate, seeds and any juices, see tip below
1 tablespoon chopped mint
1 tablespoon chopped parsley
50ml (2fl oz) olive oil
salt and pepper
Cover the bulgur wheat in boiling water and allow to soak for 10-15 minutes until just soft. Drain well.
Mix the lemon juice and zest, pomegranate seeds and any juice, herbs and olive oil. Stir through the bulgur wheat and season with salt and pepper to taste.
Rachel’s Tip: There is a smart trick to quickly removing the seeds of a pomegranate without removing much pith and avoiding any fiddly peeling. Cut the pomegranate in half, then hold in the cupped palm of your hand, cut side down over a large bowl. Use the back of a wooden spoon to hit the pomegranate and let the seeds fall through your fingers. Keep hitting the back of the pomegranate and you’ll soon have a bowl full of pomegranate seeds. Remove any small bits of pith then repeat with the other half.
Carrot and Sweet Potato Soup
Serves 6 approx.
This soup may be served either hot or cold, don’t hesitate to put in a good pinch of sugar, it brings up the flavour.
450g (1lb) carrots, preferably organic, chopped
45g (1½oz) butter
110g (4oz) onion, chopped
140g (5oz) potatoes, chopped
140g (5oz) sweet potatoes, chopped
salt, freshly ground pepper and sugar
sprig of spearmint
1.1Litre (2 pints) home-made light chicken or vegetable stock
62ml (2½fl oz) creamy milk, (optional)
3 teaspoons freshly chopped spearmint
a little lightly whipped cream or crème fraiche
sprigs of spearmint
Melt the butter and when it foams add the chopped vegetables, season with salt and freshly ground pepper and sugar. Add a sprig of mint, cover with a butter paper (to retain the steam) and a tight fitting lid. Leave to sweat gently on a low heat for about 10 minutes approx. Remove the lid, add the stock and boil until the vegetables are soft. Pour the soup into the liquidiser. Add 3 teaspoons of freshly chopped mint, puree until smooth. Add a little creamy milk if necessary. Taste and adjust seasoning
Garnish with a swirl of lightly whipped cream or crème fraiche and a sprig of fresh mint.
Tip: Buy unwashed local carrots whenever possible, they have immeasurably better flavour and keep longer Heirloom seeds are said to have more vitality and food value than F1 hybrids.
A Little Brown Soda Bread Loaf
The buttermilk in the shops is low fat but if you have access to rich, thick buttermilk, there is no need to add butter or extra cream.
This little loaf of brown soda bread is mixed in minutes and then just poured into a tin. A few seeds can be sprinkled over the top or added to the dough for extra nourishment. Why not weigh up x 5 times the amount of flour and salt (but not bread soda). Mix well and each time just scoop out 450g (16oz), add bread soda and buttermilk – mix and pour into the tin.
Makes 1 loaf
225g (8oz) brown wholemeal flour (preferably stone-ground)
225g (8oz) plain white flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 level teaspoon bread soda (Bicarbonate of Soda/Baking Soda) sieved
450ml (16fl oz) buttermilk plus 2 tablespoons cream
A selection of sesame, pumpkin, sunflower and poppy seeds (optional)
1 loaf tin 13x20cm (5x8inch) approx. brushed with sunflower oil
First preheat the oven to 200°C/400°F/Gas Mark 6
Mix all the dry ingredients together in a large wide bowl, (if using cream, add to the buttermilk). Make a well in the centre and pour all of the buttermilk. Using one hand, stir in a full circle starting in the centre of the bowl working towards the outside of the bowl until all the flour is incorporated. The dough should be soft. When it all comes together, a matter of seconds, turn it into the oiled tin – slide a knife down the centre of the loaf. Sprinkle with a mixture of sesame, sunflower, pumpkin and poppy seeds.
Bake in the preheated oven for 60 minutes approximately.
(In some ovens it is necessary to turn the bread upside down on the baking sheet for 5-10 minutes before the end of baking) It will sound hollow when tapped. Cool on a wire rack, wrapped in a clean tea-towel while hot if you prefer a softer crust.
Note:One could add 12g (1/2oz) fine oatmeal, 1 egg, and rub in 25g (1oz) butter to the above to make a richer soda bread dough.
Note: Bread should always be cooked in a fully pre-heated oven, but ovens vary enormously so it is necessary to adjust the temperature accordingly.
Easy even for the kids to make, a delicious dip for home made crisps, corn chips or raw vegetable sticks
1 ripe avocado
1-2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lime or lemon juice
1 tablespoon olive oil
sea salt and freshly ground pepper
1 tablespoon fresh coriander or flat parsley
Scoop out the flesh from the avocado. Mash with a fork, add lime juice, olive oil, chopped coriander, salt and freshly ground pepper to taste.
Homemade Potato Crisps or Game Chips
Making chips at home is definitely worthwhile – a few potatoes produce
a ton of crisps and nothing you buy in any shop will be even half as delicious. A mandolin is well worth buying for making chips – but mind your fingers! When these are served with roast pheasant they are called game chips
450g (1lb) large, even-sized potatoes
extra virgin olive oil or beef dripping for deep-fat frying
Wash and peel the potatoes. For even-sized crisps, trim each potato with a swivel-top peeler until smooth. Slice them very finely, preferably with a mandolin. Soak in cold water to remove the excess starch (this will also prevent them from discolouring or sticking together). Drain off the water and dry well.
In a deep-fat fryer, heat the oil or dripping to 180ºC/350ºF. Drop in the dry potato slices a few at a time and fry until golden and completely crisp. Drain on kitchen paper and sprinkle lightly with salt. Repeat until they are all cooked.
If they are not to be served immediately, they may be stored in a tin box and reheated in a low oven just before serving.
Stewed Bramley Apple Pots
The trick with stewed apple is to cook it covered on a low heat with very little water. Pop it into little pots and maybe top with a dollop of cream and a sprinkling of soft dark brown sugar…
Also great with flapjack dips… see below
Serves 10 approx.
450g (1 lb) cooking apples, e.g. Bramley Seedling or Grenadier
1-2 dessertspoons water
55g (2 ozs) sugar, depending on how tart the apples are
Peel, quarter and core the apples. Cut the pieces into two and put in a stainless steel or cast iron saucepan with sugar and water. Cover and cook over a low heat. As soon as the apple has broken down, beat into a puree, stir and taste for sweetness. Serve warm.
These nutritious oatmeal biscuits keep very well in a tin. Children love to munch them with a banana. Don’t compromise – make them with butter, because the flavour is immeasurably better. This is the recipe that I use when I want to prove to people who swear they can’t boil water that they can cook. We often drizzle them with melted chocolate as an extra treat. Makes about 24
350g (12oz) butter
1 tablespoon golden syrup
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
225g (8oz) caster sugar
450g (1lb) rolled oatmeal (porridge oats)
Swiss roll tin 25 x 38cm (10 x 15in)
Preheat the oven to 180°C/350°F/gas mark 4.
Melt the butter, add the golden syrup and vanilla extract, stir in the sugar and oatmeal and mix well. Spread evenly into the Swiss roll tin.
Bake until golden and slightly caramelised, about 30 minutes. Cut into squares while still warm – they will crisp up as they cool.
Oatmeal and coconut flapjacks
substitute 50g (2oz) desiccated coconut for 50g (2oz) oatmeal in the above recipe.
Rachel’s Drop Scones
110g (4ozs) self-raising flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
25g (1oz/1/8 cup) caster sugar
pinch of salt
110ml (4fl ozs/) milk
drop of sunflower oil, for greasing
Sift the flour and baking powder into a bowl, add the sugar and salt and stir to mix. Make a well in the centre, crack in the egg and whisk, gradually drawing in the flour from the edge. Add the milk gradually, whisking all the time, to form a smooth batter.
Lightly grease a frying pan and warm it over a moderate heat. Drop 3 tablespoons (3 American tablespoons + 3 teaspoons) of the batter into the pan, keeping well apart so they don’t stick together. Cook for about 2 minutes or until bubbles appear on the surface and begin to burst and the drop scones are golden underneath, then flip them over and cook on the other side for a minute or until golden on this side as well.
Remove from the pan and serve warm with butter and jam, apple jelly, lemon curd or if you are like my children, chocolate spread! (If you wish, wrap the drop scones in a clean tea towel to keep warm while you make the rest.)