The Lunchbox Homestretch

Packing lunchboxes at the end of the school year sometimes feels like the worst. chore. ever. Am I right? Unfortunately those lunchboxes can't pack themselves, so here are some recent lunchboxes that I hope will give you some inspiration to help you through the lunchbox homestretch. If you're looking for more frequent ideas, be sure to follow along on Instagram. And of course, if you want to take the guesswork out of packing lunch, download the LaLa Lunchbox app (free on iOS), hand the phone over to your kids and empower them to make choices -- all within a list of available options that you control. 

Anyway, below are 5 lunchboxes, all with a slightly different approach, but with a common theme: they all have an abundance of fresh fruits and vegetables, they're all nut free and they all took less than 10 minutes to put together. 

1. Leftovers! My kids had tortellini one night recently for dinner and I made much more than I needed for dinner so that I could pack it in the lunchboxes. Easy peasy. Toss that in the bento with some fruit and a veggie and you're good to go. This lunch is nut free and vegetarian. 

leftovers

2. The Big Dipper. This lunchbox has two dipping options: sunflower seed butter and hummus. There are veggies, corn chips and apple slices for dipping and a fun little polka dotted banana with the sweet treat of mini chocolate chips. It's a finger-friendly lunchbox. This lunch is dairy free, nut free, gluten free and vegetarian. 

Big Dipper

3. The New Outfit. I don't know about you, but I've packed pretty much this same lunch a thousand times. Look closely and let's break it down: it's a cheese sandwich, with fruit, carrots, lettuce and a brownie. But here I've used a different bread (these are bistro buns) and I popped the raspberries on top of the baby carrots. It's old familiar foods, dressed up in a new outfit, and sometimes that's all the jazzing up that's needed. This lunch is nut free, gluten free, dairy free and vegan. 
 

The New Outfit

4. The Crunchy Bruncher. This lunch is half brunch, half crunch. There are wafflewiches with sunflower seed butter (aka: frozen mini waffles made into sandwiches with sunflower seed butter - and any nut butter will do here), and dates for that creamy sweet appeal, plus pretzels, crunchy veggies and guacamole for dipping. There's a sunflower seed butter and chocolate cup for a treat. A fun lunch to eat! This lunch is nut free and vegetarian. 

The Crunchy Bruncher

5. The DIY. Do you have Taco Tuesday at your house? We frequently do, and my kids love to make their own tacos for lunch the next day with leftovers. Here we've got corn tortillas with chicken (seasoned with my homemade taco seasoning) with lettuce and peppers. Kids can put their fixins on at lunch and gobble it up. On the sweet side, we've got watermelon with mint and some dye free gummy bears. This lunch is nut free, dairy free, gluten free and vegan. 

The DIY

What's your lunchbox homestretch strategy? Email me, I'd love to hear it! 

Birthday Brownies

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The year that I sent my daughter to school with strawberry shortcakes on her birthday will probably go down as the worst.

She's always been a strawberry girl, drawn to both the fresh-picked, tiny sweet ones and the large, often less flavorful ones we find at the market. Ages ago, she came across a fun fact that strawberries were the only fruit that had seeds on the outside, and it became one of her favorite stories to tell for a while. She's also huge fan of all things bready, and biscuits fit beautifully in that category. And fresh whipped cream? It's got her name all over it. My mother made strawberry shortcakes for her one day and she was smitten. 

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So that year for her 5th birthday, I made strawberry shortcakes - at her request - for her in-school celebration. The kids hated them! Okay, hate is definitely too strong, but I learned that kids have expectations for classroom birthdays and strawberry shortcakes didn't make the cut. That's a whole other topic, and I'd love to discuss it but I'm all about the birthday dessert today. Anyway, we had a lot left over that year, which no one here complained about. 

 Brownies are universally beloved. 

Brownies are universally beloved. 

From then on, my kids have requested more traditional things for school, like cupcakes or cookies. Works for me. At some point, they'll stop asking for homemade desserts for school birthdays, so I'm happy to comply annually until then. This year, my newly minted 12 year old asked if I could please make brownies for school. Brownies were definitely not going to be panned. Who doesn't love brownies? I *love* them. An extra batch of brownies doesn't stay around for long, and making them is easy and fun. 

The recipe that I've been loving lately is adapted from Smitten Kitchen. The brownies are dark, rich, chocolatey and not too sweet, and definitely not cakey. I made four batches in two days, sending off three to school and saving one for us. I've replaced the AP flour with oat flour, making these gluten free, and I've reduced both the sugar and the cocoa powder. I also found that they needed a bit more time to cook, so I've reflected that in this recipe (scroll down). 

Here's how easy they are to make (as opposed to strawberry shortcakes, which took me way longer, and were much more labor intensive). It's just 7 ingredients and 6 steps --- take a look:  

 Brownie ingredients: 7

Brownie ingredients: 7

1. First mix the butter and sugar.

 butter + sugar

butter + sugar

2. Add cocoa powder and stir to combine. 

added cocoa powder

3. Add salt. 

Add salt

4. Add eggs and vanilla. 

add eggs

5. Add oat flour and give it one final stir. 

Add oat flour

6. Ready to bake! Place in a parchment lined pan in a preheated 325 degree oven for 25-28 minutes.

ready to bake

 

Birthday Brownies

  • 10 tablespoons unsalted butter (room temperature)
  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • 3/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder (natural or Dutch-process)
  • heaping 1/4 teaspoon flaked salt
  • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • 2 large eggs, cold
  • 1/2 cup oat flour

Preheat the oven to 325°F. Line the bottom and sides of an 8×8-inch square baking pan with parchment paper or grease with avocado oil or butter.

Combine the butter and sugar in a large bowl. Add cocoa powder and salt and stir until all lumps are gone. Stir in vanilla, eggs and oat flour and mix with a wooden spoon until the batter is smooth and thick. Spread evenly into the pan. 

Bake for approximately 25-28 minutes or until the brownies have set and a cake tester comes out clean. Let cool completely on a rack. Cut into 16 or 25 squares and watch them disappear. 

ultimate brownies

Homemade Nut Free, Gluten Free Granola

Finding a granola that's tasty, nut free and also not loaded with weird ingredients used to be hard. Do you have a favorite brand? There are loads of great options out there, but I found my happy place when I started regularly making my own. Lately I've been leaving the big jar out on my kitchen counter and it gets demolished pretty quickly. My son plans granola + yogurt + fruit for his lunch at least once a week, and with a big jar on hand, it's super easy to pack.

parfait lunchbox

I love homemade granola because it's straightforward, versatile, and with a million different ways to keep it interesting, no two batches are ever the same. Some weeks, ours includes lots of seeds (pumpkin, sunflower, sesame), some weeks it's heavy on dried fruit. Once I got the basic formula straight, it freed me to customize based on my pantry. 

The only hiccup arises when I shut off the oven timer but not the oven, and forget to take it out. Admittedly, this has happened more than once. Sigh. This recipe is easy enough for kids to make on their own, with adult oven supervision. It's perfect for a nut free, gluten free meal or snack, though it's best to always read labels if cross contamination is an issue for you. Be sure to check the recipe notes following the recipe for some variation ideas. 

homemade granola

Ingredients

2 1/2 cups old-fashioned rolled oats
1/2 cup pumpkin seeds
1/4 cup sesame seeds
1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon
1/2 cup coconut oil
1/3 cup maple syrup
2 teaspoons vanilla
1/4 cup dried unsweetened coconut or coconut chips
1/4 cup dried cherries

Method
1. Preheat oven to 350°F.
2. Combine the oats and seeds together in a large bowl.
3. Mix in the cocoa powder, salt and cinnamon.
4. Stir in the oil, maple, and vanilla.
5. Place onto a parchment-lined sheet pan and bake for about 25-30 minutes, or until the granola is light brown.
6. Add coconut in the last 10 minutes of baking.
7. Remove from the oven and add dried cherries. Let the whole thing cool.
8. Store in an airtight container for up to 10 days.

Notes: 
1. If you can have nuts, feel free to add those in! A little crunch would probably be delightful here. Start with 1/2 cup and go from there. Add at the same time as seeds. 
2. If you don't want cocoa powder, eliminate it. I like the earthy flavor that it adds, but it's not for everyone. 
3. If you don't have coconut oil, any neutral oil (like avocado or grapeseed) will do. 
4. Feel free to substitute any dried fruit for the dried cherries. Options might include chopped dried apricots, or raisins, or dried banana pieces. 
5. I love coconut, but if you hate it, eliminate it. 
6. I've tried this recipe with honey, and I prefer maple's more subtle sweetness. Both are doable in this recipe though. 
7. I've tried reducing the amount of maple added, but it didn't taste as good in my opinion. 

Overcooked granola happens (see below). Don't sweat it. Just eat it. #wastenotwantnot 

lunchbox with overcooked granola

Want more lunchbox inspiration? Right this way.... 
Looking for meal planning help with lunchboxes? I've got you covered

Olive Oil Lemon Cake with Blueberries and Ricotta

olive oil lemon cake

I thought about making a pie today, in celebration of Pi Day (3/14). But truth be told, I'm not such a pie-making gal. It's the crust that intimidates me. My mom is a phenomenal pie maker. Her pies are the stuff of legend. She learned from her mom, who was also celebrated for her pies, with their perfectly balanced fruit fillings and their perfectly textured crusts. 

Not sure how or why I yearned to learn how to cook certain foods from my mom but not others. But that's how the cookie crumbled for me. So today, though I wanted to bake a pie, instead I baked a cake. 

I'm anxious for spring, so I wanted something light and fruity. Immediately I thought about an olive oil cake. I perused several recipes (like this one and this one) and then came up with my own.  

Without further ado, here's the recipe: 

ingredients

INGREDIENTS
1 cup whole milk ricotta
1/3 cup +2 tablespoons olive oil (I used a very fruity evoo)
3 large eggs
3/4 cup white sugar
Zest of 2 whole lemons
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups all purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1 pint blueberries

METHOD

  • Preheat the oven to 350. Line the bottom of a springform pan with parchment and spray with a neutral oil.
  • Combine the ricotta, olive oil, eggs, sugar, lemon zest and vanilla extract. Don't overbeat... this can all be done by hand. 
  • In a separate bowl, add the dry ingredients (flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt). Slowly add the dry ingredients to the wet ingredients and stir until fully combined.
  • Next, get a clean bowl and pour in half of the batter. Add half of the blueberries to half of the batter. This will be the bottom of the cake. Pour this into your springform pan. 
  • Add the remaining batter on top of this cake and decorate with blueberries as you'd like. 
  • If you'd like to make it easier, you can combine all of the batter and all of the blueberries. This method is best if you have a design in mind for the top. 
separate half batter and half berries
top with batter

When you have finished designing your blueberry top, bake for approximately 35 minutes. the top will be slightly golden brown and the texture inside will be moist and delicious. 

olive oil cake pre-baked

Once this is finished baking, set aside to rest and cool for at least 10 minutes. It's bright and satisfying, but not too sweet. The ricotta adds depth and the lemon zest and blueberries balance out the sugar. You'll absolutely notice a change in flavor with a change of olive oil in this cake. Experiment and see what you like best! Enjoy immediately, or savor it over the course of several days (if it lasts that long!) 

olive oil cake

Cured Egg Yolks

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The humble egg is a family favorite. It's a quick, healthy solution for breakfast. A reliable standby for lunch. A welcome change for dinner. When I came across something recently about cured egg yolks, my curiosity was peaked and I had to dive right in. I've tinkered with the original recipe from Bon Appetit slightly, and am looking forward to continuing to experiment with it. 

Cured yolks add a salty, creamy depth to dishes. I grate them over pasta, over salads, on simple steamed vegetables and on top of several types of toast. They add an umami dimension that is eminently satisfying. Here's my favorite part: you can use them in place of a hard, salty cheese to make a dish dairy free. I used four yolks each time I made this recipe, and because a little goes a long way, they last a long time. (Make sure to reduce the amount of added salt to a dish if you plan on adding cured egg yolks). You can see the step by step process that I used below, or follow along on my highlighted Instagram Story

Without further ado, here's my adapted recipe: 

INGREDIENTS

  • 1 2/3 cups kosher salt 

  • 11/4 cups sugar

  • 4 large egg yolks

  • 1 tablespoon lemon zest OR 2 tablespoons of fresh chopped dill (optional, or add your own fresh herb)

  • Nonstick vegetable oil spray

PROCESS

Whisk salt and sugar (and optional lemon zest or herb of choice) in a bowl to combine. Evenly spread out half of salt mixture in an 8x8" glass baking dish. Using the back of a tablespoon, create 4 depressions in salt mixture, spacing evenly. Carefully place an egg yolk in each depression. You can freeze the whites in an ice cube tray if you don't plan to use them immediately. Gently sprinkle remaining salt mixture over yolks and cover the dish with plastic wrap. Refrigerate for 2 days. (continued below)

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Preheat oven to 150°F. My oven only goes as low as 170°F, so that's what I used. Brush salt mixture off each yolk, then carefully rinse under cold water to remove any remaining salt (yolks will be semi-firm, and bright, as shown below). Gently pat dry with paper towels. They'll look a lot like glacéd apricots. 

Generously coat a wire rack set inside a rimmed baking sheet with nonstick spray; place yolks on rack. Dry out in oven until opaque and texture is like a firm Gruyère cheese, about 80-90 minutes. You can experiment with the timing of this based on how firm or soft you'd like your yolks. When the cooking is done, let them cool. They will last up to a month in a refrigerated airtight container. 

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Here are some of the ways that I used them: 

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Top left: here we've got sourdough toast with labne, avocado, thin slices of cured egg yolks, microgreens and fresh ground pepper. 

Top right: simple salad with micro greens, baby arugula, purple radish and grated cured egg yolks. 

Bottom left: fresh pasta with oven roasted oyster mushrooms and baby kale with grated cured egg yolk and fresh pepper. 

 sourdough toast with avocado, watermelon radish and grated cured egg yolk

sourdough toast with avocado, watermelon radish and grated cured egg yolk

 DIY Toast with cured egg shavings, guacamole, radishes and lime.

DIY Toast with cured egg shavings, guacamole, radishes and lime.

 Polenta with roasted cremini mushrooms, scallions and cured egg yolk.

Polenta with roasted cremini mushrooms, scallions and cured egg yolk.