The Thankful Tree

Last year, a new Thanksgiving tradition was born in our family: the Thankful Tree. I can't remember where I first came across the idea, but it was a huge hit with everyone around our Thanksgiving table. It's the spirit of Thanksgiving in a beautiful centerpiece: each member of the Thanksgiving feast has to contribute at least one leaf with what he or she is thankful for and it becomes a bouquet of gratitude. 

The Thankful Tree is basically a hands-on family craft project that immediately becomes a conversation piece. For the wee ones, of course, parents can contribute. Last year, for example, my youngest said she was thankful for "yellow," and that's what we wrote on one of the leaves. 

the Thankful Tree
Thankful Tree branches

Here's how to do it: 
1. Gather long thin branches.
2. Cut colored construction paper into leaf shapes and use a hole puncher to make a hole in each.
3. Have each person at your holiday gathering write at least one thing they are thankful for (make pens readily available).
4. Use kitchen twine or any other string to fasten the leaves onto the branches. 
5. Assemble in a vase and place at the center of your table. 

We talked about these all night long last year, and this past weekend, my family gathered branches for this year's Thankful Tree with huge excitement. I can't wait to read the leaves this year. 

What are your Thanksgiving traditions? 

Quick Weeknight Meatballs

I'm all for letting my kids have a say in their breakfasts and lunches. Their choices aren't a free for all; I customize the foods available to them by managing the Food Library on our LaLa Lunchbox and LaLa Breakfast apps and the rest is (well documented) history. The process makes my life easier, and as a working mom of 3, it's exactly what I need to survive. 

Quick Weeknight Meatballs

But dinner is all mine. I love thinking about and talking about what to cook and what to eat for dinner. While I appreciate the occasional request, and even ask my family what they're in the mood for when I'm in a dinner rut, I like being Queen of the Dinner Castle. Lately I've been making turkey meatballs with tomato sauce and pasta about once a week. It's a meal that comes together in under 30 minutes, it's filling and satisfying and if I'm lucky, there are leftovers (usually requested for lunch by my 3 year old). Despite the fact that 2 of my 3 kids won't go near a tomato, somehow they like it in the form of sauce, so this is a meal that all five of us can enjoy together. Major victory. 

Here's the secret: A couple of months ago, we harvested a bounty of basil from our tiny garden and I pureed it to make vegan pesto with garlic and olive oil and froze it in small containers. It's the "flavor pouch" to our meatballs, and as long as I can remember to defrost one of those containers in the morning, everything else falls into place. It's easy to find basil even if it's not in season, so don't fret – just puree a large handful of basil leaves with one clove of garlic and 1/4 cup of olive oil and you've got it. Here's the confession: I don't always use homemade sauce. Time is tight. There are a few places by me that make a good marinara sauce (and in a perfect quantity) so if there's no time to make this one, I outsource the job. Bottled sauce also works perfectly well. 

easy ingredients for quick weeknight meatballs

These Quick Weeknight Meatballs have just 5 ingredients: 
1.5 pounds of ground turkey (I prefer dark meat to white meat)
3/4 cup panko (or unseasoned breadcrumbs)
1 jumbo egg
2 tablespoons pesto
1 scant teaspoon salt (or salt to taste) 

Preheat the oven to 375. Combine all ingredients thoroughly in a bowl and form meatballs about 2-3 inches in diameter. Place the meatballs on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper and bake in a preheated 375 degree oven for 25 minutes. 

Turkey meatballs, ready to be baked

The meatballs will be fully cooked. You can eat them just like this! Or you can place them in a pan, cover with tomato sauce and heat until everything is warmed. While this is happening, cook the pasta as directed. We make 1 pound of pasta for our family of 5, and because it's not a ton of pasta, the meatballs really take center stage. While you wait for the water to boil, it's a great time to enlist the help of kids to quickly gather and wash salad ingredients, peel produce or do some basic chopping, if they're old enough. Dinner will be on the table in 30 minutes or less. Score! 

Pasta with Quick Weeknight Turkey Meatballs

What are your go-to weeknight meals? 

Buddha Bowl with Ginger Shallot Dressing

Hello, dinner! 

Here's a heads up: if you type the words "Buddha Bowl" into Pinterest, you may get sucked down a rabbit hole for a while. You'll find beautifully deep bowls of veggies and grains, some with beans, some with tofu, some with soy dressings, some tahini based. And then you may get ravenous. Been there, done that. 

The most complicated part of making a Buddha Bowl is all of the chopping. Other than that, it's a very straightforward recipe and a completely delicious meal. Here's how I tackled it: first I sliced a sweet potato into semi circles and placed them on a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper and drizzled with olive oil. Next to that I placed thinly sliced Brussels sprouts and kale leaves that I had torn from the stem and drizzled both with olive oil. I roasted them in a preheated 400 degree oven (the kale took no time, about 7 minutes, the Brussels sprouts took about 20, and the sweet potatoes took about 25). As those veggies were roasting, I placed 1/2 cup of quinoa into a saucepan with 1 cup of water, brought to a simmer, covered and cooked for about 15 minutes. As that cooked, I chopped the red cabbage and frisee endive. The final step was to make the dressing - the thing that brings it all together. 

buddha bowl LaLa Lunchbox

My daughters both love red cabbage, so they like to munch as I put this together. They also love shallot (raw, go figure!) so my version of this dressing had slightly less shallot than the recipe calls for, thanks to my nibblers. Also want to note that the jalapeno that I used was not super spicy and that you can adjust that based on your own heat preference. My husband and I devour Buddha Bowls, and this recipe will leave you with lots of leftover dressing. Woot woot! 

Ginger Shallot Dressing
1/4 cup olive oil
2 tablespoons of fresh chopped ginger
1 chopped shallot
1 teaspoon chopped jalapeño
2 tablespoons honey
3 tablespoons white wine vinegar
Salt and pepper to taste 

Combine all ingredients and blend in a cuisinart or medium sized bowl with immersion blender. Pour into a jar and refrigerate for use all week! 

What's In My Freezer?

When my kids were babies, my diaper bag was ready for anything. I'm a planner and I like to be prepared for the "what if" scenarios. My pantry is always stocked with extra cans of beans, coconut milk and dried grains, I keep a roll of paper towels and a travel potty in the trunk of my car. Just in case! My mother laughs at this (lovingly), but I am who I am. Unfortunately though, because I live in NYC, I can't fully apply the "what if" laws to my freezer, which is a sliver of the size I want it to be. 

So while I dream of making and freezing gallons of soup or lasagnes, and having these fabulous lunches or breakfasts for my kids all ready-to-go, my real-life space constraints make that impossible. What's a gal to do? Prioritize. I've boiled down the "freezer what ifs" to our family's most important:

chocolate stash in my freezer
  • What if I feel like making smoothies? I always have frozen fruit (this is great for lunches and pies too!).
  • What if someone is sick and we need soup? I usually have a small container of carrot soup or bean soup on hand in the freezer. 
  • What if I want to make spinach pie, add extra vegetables to something or my kids want peas in their lunch? I always have frozen veggies. 
  • What if I need some chocolate? I have several dark chocolate bars in the door, and quite honestly, have to replenish the stash with regularity.
  • What if I forget about groceries entirely and there's absolutely nothing for dinner, not even eggs or pasta? I have a small drawer of frozen meat. Note: this has never happened and I don't actually know how to defrost meat quickly. I'm not sure why I ever have meat in my freezer. 
my skinny freezer

Beyond the "what if" areas in my freezer, there's also the "occasional" shelf that houses non-staple, sometime-foods that aren't regulars in our house like waffles, breakfast sausages, chicken nuggets, dairy free ice cream, frozen pizza dough or pie crust and if we're lucky, half a batch of these delicious muffins.

The Occasional Shelf hit the spot this weekend when I was home with my sick 3 year old while the rest of my family was out of town for a family wedding. After the 100th reading of Jez Alborough's It's the Bear!, my little one suggested making a blueberry pie. I took it as a good sign when the kid who had a 103.5 fever two days earlier was interested in an activity. I've probably made a fruit pie twice in my life, and I'm not a pie lover myself, but my mom is the queen of pies so I knew exactly where to go for the recipe. 

As it turned out, we had most of the ingredients that this recipe called for on hand (thanks for the pie crust, Occasional Shelf!) and we made substitutions where we needed them. Blueberry Pie thus became Blueberry Pomegranate Pie! Thanks to the cooking class I took last weekend in Tennessee, I added freshly ground black pepper to enhance the flavor of the streusel topping. See below for the full recipe. 

Frozen blueberries and pomegranate seeds

Frozen blueberries and pomegranate seeds

This pie was made with all frozen fruit: 2 packages of frozen blueberries and 1 package of frozen pomegranate seeds. Two thumbs up for the freezer! 

Add sugar, flour, cinnamon and salt

Add sugar, flour, cinnamon and salt

Next, add the dry ingredients: sugar, flour, cinnamon and salt.

Squeeze fresh lemon juice on the berry mixture

Squeeze fresh lemon juice on the berry mixture

Squeeze lemon juice on the mixture and thoroughly combine. Preheat the oven to 375 and pour the berries into the pie crust. Next, prepare the streusel topping. 

oat streusel topping

oat streusel topping

In a separate bowl, add the flour, oats, cinnamon, brown sugar, salt, ground pepper and melted butter.

add fresh ground black pepper for added flavor

add fresh ground black pepper for added flavor

Pour the streusel topping on the berries and this pie is ready to go!

Ready to bake!

Ready to bake!

Blueberry Pomegranate Pie

Blueberry Pomegranate Pie

Tada! Bake for one hour, let it cool and enjoy! Yum yum. 

Blueberry Pomegranate Pie with non dairy ice cream and "It's The Bear!" 

Blueberry Pomegranate Pie with non dairy ice cream and "It's The Bear!" 

Blueberry Pomegranate Pie with Oat Streusel

1 recipe Oat-Coconut Streusel (see below)
4.5 cups frozen blueberries and frozen pomegranate seeds
1/2 cup sugar
5 tablespoons flour
3/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 9-inch unbaked pie crust

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Prepare the Oat-Coconut Streusel and set aside. Mix the blueberries and pomegranate, sugar, flour, cinnamon, salt, and lemon juice in a large bowl. Pour the blueberry filling into the pie crust. Cover with the streusel. Bake about one hour or until top is golden brown.

Oat Streusel
1/2 cup flour
1/2 cup old fashioned oats
1/4 cup brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon fresh ground black pepper
6 tablespoons melted butter

Place the flour, oats, brown sugar, cinnamon, salt and pepper in a bowl and toss ingredients to distribute them evenly. Pour in the melted butter. Mix until the dry the ingredients are covered with the melted butter.  

What's in your freezer? 

5 Food Tips from a Gardener

My husband and I had the rare treat of a kid-free weekend this past weekend and went to visit the Great Smoky Mountains in Tennessee. Holy gorgeousness! 

Great Smoky Mountains

As anyone with kids knows, finding the time and the childcare to connect as adults out of town for even a night can be no small task. My biggest thanks go out to my parents, who ran "Camp Grandparent" for my three kiddos this past weekend. This was a much needed getaway. 

a two hour hike was the highlight of the weekend

My husband and I hiked in the woods, visited beautiful gardens and had the pleasure of taking a cooking class where we got great advice from a seasoned gardener. Here's what I learned: 

1. Nasturtiums are edible, and they're part of the watercress family. And they're beautiful! This colorful salad, with just-picked lettuces, fresh sheep's cheese, roasted golden beets, chickpea flour johnnycake and an apple cider vinaigrette was perfectly adorned with edible nasturtiums. 

salad with nasturtiums

2. Desserts and fruits can be absolutely divine with the simple addition of freshly ground black pepper. Our gardener-cooking teacher made pineapple granita using fresh pineapple, simple syrup that had been infused with lemon verbena and freshly ground black pepper and it was out of this world. 

3. Lettuce is perfect right now. I always thought of lettuce as a summer crop, because salads reign supreme here in the summer. But they're actually a cool season crop, best in spring and fall. Look at the bounty in this garden! 

lettuce is a cool season crop

4. Have you ever tried the leaves from the sweet potato plant? I hadn't either. Wow, what a treat! These were tender like spinach and sautéed in a snap to make for a wonderful side dish. Our gardener-teacher told us that these can be found in giant bags at specialty grocery markets but I have never seen them here in NYC. Definitely keeping my eyes peeled for these... 

5. Those Johnnycakes are a snap to make. Combine 1 cup of milk with 1/2 cup water and 1/2 cup stock. Bring to almost a boil in a sauce pan and slowly add 1 cup of chick pea flour and 1/2 teaspoon of salt and fresh cracked pepper. Stir until ingredients are completely combined and until it reaches a delightfully creamy level. Spread evenly on a parchment paper-lined cookie sheet and cool. Use a cookie cutter to cut out desired shape. Heat a frying pan with olive oil and fry for about 1-2 minutes per side. 


Lunch: A Love Story

Three years ago, Jenny Rosenstrach's Dinner: A Love Story, a delightful combination of cookbook and memoir, became a page-turning staple in my kitchen. I knew this book was a keeper when I read that breaded chicken cutlets, a dish that her own parents regularly pulled together as a team, was one of the most meaningful dinners included in the book. In fact, the chicken cutlet is my all time favorite lunch sandwich. As a high school kid, I skipped school (more than once) to make chicken cutlets in the back kitchen of my favorite deli. But that's a story for another day. 

Jenny Rosenstrach

Jenny's stories about convening her family to the dinner table are juicy with detail and grounded with real life perspective. Her book is full of strategies to make that happen and the recipes are approachable and delicious. Apricot-Mustard Chicken is one of my "back pocket" recipes now, as is Lazy Bolognese and Greek-Style Shrimp with Feta (which I now make with scallops and added mint). Here's my favorite part: Jenny has a second book, (Dinner: The Play Book), also a winner in my house, and is coming out with a third!

So when Jenny took over the LaLa Lunchbox Instagram feed for the week, I was beyond thrilled, and also completely curious about what her kids ate for lunch. The lunches looked beautiful and tasty, as I'd expected, but Friday's post was by far my favorite. We can pack beautiful, nutritious lunches for our kids, but isn't the goal to teach them to be self sufficient to do it themselves at some point? And healthfully? I certainly think so.  

Here's some good news: Nature’s Bakery got in touch with Jenny after seeing one of their fig bars in the feed and now wants to give away five six-pack boxes to one lucky DALS reader. All you have to do to be eligible is follow them on instagram (@naturesbakery) and comment on a photo with the tag #dinneralovestory. Deadline is Monday, October 5 at 5:00pm ET and (sorry!) US and Canada residents only. Thanks Nature’s Bakery! 

Huge thanks to Jenny for giving us a sneak peak into the lunchboxes of her kiddos! Here's the roundup of DALS Lunches: 

A Week of Dinner: A Love Story Lunches

Here’s what you’re looking at above (clockwise from left): Trader Joe’s organic baked beans in a small Thermos, salt & vinegar potato chips in a KidsKonserve container (one from a pack of three), and a just-picked apple from the weekend’s orchard visit; Chopped up mozzarella and tomatoes with baguette slices in a LunchBot (sandwiches are “not my thing,” says Abby. But bruschetta…);Cucumber slices with ginger-miso dressing, a Nature’s Bakery Fig Bar, and leftover buttery noodles, all packed in a BuiltNY bag (here’s a similar one); Phoebe’s famous turkey, cheddar, and whole-grain mustard on a ciabatta roll, inside a Lunchskin; and Snapea Crisps, another apple, and a quartered cheddar quesadilla, which Abby will use to scoop up leftover dinner salsa

Want more from Dinner: A Love Story? Make sure to follow on Instagram and Facebook

Real Mom Lunches

Last week, we had the pleasure of showcasing the Real Mom Lunches from Sally, of Real Mom Nutrition, whose blog was just included in Health Magazine's "10 Healthy Food Blogs That Truly Satisfy." I've been following Sally for years and have been impressed with her honesty, sincerity and can-do attitude when it comes to feeding kids. The lunches she shared with us on Instagram were exactly what I had expected – filled with no-nonsense foods that are easy for parents to pack and easy for kids to love. And guess what? Sally shared the "after" shots of how those Real Mom Lunches were received by her kids and they were a hit. 

Here's a round up of what one of our favorite dietitians packs for her kids' school lunches: 

Cheddar cheese stick, whole grain bread with butter, green beans, strawberries, dried mango and raisins, and a small piece of chocolate.

Cheddar cheese stick, whole grain bread with butter, green beans, strawberries, dried mango and raisins, and a small piece of chocolate.

Wrap with hummus, lettuce, chicken, cheese, and dollop of BBQ sauce; unsweetened applesauce, and GORP (good ol' raisins and peanuts).

Wrap with hummus, lettuce, chicken, cheese, and dollop of BBQ sauce; unsweetened applesauce, and GORP (good ol' raisins and peanuts).

PBJ by request of her 2nd grader. Plus sugar snap peas, strawberries, blueberries, and a raspberry yogurt.

PBJ by request of her 2nd grader. Plus sugar snap peas, strawberries, blueberries, and a raspberry yogurt.

A thermos of Annie's whole wheat shells &white cheddar Mac-n-cheese, orange slices, grapes, green beans, and kohlrabi.

A thermos of Annie's whole wheat shells &white cheddar Mac-n-cheese, orange slices, grapes, green beans, and kohlrabi.

Two slices of pizza bread, grapefruit slices, mini red peppers, and a box of raisins. 

Two slices of pizza bread, grapefruit slices, mini red peppers, and a box of raisins. 

Easy, straightforward and delicious. That's how Sally keeps it real for lunch. And how delicious does that pizza bread look? Here's the recipe and if you're looking for more from her, check out her fab recipes and of course, her book! Thanks so much for sharing with us, Sally! 

How About Two Apples a Day?

apple picking

My 9 year old is an apple fiend. Since the earliest of days, it's been her go-to fruit. She's definitely a summer-loving kid but fall is her season. She drinks in the scenery, plays in the leaves, starts talking about Halloween in August and consumes her body weight in apples.  

There are other fruits that she likes and happily eats, like grapes and mango and oranges. She's been known to go on strawberry and cantaloupe kicks in the summertime. But apples are always the chart topper, year-round. Apple picking is the highlight of September, and she has been known to eat four (or more!) apples during the process. Apple season even gets her in the cooking mood, and she loves to make Apple Coffee Cake for the family. Woo hoo! 

two apples a day
meal planning with apples

She chooses apple for her lunch most days. Sometimes, she selects apple twice for her lunch – indicating that she wants no other produce. Im okay with this.  If an apple a day keeps the doctor away, how about two apples? Apples have a lot going for them, health-wise, and they're delicious too. Here's the thing: I'd love it if my three kids ate the rainbow every day, all day, but I also respect the fact that this kid loves her apples, and I'm okay with where we are now. 

Here are three of our favorite apple recipes (and these can easily be made with pears too)... what are yours? 
Apple Cinnamon Pancakes
Apple Brown Betty