Looking for some back to school food ideas? Darina Allen has you covered

What a crazy busy week it has been for the mums (and dads) of Ireland who have been dashing around trying to get the kids organised for the big back to school adventure, writes Darina Allen.

For those whose littles dotes are going to school for the very first time, the whole experience is a major jolt for both the parents and child. For those with older children, it’s often a mixture of ‘glad and sorry’.

Going back to the predictable routine of the school term has its advantages but then there’s the challenge of school lunches and the ever growing pressure to come up with healthy wholesome nourishing delicious food that they will actually eat rather than swapping with a classmate for a fizzy drink or bar.

Even more importantly, they want food that’s cool but doesn’t make them appear nerdy.

Unquestionably school lunches have come a long way since a slice of Easy Singles in squishy sliced pan was the norm. I continue to check in with my grandchildren and their friends to find out about current trends and comforting favourites.

Without getting too technical about it, growing children need lots of variety – protein, carbohydrates, calcium, vitamins, minerals and iron. Boys particularly have an enormous appetites. The more biodiversity in their diet, the healthier their gut, flora and the brighter they’ll be.

Lots of research is linking a healthy gut with our mental health and overall well-being.

Try fingers of cheddar, carrot, cucumber, wedges of watermelon, apple, orange or nectarines. Irish pears are in season now, as are plums.

Fruit, particularly chemical free fruit, is expensive I know, but so is a visit to your overworked GP so let’s focus on making sure every bit of food they eat is ‘medicine’. As my mother regularly reminded us, if you don’t put the money and effort into putting pure nourishing food on the table, you’ll give it to the doctor or the chemist.

Many children have become much more adventurous in their eating habits, their tastes are more eclectic and they tend to also enjoy spicy and robustly flavoured food.

Here are just a few ideas to whet their appetites but I’ve also decided to include one lunch box recipe in my column ever week between now and Christmas and I’d love your feedback.

Let’s begin by thinking beyond the standard sliced pan (my views on that are already well known). A little loaf of soda bread, either brown or white, could be mixed by a five year old, poured into a tin and baked but there’s a range of flat breads, tortillas and pittas on the shelves of virtually every shop to use for wraps, burritos, tacos, quesadillas and tostados.

Plus there are rolls and baps of every shape and form. Try to find artisan bread, like Arbutus Bakery

A few ideas.....

Hoagies can be both veggie and non-veggie, Bowl food is all the rage, invest in a bowl with a clip on lid – rice, bean, lentil or noddle bowls are super versatile and can include all the food groups.

Tacos are so hot now – try a different filling for every day of the week. Once you’ve made your first batch, sushi, particularly the cling film sushi, or nori maki rolls are a doddle to make – tasty, nutritious and inexpensive.

A simple egg, mayo and chive or scallion salad is always a favourite and eggs are a powerhouse of nutrients.

So here are a few suggestions to get started. Run them by your children and choose the ones that appeal.

Italian Hoagies

A hoagie is also known in the US as a sub (submarine sandwich) a torpedo, a hero, a grinder or Italian sandwich. It’s basically a long roll filled with a variety of cooked or cured meats, cheese, vegetables and sauces or relishes. If pickled vegetables don’t appeal, then egg mayonnaise and chopped scallions or chives and maybe a few slices of beef tomato or cucumber would also hit the spot nicely, either way season it well.

Makes 2

7-8 tablespoons giardiniera (Italian pickled vegetables – see recipe)

2 soft sub rolls, split lengthwise

2 tablespoons homemade mayonnaise

2 large ripe tomatoes

salt and freshly ground black pepper

4 tablespoons approx, crisp lettuce, shredded

extra virgin olive oil

Chop the giardiniera and mix with the mayonnaise in a bowl.

To Assemble

Split the rolls lengthwise. Spread a layer of the giardiniera mixture evenly over the base of each roll. Top with a layer of thick juicy tomato slices. Season with flaky salt and a few grinds of freshly ground black pepper. Lay an even layer of shredded iceberg or little gem lettuce on top and sprinkle on a little of the giardiniera pickle juice and a drizzle of olive oil. Press the other half piece of bread on top, tie with a piece of raffia – wrap tightly in parchment paper.

Peanut Butter, Bacon and Banana Burrito

Sounds like an odd combination but it’s delicious and also nutritious.

Makes 1

1 wrap or flour tortilla

2-3 tbsp organic peanut butter

2 crisp streaky rashers

1 tbsp parsley, chopped, optional

A little honey

1 banana

Spread peanut butter over the tortilla. Scatter with slivers of crisp streaky rashers and a little chopped parsley if you like. Drizzle with a little honey.

Peel a banana and lay on one side.

Tuck in the edges and tightly roll into a wrap.

Eat soon. Alternatively, roll the wrap up loosely but peel and add banana just before eating.

Sweet Potato Wedges

Serves 4

2 sweet potatoes (approximately 450g/1lb in weight, orange fleshed, if possible)

2 tablespoons olive oil

sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Preheat the oven to 200C/400F/Gas Mark 6.

Wash the sweet potatoes and cut them into quarters, put into a bowl and drizzle with extra virgin olive oil.

Sprinkle with sea salt and turn into a roasting tin.

Bake for 10-15 minutes or until just tender turning once until completely tender and lightly golden.

Yoghurt and Ballymaloe Relish Dip

To make a dip, mix some thick natural yoghurt with Ballymaloe relish and a little chopped parsley to dip wedges into — delicious!

A Little White Soda Bread Loaf You can make white soda bread in the round traditional way or in a loaf tin which is more convenient for slicing or sandwiches

450g (1lb) white flour, preferably unbleached

1 level teaspoon teaspoon salt

1 level teaspoon breadsoda

sour milk or buttermilk to mix – 425ml (15fl oz) approx

oatmeal, sesame seeds or kibbled wheat (optional)

Sunflower oil to brush the sides and base of the tin

Equipment:

1 loaf tin 13x20cm (5x8 inch) approx.

Sieve the dry ingredients. Make a well in the centre. Pour most of the milk in at once. Using one hand, mix in the flour from the sides of the bowl, adding more milk if necessary. The dough should be softish, but not too wet.

When it all comes together, turn it out onto a well-floured worked surface. Scoop it into the oiled tin, sprinkle with oatmeal and sesame or kibbled wheat seeds if you enjoy them.

Place in the hot oven immediately turning down the oven to 200C/400F/Gas Mark 6 for 45 minutes. Remove from the tin and return the bread to the oven for a further 5-10 minutes or until fully cooked. If you are in doubt, tap the bottom of the bread: if it is cooked it will sound hollow.

A Rice Bowl with Avocado, Radishes, Spring Onions, toasted Almonds and Flat Parsley

This is a delicious combination but just a suggestion, the base can be well seasoned egg or rice noodles, lentils, beans, quinoa, orso or freekah depending on taste, and the toppings a combination of what’s in the fridge and in season

Makes 2

2 cups cooked Basmati or Jasmine rice

1 ripe avocado

4 radishes, sliced thinly

2 slim spring onions, thinly sliced

salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 tablespoon toasted almonds or hazelnuts, halved or coarsely chopped

50g (2oz) cooked meat (optional)

flat parsley sprigs and a few tarragon leaves if available

Dressing

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar

Flakey sea salt and freshly ground pepper

Sprinkle the dressing over the rice, toss, taste and divide between two bowls. It should taste highly seasoned. Top with diced cold beef, lamb or chicken, or cooked or smoked fish, if using.

Then peel, half and slice the avocado, arrange on top of the bowls. Sprinkle with the sliced radish, spring onion and meat or fish if it’s included. Drizzle with a little more dressing. Scatter with toasted nuts, flat parsley and tarragon sprigs. Taste and correct the seasoning, cover and keep cool until ready to eat.

Giardiniera

Makes 2 medium Kilner jars

140g (scant 5oz) dairy salt

cold water to cover

1 celery stalk, diced into 7mm (1/3 inch)

1 cup of tiny cauliflower florets

1 cup carrot, and diced into 7mm (1/3 inch)

1 red or green pepper, seeded and diced into 7mm (1/3 inch)

75g (3oz) green olives, stoned, peeled and sliced

1 tablespoon dried oregano or 2 tablespoons fresh marjoram, chopped

2-4 jalapeno peppers (seeded and thinly sliced) OR 1 teaspoon chilli flakes

225ml (8fl oz) white wine vinegar

225ml (8fl oz) extra virgin olive oil

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Day 1

Dissolve the salt in the water, add the diced celery, carrots, tiny cauliflower florets, pepper, olives and thinly sliced fresh chilli if using. The vegetables should be covered in the brine. Cover and refrigerate overnight.

Day 2

Drain and rinse the vegetables in cold water and drain again. Mix the oil and vinegar with the chilli flakes (if using), marjoram and freshly ground black pepper.

Transfer the vegetables into 1 or 2 sterilised Kilner jars. Cover with the pickling liquid. Allow to marinade at least overnight but the giardiniera will keep for weeks and get better and better.

Note: A cup measure equals 225ml (8fl oz)


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