Darina Allen's back-to-school lunches — not just for parents and teachers

Back to school: wow what a stressful time — not just for parents and teachers but also for bus drivers, wardens, school supply shops. 
Darina Allen's back-to-school lunches — not just for parents and teachers
Darina for weekend Ballymaloe lunches

Back to school: wow what a stressful time — not just for parents and teachers but also for bus drivers, wardens, school supply shops.  And then there’s the extra challenge of getting the kids and the rest of the family back into a pre-Covid-19 routine – Early to bed, early to rise and the challenge of finding the words to address the inevitable anxiety and concerns that are preoccupying the little ones.

Hopefully, we will all settle into a routine in the next few weeks and people’s worst fears of another lockdown won’t be realised.

Meanwhile, let's be super-positive, I’m going to concentrate on that all-important lunch box which now even more than ever needs to be choc-a-bloc with nutrient-dense foods to supercharge our family’s immune system and boost our mood and energy levels.

Sandwiches, fruits and vegetables in food box, backpack on old wooden background. Concept of child eating at school. Top view. Flat lay.
Sandwiches, fruits and vegetables in food box, backpack on old wooden background. Concept of child eating at school. Top view. Flat lay.

At the best of times, preparing daily lunchboxes takes imagination, never-ending enthusiasm, time and energy — difficult to maintain day-in-day-out when you have a house full of children. The latter two are the scarcest of all. Older siblings may well want to prepare their own lunchboxes, but a bit of tactful guidance is usually needed, but not necessarily accepted!

Another consideration, apart from the food itself, is to try to reduce or eliminate plastic altogether. BPA and DEHP in plastic are leaching into our food. The food industry knows it, our governments know it, scientists know it, and they are becoming more and more alarmed. But many feel helpless to stem the never-ending flow of toxins from plastic in its myriad of forms into every aspect of our lives, from the cradle to the care home.

Meanwhile, the best we can do is to become super aware of its insidious presence and reduce it as far as possible, yet another thing to fuss about but let’s just do our best — wrap food in parchment paper or beeswax wraps.

A few little tips to help you make lunchbox choices; Think fresh, think seasonal — Mother Nature provides the nourishment we need through seasonal and wild foods.

At present, there is still an abundance of home-grown vegetables and fruit. Tomatoes, cucumbers, beans, radishes, carrots and beets, are all great in lunchboxes to nibble or dunk into a tasty dip. Try dips such as hummus (it also provides zinc), a white bean puree, or this beetroot hummus which can be made in minutes with cooked beets.

Darina Allen appearing at the Mountain to Sea dlr Book Festival
Darina Allen appearing at the Mountain to Sea dlr Book Festival

Irish blueberries are also abundant at present, a little pot of berries are both an immune booster and a treat and an easy addition to the lunchbox. Many children’s palates seem to be more adventurous nowadays — they love spicy foods. A lentil daal with a flatbread is worth considering. It also works at room temperature, and, depending on the contents, provides lots of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, as well as much-needed protein. Include some nuts as well — almonds, hazelnuts, cashew nuts, peanuts and walnuts are an easy addition as are seeds.  Include some flaxseeds, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds or maybe chia seeds added to a little pot of overnight muesli.

Don’t forget peanut butter, this perennial favourite is always tasty, delicious and nutritious. Choose a pure one, there are several Irish made nut butters that are worth seeking out.

When the weather begins to get chillier, a little flask of chunky homemade soup is a must. Tuck one or two little brown scones into the lunch box as well. Slather them with good butter to feed their brains, and tuck in a little slice of cheese for protein, or maybe add a hardboiled egg and some relish or a dollop of homemade mayo. An adventurous muncher may welcome a little pot of sea salt mixed with a few flakes of Aleppo pepper to sprinkle over a jammy egg. A few slices of cured meat or fish and Gubbeen salami sticks are a great favourite of my grandchildren. They keep well and just have to be popped into the lunchbox.

wx220820lunchbox Mother cooking school lunch box set, Preparing healthy snacks - cheese sandwich with cucumber, carrot. nuts, fruits and vegetable in box.
wx220820lunchbox Mother cooking school lunch box set, Preparing healthy snacks - cheese sandwich with cucumber, carrot. nuts, fruits and vegetable in box.

An individual frittata or a wedge of quiche will delight some kids and don’t forget a piece of fruit. Thank goodness for bananas, but Irish plums, pears and apples are in season at present.

After all that, just a couple of things to remember: try to eliminate ultra-processed foods completely. Make sure absolutely everything is chemical-free. I know, I know, ironically these free-from foods are more expensive, but so are medicine and supplements and a visit to your overworked local GP. Invest in real food to boost your kids' mood and immune system and help to protect them from colds, flus and viruses.

Oh and I almost forgot, include a little cookie or flapjack as an extra treat once or twice a week.

White Bean Hummus

Preparation Time: 15 minutes

Ingredients:

400g tin white beans

2 tablespoons tahini

Juice of 1 lemon

1 pinch of paprika

1 pinch of ras el hanout

1 garlic clove

salt and pepper

3-4 tablespoons water

Method:

Strain the beans and puree all the ingredients together in a blender. Taste and tweak the seasoning if necessary. Serve with flatbread or a few carrot dippers

Beetroot Hummus with Yoghurt and Za’atar

Another delicious dip on its own or with these additions... good potato chips, chunks of apple or flat bread would be lovely to scoop this up.

Serves 6

Ingredients:

900g (2lb) fresh medium beetroot - [500g (18oz) after cooking and peeling]

2 garlic cloves – crushed

1 small red chilli, deseeded and finely chopped

250g (9oz) thick Greek-style yoghurt

1 1/2 tablespoons date syrup

3 tablespoons olive oil, plus extra to finish the dish

1 tablespoon za’atar

salt

1 teaspoon honey (optional)

To Garnish

2 spring onions, thinly sliced at an angle

15g (3 /4oz) pistachio nuts, coarsely chopped

60g (2 1/2oz) soft goat’s cheese, crumbled

marigold petals, optional

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

Method:

Wash and cook the beetroot in boiling, well-salted water until the skins rub off and a skewer can pierce the beetroot easily. Alternatively, roast the beetroot on a roasting tin in the oven and cook, uncovered, until a knife slices easily into the centre (approximately 1 hour). Once they are cool enough to handle, peel and cut each into about 6 pieces. Allow to cool down.

Put the beetroot, garlic, chilli and yoghurt in a food processor bowl and blend to a smooth paste. Transfer to a large mixing bowl and stir in the date syrup, olive oil, za’atar and one teaspoon of salt. Taste and add more salt and honey if necessary.

Transfer to a wide bowl or serving plate. Scatter the spring onion, coarsely chopped pistachios and cheese on top and finally drizzle with a little extra virgin olive oil. Serve at room temperature and sprinkle with marigold petals.

Hard-boiled egg with flaky sea salt and Aleppo pepper...

How to hard boil an egg

Many people hard-boil eggs in a somewhat haphazard way. To avoid that black ring around the yolk (a sign of overcooking) you need to time them. Really fresh eggs are not ideal for hard-boiling because peeling their shells is a nightmare; the best eggs to use are a few days old. As with soft-boiled eggs, it’s important to use room-temperature eggs and they should be cooked in salted water — their shells are porous, so the flavour will benefit.

Use organic hen or duck eggs

Bring a small saucepan of water to the boil and gently slide in the eggs. Bring the water back to the boil and simmer for 8–10 minutes according to your taste (12 minutes for duck eggs). Drain and then cover with cold water to stop the cooking.

Pop it into the lunch box with a little pot of flaky sea salt and some Aleppo pepper... your child can peel the egg themselves and sprinkle a little seasoning over each half. 

Ham and cheese frittata

Darina for weekend Ballymaloe lunches
Darina for weekend Ballymaloe lunches

Serves 6-8

My eternal standby — perfect for all lunches. Make individual ones too  — a perfect size to pop into a lunch box.

A frittata is an Italian omelette. Unlike its soft and creamy French cousin, a frittata is cooked slowly over a very low heat during which time you can be whipping up a delicious salad to accompany it! It is cooked on both sides and cut into wedges like a piece of cake. This basic recipe is flavoured with grated cheese and a generous sprinkling of herbs. Like the omelette, though, you may add almost anything that takes your fancy. One could substitute grated mature cheddar (but Gruyére and Parmesan give you more ‘bang for your buck’) and all sorts of tasty bits from the fridge — smoked salmon, mackerel, chorizo, bacon or ham.

Ingredients:

10 large eggs, preferably free-range organic

1 teaspoon salt and lots of freshly ground black pepper

75g (3ozs) Gruyére cheese, grated

25g (1oz) Parmesan cheese, grated

225g diced cooked ham or bacon

2 tablespoons parsley, chopped

2 teaspoons thyme leaves

25g (1oz) butter

2 tablespoons basil or marjoram chopped

Non-stick pan – 22.5cm (10inch) frying pan

Method:

Whisk the eggs in a bowl. Add the salt, freshly ground pepper, fresh herbs, diced ham and grated cheese into the eggs. Melt the butter in a non-stick frying pan. When the butter starts to foam, tip in the eggs. Turn down the heat, as low as it will go. Leave the eggs to cook gently for 12 minutes on a heat diffuser mat, or until the underneath is set. The top should still be slightly runny.

Preheat a grill. Pop the pan under the grill for one minute to set but not brown the surface. Alternatively after an initial 3 or 4 minutes on the stove one can transfer the pan to a preheated oven 170ºC/325ºF/gas mark 3 for 15-20 minutes until just set.

Slide a palette knife under the frittata to free it from the pan onto a warm plate.

This is perfect cut into slices and packed cold into lunch boxes and will last a few days in the fridge.

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