kids

Lunchbox Challenge: Vegetarian Camp Lunches

After nearly 2 weeks of cobbled together childcare, camp mom, and family "vacation" my older son is finally back at day camp. So I'm sifting through the options of lunches to pack for my little vegetarian. PB & J is off the table since this camp has a no-nuts policy. Uh oh!

As a natural foods chef instructor who handles special diets and occasionally cooks in very limited facilities (i.e. classes in conference rooms!), I've overcome some unique menu challenges. I often feel like I'm on one of those chef sabotage game shows, a la Alton Brown, in which he ties contestants' hands behind their backs and asks them to make bouillabaisse in 20 minutes. But the camp lunch probably poses my most challenging set of menu parameters to date. Meals must be:

  1. vegetarian per order of the 6 year-old

  2. nut-free per order of the camp

  3. balanced per order of the mom, i.e. containing all food groups

  4. portable, durable and not too perishable to stand up to field trips and miles of hiking in the great outdoors before lunch time

  5. eaten at room temperature or as cold as the mini ice-pack will keep them

  6. eaten without utensils

  7. made in batches or in advance

  8. varied from day to day

Challenge accepted. Since we've been down this road before and had to get pretty creative in summers past, I thought I'd share some of these ideas with you. Links to some of the recipes mentioned are also below when you click the photo. Now if only I had accurate photography for all of this. The boxed lunch is rarely photogenic and there is rarely time to snap a pic when hustling out the door. In the comments, please share your favorite vegetarian nut-free camp lunches with us! Also, if you think your kid won't eat many of the items listed here, just try it. You never know what they'll start to like because they were starving and had no other option but to eat what was in their lunchbox while at camp.

Vegetarian Dolmas: Grape Leaves Stuffed with Spiced Lentils and Rice

Wrapped and rolled foods are the ultimate kids-in-the-kitchen activity. After preparing all of the components, allow kids to help combine the filling. Then enlist their support to do all of the wrapping and rolling. After a brief demonstration, some coaching and practice, you can probably even walk away and allow your little one to complete the job.  Share this instructional video provided by 6-year-old Emory with your child.

Vegetarian Dolmas: Grape Leaves Stuffed with Spiced Lentils and Rice

Dolmas or stuffed grape leaves are often made with a combination of gently spiced ground lamb and rice. We make a savory and satisfying plant-based version using french lentils. I also choose brown basmati rice for additional fiber, nutrients and texture. Omit the honey entirely or substitute agave nectar to make this recipe suitable for vegans.

Yield: approximately 3 dozen

 I generally use jarred grape leaves. They work just fine but, of course, if you are on the west coast or are fortunate enough to have access to fresh grape leaves when they are in season, use them. Just soak fresh leaves in hot water while you prepare the filling.

I generally use jarred grape leaves. They work just fine but, of course, if you are on the west coast or are fortunate enough to have access to fresh grape leaves when they are in season, use them. Just soak fresh leaves in hot water while you prepare the filling.

What you need:

Grape leaves:

  • ½ pound fresh grape leaves, soaked in hot water or 1 pound jar preserved grape leaves, rinsed and drained well, picked through with broken or ripped leaves reserved for lining the bottom of the pot

Rice:

  • 2 quarts water

  • 1 cinnamon stick

  • ½ cup long grain brown rice

  • ¼ teaspoon salt

  • ½ cup mint leaves, minced

  • 4 scallions, minced

  • ¼ cup pine nuts, chopped

  • ¼ cup currants

 Line the bottom of the stock pot with grape leaves to prevent your dolmas from burning or browning. Use the broken or torn leaves.

Line the bottom of the stock pot with grape leaves to prevent your dolmas from burning or browning. Use the broken or torn leaves.

Lentils:

  • 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

  • 1 small onion, small dice

  • 2 cloves garlic, minced

  • ¾ cup cooked lentils (dark brown, green, or beluga)

  • 1 teaspoon nutmeg

  • ½ teaspoon cinnamon

  • 1 teaspoon cumin seeds

  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano

  • ½ teaspoon allspice

  • 1 tablespoon dried mint (or one mint tea packet)

Simmering Liquid:

  • ¼ cup lemon juice

  • ½ cup olive oil

  • 2 teaspoons honey (omit or agave for vegan)

  • 1 cup water or vegetable broth

  • ½ teaspoon salt

  • freshly ground black pepper

 Roll tightly, but gently, so as not to tear the leaves, pushing in the sides as you go. Walk away, and let the kids do all the rolling while you do the dishes...or take a nap.

Roll tightly, but gently, so as not to tear the leaves, pushing in the sides as you go. Walk away, and let the kids do all the rolling while you do the dishes...or take a nap.

What you do:

  1. Bring 2 quarts (8 cups) water to a boil. Add cinnamon stick, rice and ¼ teaspoon salt. Reduce to a rolling boil and cook 20 minutes or until just tender. Drain and rinse in cold water.

  2. Combine cooked rice with fresh mint, scallions, pine nuts, and currants.

  3. Heat olive oil in a large sauté pan over medium high heat. When it shimmers, add onion and a pinch of salt. When onion is soft, add garlic and sauté 1 minute. Add lentils, nutmeg, cinnamon, cumin, oregano, allspice, and dried mint/tea. Combine with rice mixture. Allow to cool slightly.

  4. Set aside the 36 best leaves for stuffing. Line the bottom of a heavy stock pot with the remaining leaves. Stuff each with about 1 to 2 teaspoons of rice/lentil mixture. Place leaf smooth side down, with stem close to you. Trim long or thick stems. Fold stem end over rice and hold in place. Fold in sides and roll away from you. Use any broken leaves for lining the bottom of the pot. Arrange dolmas (stuffed leaves) snugly in the pot, in layers if needed.

  5. In a medium bowl, whisk together the lemon juice, olive oil, honey or agave, water or stock, salt and pepper. Pour this mixture over the leaves, cover with a plate to hold dolmas down.

  6. Cover, bring to a simmer, and cook 1 1/2 hours, basting occasionally.

Note: Use the "pasta method" for cooking the rice used in dolmas. Rather than steaming rice with an exact ratio of water, you will boil the rice in a large pot of salted water until al denté and then drain. You could certainly use leftover rice that was made using the standard rice cooking method but the texture may be slightly mushy in the grape leaves.

Tip 1: The simmering liquid makes a delicious soup or broth after the dolmas are done simmering in it. Use it to store dolmas in the fridge up to one week, drink it or serve as soup!

Tip 2: When I don't have fresh mint available, I just increase the amount of dried mint used. Just add all of the dried mint together to the lentil mixture to sauté before adding to the rice. I've also successfully substituted chives for the scallions in a pinch.

Lemon Ricotta Blueberry Pancakes

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Our family honors Pancake Saturday. My older son has even created a song and dance to celebrate it. With a little extra time on the weekends to prepare and enjoy breakfast, and because we're all in need of a sweet treat at the end of the week, pancakes are perfect. This is also a great dish for kid kitchen assistants. My little helper measures ingredients, cracks eggs, and mixes, while repeating the mantra "we never over mix the batter." Don't over mix your pancake batter.

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To save yourself even a little bit of time and a lot of mess when making weekly pancakes, mix your dry ingredients (flours, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, salt) in a large batch and store in the pantry. If you are like me and use multiple flours (I like a blend of whole wheat all purpose, white AP and cornmeal for most of my pancakes), this will allow you to just take one canister out of the pantry instead of 3 or 4! Now you have absolutely no reason to buy that packaged stuff. PLEASE don't buy that packaged stuff anymore.

We make a variety of pancakes but a favorite go to for their classic Italian origin and to help fatten up our skinny baby is Lemon Ricotta. While visiting my sister last week, I was inspired to make these after cleaning out her fridge and finding a pound of ricotta cheese and fresh local Florida blueberries. In return, she documented the finished stack you see above. It's nice to have a professional photographer for a sister.

These lemon ricotta pancakes are fluffy and creamy all at once. I adapted the recipe from a few sources, but mostly from Cooking Classy.

Makes ~8 6-inch pancakes

What You Need:

  • 1 1/2 cups flour (I like a 50/50 blend of white AP and whole wheat AP flour)

  • 3 tablespoons sugar

  • 1 tablespoon baking powder

  • 1/4 teaspoon baking soda

  • 1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt

  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, plus more for brushing the pan

  • 3 eggs, room temperature

  • 3/4 cup whole milk

  • 1 cup ricotta

  • zest and juice of 1 large lemon

  • 1 pint fresh blueberries, rinse and drained

What you do:

1. Whisk together the flours, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, salt. Or if you have premixed your dry ingredients, measure out 1 3/4 cups dry ingredients and add to a large bowl.

2. Heat a large skillet over medium high heat. Add the 2 tablespoons butter and melt gently.

3. In a medium bowl, whisk together the eggs, ricotta, milk, lemon zest and lemon juice, It may curdle a little bit, but that is okay. You also do not need to break up all pieces of ricotta. It's nice to bite into that creaminess in the pancakes.

4. Make a well in the dry ingredients and pour in the wet ingredients. Add the 2 tablespoons of melted butter. Stir a few times with a spatula just to combine. Do not over mix.

5. Reheat the skillet over medium high heat. Brush with more butter if needed. Drop 1/2 cup of batter onto the hot pan and top with a handful of blueberries. Flip after 2-3 minutes or when you see bubbles on top and edges are lightly browned. Cook another 2-3 minutes.

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