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FILLING The Lunchbox: It’s a Wrap

By Jackie Burrell
Wednesday, September 3rd, 2008 at 2:28 pm in Cuisine.

Lunch time (Photo by Kristopher Skinner, Contra Costa Times)
Filling a lunch box has never been so fraught. Back when we were kids, we may have made do with bologna and iceberg lettuce slammed between mayo-slathered Wonder bread. But these days, it’s all about organic, locally grown, veggie-heavy fare — no matter what your picky eater prefers. And that lunch bag better be eco-friendly, too. It’s enough to make any parent go back to bed.

Fortunately, Michelle Stern, a San Rafael children’s cooking teacher and mother of two, is an expert on lunchtime, from both the classroom and kid perspectives.

We tackled this topic in this morning’s Times and Trib, but because those links evaporate after a few months, we’re reprinting the scoop here, complete with an extra recipe for a Barbecue Wrap and some helpful links. Here we go:

Let kids have a say — or better yet, an actual hand — in the lunch packing, says Stern, and make sure everything is easily and quickly consumable. Parents tend to overestimate the amount of time kids have to eat. The lunch break may last 45 minutes, but only 10 or 15 minutes of that is actually spent near a lunch box, and most of that time is devoted to socializing, too. Slice oranges into easy-to-eat sections. For kids with loose teeth or an aversion to the brownish edges of an oxidized Granny Smith, use an apple wedger or knife to cut an apple into eighths, then reassemble it, using a rubber band to hold it together.

“When you’re ready to eat it,” says Stern, “the apple opens like a blossom, pre-sliced, not brown.”

Of course, for every teen or tween who loves interesting, flavorful food, there’s a picky eater who would sooner die than eat anything green. Some won’t eat anything but peanut butter — a banned substance at some schools, because of potentially deadly allergies. Others want infinite variety.

The trick, say parents, is to give kids an array of choices and help them create variations on a theme. Pittsburg mom Noreen Landaverde piles turkey on bread topped with cream cheese and cranberry sauce, for example, and makes “peanut butter sushi” — strips of bread spread with peanut butter and jelly and rolled — for her young daughters. Concord mom Cathy Schaefer makes peanut butter and jelly wraps by using a tortilla instead of bread.

“Kids get freedom with that,” says Stern. “Wraps are a great, fun thing, and easy for kids to make themselves.”

Best of all, wraps can be customized to fit individual preferences. Chicken caesar wraps are always popular — and a great way to get some lettuce into a youngster’s diet. But Stern makes wraps in every possible theme, from classic deli meats to barbecue, Mediterranean, Mexican, Italian and Asian wraps.

Think in terms of categories, she says. You need a spread — hummus, cream cheese, pesto or plum sauce. Pick a protein — cooked chicken, steak, tofu or cheese. Load on the vegetables and wrap it up in a classic flour tortilla or a multi-grain version.

(There’s a significant nutritional difference, by the way, between a gordita-sized flour tortilla and a comparable “soft wrap,” even though both are from La Tortilla Factory. The tomato-basil and multi-grain versions not only halve the calories, they boast significantly less sodium and twice the protein — nine grams, instead of four.)

An Asian wrap could layer plum sauce, shredded cabbage, water chestnuts, bean sprouts and tofu. A Mediterranean wrap might combine hummus, grilled chicken and vegetables.

We were so taken by Stern’s suggestions, we whipped up a Thai Chicken Wrap, using peanut sauce, grilled chicken, carrots, red cabbage and romaine lettuce to make a California Pizza Kitchen-inspired wrap. Buy peanut sauce in the ethnic foods section of your market, or make your own.

Baby frittatas are another easily-customizable option.

“If you have kids with different flavor preferences, it’s super-easy to pour in the egg mixture,” says Stern, “and child A can have these holes (in the muffin tin) and Child B can put in what he wants. Your child who loves blue cheese can indulge that, and the child who loves pepperoni or salsa can do that.”

And here, for further inspiration, are Stern’s recipes:
Baby Frittatas
Makes 12
4 eggs
3 tablespoons low-fat milk
Shredded cheese
Crumbled bacon or chopped ham or cooked vegetables to taste

1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease a nonstick mini-muffin pan, or line the cups with mini-muffin papers. Beat the eggs and milk together.

2. Let your child fill each muffin cup about 2/3-full with a teaspoon or so of grated cheese and other fillings of his choice. Pour the egg mixture over the top until each cup is full.

3. Bake for 12-14 minutes, or until the frittatas are puffy and golden. A young child will eat two or three.

Thai Chicken Wrap
1 large flour tortilla
1/3 cup shredded romaine lettuce
¼ cup shredded red cabbage
Julienned carrots, to taste
Chopped cilantro, to taste
2 ounces cooked chicken breast, cut into bite-sized chunks
1 tablespoon Thai peanut sauce
1 tablespoon shredded mozzarella

Lay the tortilla flat and pile the lettuce, cabbage, carrots and cilantro in the middle, leaving an inch or two margin all the way around. Toss the chicken in the peanut sauce, then arrange it on top of the lettuce. Sprinkle with the cheese. Roll the wrap tightly, tucking in the ends, burrito-style. Cut in half, wrap snugly in plastic wrap and refrigerate.

Barbecue Wrap
1 large flour tortilla
¾ cup shredded romaine lettuce
1½ teaspoons ranch salad dressing
Sliced scallions to taste
2 ounces roast beef or tri-tip, cut into bite-sized chunks
1 tablespoon thick barbecue sauce
1 tablespoon shredded cheddar cheese

Lay the tortilla flat. Toss the lettuce with the salad dressing, then pile it with the scallions in the middle of the tortilla, leaving an inch or two margin all the way around. Toss the steak in the barbecue sauce, then arrange it on top of the lettuce. Sprinkle with the cheese. Roll tightly, tucking in the ends, burrito-style.

Italian Wrap
1 large flour tortilla
1 tablespoon cream cheese
½ cup shredded romaine lettuce
Julienned basil leaves to taste
1 ounce salami or more, cut into chunks
1 tablespoon marinara sauce
1 tablespoon shredded mozzarella cheese

Lay the tortilla flat and spread the cream cheese down the middle. Pile the lettuce and basil in the middle of the tortilla, leaving an inch or two margin all the way around. Toss the salami in the marinara sauce, then arrange it on top of the lettuce. Sprinkle with the cheese. Then roll the wrap tightly, tucking in the ends, burrito-style.

Need more inspiration? Check out this half-apple, half-orange idea from Family Fun, and this wonderful homemade granola mix from Berkeley cookbook author Mollie Katzen. Got great ideas? Click “comments” and share!

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