garden harvest

3 Things Great School Lunches Have in Common

I don’t know about you, but now that it’s back-to-school time, I find myself focused on school lunches. It’s the least I can do. I mean, my kids have been cleaning up after themselves, doing their own laundry, dishes, and general household chores since they were seven. Yes, you read that right. My daughter was nine, but my son was tasked with the job of doing his own laundry at seven. Not only did it make me proud to watch him, it made me chuckle to see him leap up onto the washing machine to turn the dials. Such an athlete!

Now some of you are probably wondering how I managed this feat, or why I’d even try. I’m a stay-at-home Mom. I have the time. Eh, maybe I should do all the chores, maybe I shouldn’t. That’s a discussion for another day. (Way, way into the future!)

According to my kids, it’s my lifelong quest to become known as the Meanest Mom Ever. I beg to differ. I look at it as my job to teach them independence. One day they’ll be out on their own and must be able to do things for themselves. That, and they went through a wholly “ungrateful” spell treating me like I was put on this earth to do their bidding.

Not. But now that we’ve worked through that period of time, we’re on good terms. I make their school lunched for them every morning, and they say “thank you.” Wunderbar. And it’s off to school you go!

With that settled, what makes for great school lunches?

#1 ~ Enviability. (Is that even a word?)

Kids want to be the envy of their friends when it comes to their lunch offerings, because at some point, they invariably become just that: offerings.

“Hey, I’ll trade you my bag of trail mix for that blueberry muffin.”

“Wanna trade my blackberries for your peanut butter sandwich?”

While I’m thinking my kids want food that tastes great, they’re thinking value, as in, What can I get for the stuff my mom packed me?

#2 ~ The “Cool” Factor.

I’ll never forget the day my kids took carrots from our garden to school for lunch, then were amazed by the curious stares they received.

“What’s that?”

“Duh. It’s a carrot.”

“No, I mean, what’s that green stuff on the end of it?”

“The leaves.”

Had these children never seen a carrot in its natural state?

Sadly, the answer was no. Many of them had not. But how would they? While we gardeners enjoy gardens in our backyard, our patios and window sills, others don’t. They only enjoy what the grocery store stocks for them to enjoy. On the bright side, the discussion did serve as the catalyst for their first school garden!

#3 ~ Variety

With a backyard garden bursting with bounty fall through spring, we never lack for variety. From blueberries to tomatoes, broccoli to zucchini, there’s something for everyone to eat. My son prefers carrots. My daughter prefers broccoli. Both pack well into a lunch and combine deliciously with peanut butter or ranch dressing. But my kids get bored easily, so I’ve learned to rotate the offerings. Some days it’s fruit and yogurt, other days it’s veggies and dip. Sometimes we go with a sandwich, other days they prefer a salad. But always, always, always, I pack enough to eat and share and keep it interesting.

Because like it or not, I’ve found their friends to be very interested in “tasting” what my kids bring to school for lunch. I’ve even garnered a few compliments over the years.

“Mom, Sarah loved your oatmeal-carrot cookies.”

“Awesome!” I replied, knowing full-well that my daughter does not prefer these delicacies due to the raisins I include in the mix. But she knows that others do and like the smart cookie that she is, she requests them to be included in her lunch. And anything else I might like to experiment with, because for her there’s no downside. Someone will eat it, even if it’s not her. (We gardeners do love to share–it’s half the fun!)

In fact, my neighbor just called me to deliver a bucket full of limes. Yep. She has too many to eat for herself and hates to see them go to waste. I concur. And in the rare instance when my kids do bring home lunch leftovers, they summarily toss them into the compost bin. Leftovers make excellent dirt.

Waste not, want not!

Homemade Sun-dried Tomatoes, Peppers and More!

Ever wondered how to sun dry a tomato? I mean, the flavor of sun-dried tomatoes is exquisitely intense, wonderfully versatile–and I learned–the perfect addition to any raw diet.  It makes an awesome base for tomato sauce.

tomato sauce

But I digress. Personally I never wondered about sun-dried tomatoes and how they were created. I figured the name said it all, right?  I imagined them splayed out across specialty terra-cotta baking stones in Italy or California, sunning until they reached crispy, crunchy chewy perfection (depending on how you like them!).

It wasn’t until I witnessed Mother Nature’s first sun-dried tomatoes in my garden last spring that it dawned on me.  Actually, it was the scorch of summer and my lack of attention that did it, not to mention the horrid red paper experiment, but who’s keeping tabs?  These gorgeous Romas dried on the vine last spring and did so again this spring, all by themselves.  Don’t you love an independent vegetable?

tomatoes sun-dried on vine

Nothing I like better than a vegetable that will grow itself or a child that will do his or her own laundry. It’s heaven!  But seriously, are these not feats to be coveted? At least respected, admired?  In my house they are and when my tomatoes began to sun dry themselves well, I celebrated.  Hip-hip-hooray!  We have sun-dried tomatoes!

For all of you cringing right now thinking, please no, tell me you didn’t actually eat those rotten things.  Rest assured, I didn’t. Who knows what may have tainted those shriveled beauties? Not me and I don’t eat anything from my garden without full certainty of its “wholesome goodness” prior to ingestion.  I have kids watching my every move.  Never know which “moves” they may wish to emulate and trust me–rushing them to the ER is not on my list of things to do!

So how does one sun-dry tomatoes?

Easy. Same way you dry those herbs in your garden–set the oven to low (150-200) and bake them for about 4-5 hours, depending on the size of your tomatoes and the heat strength of your oven.  Cut them into quarters and push the seeds out (or not).

fresh tomatoes

These are a mix of Roma style and regular.  (Is there such a thing as regular tomatoes?)  Next, spread them across a baking sheet.  I used this vented one for more even “drying.”

dry tomatoes in oven

At this point, your best course of action is to monitor them throughout the process, turning when necessary. If this seems like too much work, you can always lay them out in the sunshine for a hot couple of days.  Mother Nature does know what she’s doing!

After about 4 hours, my small batch was ready; crispy-crunchy-ready.

sun-dried tomatoes in oven

I imagine if I immerse these in olive oil they’ll return to a more palatable texture (I like mine chewy), but these would still be great as a salad sprinkle.  The raw diet recipes we used during our challenge called for soaking the sun-dried tomatoes in water prior to use.  Good idea.  Tasty, toasty and easy, you won’t want to stop here.  Why not “sun-dry” green peppers?  Would make for a nice intense flavor addition to any salad.

arrange chili peppers on baking sheet

And you can use this same process for making red pepper flakes, the kind you love to sprinkle over pizza.  Oh yes, simply lay them out whole (I used parchment paper so as not to lose any of the spicy seeds) and then slide them into the oven.

chili peppers

Once dry and crispy, pull them out, break off the stems, then gently crush until you have a pile of…

sun-dried peppers

Your very own flakes of red pepper!  Drying herbs works much the same way so get moving and put those babies to work in the kitchen!  (In my house, that means the kids. :))

Baking the Sweets of our Harvest

One of the best parts of gardening is reaping what you sow.  Or should I say, cooking what you reaped is one of the best parts of gardening.  This week the kids headed to the kitchen to prepare a feast of sweets using their recently harvested sweet potatoes.  On the menu was sweet potato fries and sweet potato pie.  Mmmm good!

First, we had to wash our potatoes.  When making sweet potato fries, we leave the skin on and since these babies came from our garden and not the supermarket, guess whose job it was to scrub them clean? 

Yep, you guessed it–upper elementary received the honors!  We used the scrub side of a brand new sponge to do the job, but you can also use a nail brush (any small brush will do) to gently clean the dirt from the skin.  CAUTION: gently is the key word here.  You do not want to remove the skins, only rid them of dirt. Some of the boys needed a bit of practice with this lesson. 🙂

While these kids cleaned our future fries, another group boiled our pie potatoes.  Boiling your sweet potatoes first will make skin removal EASY. 

When potatoes are soft enough to pierce through with a fork, remove from heat and allow to cool.  (Peeling while hot hurts!) But don’t wait until entirely cooled because then the skins tend to stick. 

While these kids squished out fresh boiled sweets for our pies, another group spiced up our fries with a rosemary garlic spice combo I picked up at the local supermarket.  Personally I find this spice to blend perfectly with the flavor of sweets and many of the kids agreed. 

“Wow, that smells good!”

Simple and direct works for me!  After the spice, we coated our fries with olive oil and lined them on a shallow baking pan.

Meanwhile, our pie sweets were getting their own set of spices–cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, vanilla–and blended until smooth.  Then both hit the oven to bake for about 35 – 45 minutes. 

For full recipe details, check the recipe section of this website.   And be sure you do, because from primary to middle school there wasn’t a frown or scrunched nose to be found.  Bravo to our amazing cooks!

But how could anyone not delight in these delicacies?  Don’t they just look delicious?

Trust me–they were.  In fact, I went straight home and made a few pies of my own.  Well…  Thanksgiving is the time of year to feast and give thanks, isn’t it?  And I’m thankful for a school full of willing participants who make gardening fun, a garden full of wonderful healthy produce and family and friends with whom I can share it all. 

Happy Thanksgiving!  (gobble, gobble…) 


Dazzling Dinnerware for Your Garden Harvest

Harvest is here!  It’s time to start dishing out the produce and what better way than on dazzling dinnerware?  I mean, we worked hard all these months cultivating our vegetables to perfection. Wouldn’t do them justice if we served them on plain old plates, now would it?

 Okay, that’s not entirely true.  Our garden bounty is so gorgeous and plentiful, most people won’t even notice the plates!  But we will.  Why not make them shine?  And I’m not talking cleaning, I’m talking sparkle as in style, sophistication…  Just look at these dishes from Franciscan China.  Simple, refined…aren’t they wonderful?

They remind me of some pasta bowls I have in the cabinet, courtesy of Williams-Sonoma.  But you don’t have to spend a fortune for good-looking dishes.  With a few clicks of your mouse, you can find a variety of shapes, sizes and colors offered for sale across the internet.  For a few of my favorites, check this month’s Prize Picks section.  Then get on the phone or shoot out the emails–we’re having a harvest party!