Local chefs’ creative alternatives to lunchbox sandwiches

Posted Wednesday, Aug. 14, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
Back-to-school week! Ideas and tips to ease the family’s transition back to class. Monday: Helping children overcome first-day jitters Tuesday: Spa treatments for back-to-school pampering Today: Sandwich alternatives for kids’ lunchboxes Thursday: Techy school supplies every teen will want Saturday: Easy, breezy outfits for harried moms who carpool in style
Japanese meatballs with tare sauce Makes approximately 16 meatballs • 3/4 pound 80/20 ground beef • 1/4 pound ground pork • 2 tablespoons fresh ginger, chopped • 2 tablespoons garlic, minced • 1/2 cup chopped white onion • 1 egg • 2 tablespoons soy sauce • Salt and pepper, to taste 1. In a medium bowl, mix all ingredients together. Form into small, quarter-size balls. Allow meatballs to chill in fridge until firm. 2. Saute meatballs over medium heat until golden brown, then toss with tare sauce (recipe follows). Nutritional information per meatball: 87 calories, 7 grams fat, 1 gram carbohydrates, 5 grams protein, 35 milligrams cholesterol, 159 milligrams sodium, trace dietary fiber, 72 percent of calories from fat. Tare sauce Makes approximately 2/3 cup • 2 ounces sugar • 2 ounces soy sauce • 5 ounces water Cook all ingredients in a small sauce pot over medium heat until the mixture has the consistency of maple syrup. Nutritional information per 1-tablespoon serving: 25 calories, trace fat, 6 grams carbohydrates, trace protein, no cholesterol, 324 milligrams sodium, trace dietary fiber, 0 percent of calories from fat. White sesame and fresh peach “cobbler” Makes 4 servings • 2 fresh peaches, peeled, pits removed and cut into small wedges • 1 tablespoon white sesame seeds • 2 ounces apple-cinnamon granola (found at Central Market) • 1 ounce sweetened banana chips • 1/2 cup fresh berries of choice 1. In a small nonstick pan, cook peaches over medium heat, adding sesame seeds after peaches start to soften. Remove from heat. 2. Combine cooked peaches and remaining ingredients in a bowl and mix well with a wooden spoon until mixture sticks together. Nutritional information per serving: 145 calories, 7 grams fat, 19 grams carbohydrates, 3 grams protein, no cholesterol, 2 milligrams sodium, 4 grams dietary fiber, 43 percent of calories from fat. Chocolate gelatin Makes 3 servings • 3 cups water • 2 cups 2-percent milk • 6 ounces Toll House milk chocolate chips • 1 packet agar agar powder (found at Central Market) 1. Heat water, milk and chocolate chips in sauce pot. Once simmering, add agar agar. Simmer for 3 minutes, stirring constantly. 2. Turn off heat and pour mixture into molds of choice. Chill until firm. Nutritional information per serving: 372 calories, 21 grams fat, 42 grams carbohydrates, 9 grams protein, 25 milligrams cholesterol, 128 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber, 48 percent of calories from fat. — Tokyo Cafe, 5121 Pershing Ave., Fort Worth, 817-737-8568;
Green chile chicken squash “sliders” Makes about 6 sliders • 2 cups cooked chicken, shredded or pulled (Hitri prefers chicken thighs, but use whatever is on hand.) • 1/4 cup finely diced onion • 1/4 cup finely diced celery • 1/2 cup shredded cheddar cheese • 1/4 cup diced green chiles • 2 tablespoons mayonnaise • 2 teaspoons ground coriander • 1 yellow summer squash, raw and unpeeled 1. Combine all ingredients except squash, and keep chilled. 2. Slice squash into four lengthwise strips, remove any seeds, and cut each strip into approximately three pieces to create slider “buns.” 3. Assemble each slider using a scoop of green chile chicken mixture and two squash pieces. Nutritional information per slider: 162 calories, 9 grams fat, 2 grams carbohydrates, 17 grams protein, 51 milligrams cholesterol, 137 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber, 52 percent of calories from fat. — Billy Bob’s Texas, 2520 Rodeo Plaza, Fort Worth, 817-624-7117;
Cannellini bean dip Makes approximately 2 1/2 cups • 2 cups cooked cannellini beans, rinsed • 1/3 cup sauteed shallots • 1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh rosemary • 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil • 1/2 teaspoon salt (chef Chandra Riccetti uses Morton’s Iodized Salt, “because American diets don’t have iodine,” she says.) Use a food processor or immersion hand blender to blend all ingredients together until smooth. Serve with pita chips. Chef’s tip: Use this ingredient list to make Tuscan bean soup by adding 1 quart of chicken or vegetable stock. Stir everything together, heat and serve. Nutritional information per 1-tablespoon serving: 21 calories, 1 gram fat, 2 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram protein, no cholesterol, 27 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber, 41 percent of calories from fat. — The Bastion Restaurant, 2100 Hemphill St., Fort Worth, 817-913-6972;
Barbecue salmon fillet with cucumbers, tomatoes and feta Serves 1 • 1 salmon fillet • Salt and pepper, to taste • Barbecue sauce, to taste • 3 tomato slices • 5 to 6 cucumber slices • Feta cheese crumbles, for garnish 1. Season salmon with salt and pepper on both sides, then coat both sides with barbecue sauce. 2. Grill until salmon is done and sauce is slightly caramelized. Allow to cool before storing in fridge overnight. 3. Season tomato and cucumber slices with salt and pepper and top with feta crumbles. Nutritional information per serving: 240 calories, 7 grams fat, 7 grams carbohydrates, 36 grams protein, 91 milligrams cholesterol, 283 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber, 27 percent of calories from fat. — Lili’s Bistro, 1310 W. Magnolia Ave., Fort Worth, 817-877-0700;

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The humble sandwich is nearly a no-brainer when it comes to lunchbox options. It’s easy and portable, and most kids like the simple flavors of ham and cheese or PB&J.

Yet it often can be uninteresting and unhealthy, likely made with processed meats and cheeses or sugary peanut butter mashed between flavorless slices of refined-grain bread, thrown together in the morning by harried parents who may lack the time to be more creative.

By lunchtime, too, a sandwich can be soggy; half or more may end up in the trash can.

To add variety, excitement and nutrients to your children’s lunchbox menu this year, consider these recipes provided by four local chefs who have school-age kids of their own. The mini meals, some of which could double as dinner the night before in larger portions, provide a means for sneaking in fruits, vegetables and legumes in a tasty, finger-licking way — sure to make your child’s lunchtime almost as fun as recess.

Japanese meatballs with peach and white sesame “cobbler” and chocolate gelatin

Kevin Martinez, chef de cuisine

Tokyo Cafe

“I try to put together familiar things they like,” Kevin Martinez says of prepping lunch for his two sons, Eli, 4, and Alex, 2. “My kids love peaches, and they like granola bars. So I’ll roast peaches while they’re in season and mix them with granola and sesame seeds, and it all sticks together. Since most schools have a no-nut policy, this makes a good, healthy snack.”

The Tokyo Cafe chef says kids like to play with their food, and anything they can pick up and eat with their little fingers, like his sticky-sweet Japanese meatballs, make for a fun lunchtime meal. And if your child begs for store-bought gelatin desserts, make a preservative-free version without artificial flavors or colors using Martinez’s easy recipe.

Green chile chicken squash “sliders”

Mark Hitri, executive chef

Billy Bob’s Texas

Mark Hitri admits that his 8- and 11-year-old boys are picky eaters.

“I generally stick with what they like and add healthier things a little at a time,” says the Billy Bob’s Texas executive chef.

In his cheesy green chile chicken sliders, which are inspired by Billy Bob’s Texas’ signature yellow squash and green chile chicken soup, Hitri uses raw sliced squash as a creative substitute for buns.

“My oldest is gluten-sensitive and that has been the hardest to deal with,” Hitri said. “So part of the inspiration on this dish is to find ways of replacing bread and still making a convenient lunch.”

Note that the number of sliders will depend on the size of the squash “buns.” Also, if you’re concerned about raw squash, Hitri says: “I think children should have no problem biting into the squash. It is not like an acorn or spaghetti squash with a hard shell. It is more like zucchini, as far as texture of the skin.”

Cannellini bean dip with pita chips

Chandra Riccetti, owner and chef

The Bastion Restaurant

“He loves dipping,” said Chandra Riccetti of her 5-year-old son, Luca. “We try to make things that are easy to eat and don’t take a lot of concentration and focus. That’s where the dipping came in.”

Per the advice of her pediatrician, Riccetti started exposing her son to many different foods early. She has kept him away from sodium-heavy cold cuts and gives him Greek yogurt, hummus and peanut butter with dippers like fruits and vegetables instead.

At one point, Luca began resisting some of Riccetti’s menu selections when classmates began “eww-ing” his lunches.

“He’d come home and say, ‘I don’t want to eat that,’” she said. “We put it back off on our pediatrician, saying, ‘Well, she said you need to try everything.’”

To combat the peer pressure, Riccetti continually praised her son for at least trying new foods. Now he prefers broccoli, edamame and spinach to sandwiches. One of Luca’s favorite dips is Riccetti’s Tuscan bean soup-inspired cannellini bean dip, which she pairs with whole-grain pita chips and a side of berries.

Barbecue salmon fillet with cucumbers, tomatoes and feta

Vance Martin, owner and chef

Lili’s Bistro

“If I know I’m sending lunch, I plan my dinner the night before accordingly,” said Vance Martin, whose West Magnolia Avenue restaurant is named for his 10-year-old daughter, Lili. “She will eat any fish cold, so I will grill an extra salmon fillet. We started feeding Lili fish at a young age and she took to it immediately.”

Martin simply uses barbecue sauce to create a sweet, caramelized glaze and pairs the chilled salmon fillet with crisp cucumbers, sliced tomatoes and feta crumbles. He says the salmon travels well after firming overnight in the refrigerator.

“We are sweet-eaters,” he added. “So after that healthy lunch, I don’t feel so bad about sending a treat, too.”

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