When I was a kid, I read the book Harriet the Spy. What really stayed with me is the fact that Harriet eats nothing but tomato sandwiches for lunch. When the book begins, she is just starting Grade 6 and has taken a tomato sandwich every single school day for the past five years. "Wouldn't you like to try a ham sandwich, or egg salad, or peanut butter?" her mother asks in exasperation. "Cream cheese and olive?... Pastrami? Roast beef? Cucumber?"
If all you ever want is a tomato sandwich, well, then you're set. But if you or your kids are stuck in an unhappy lunch rut, September is the time to break out. What Are You Doing For Lunch?: A Friendly Guide to Brown Bagging as a Better Way to Lunch by Mona Meighan is a workbook and cookbook that will put some variety into your midday meals.
Meighan offers nutritious and economical lunch-friendly recipes, from strawberry-mango salad to a tuna Parmesan sandwich to homemade trail mix bars. If you've been relying on expensive restaurant meals, unhealthy fast food or skipping lunch altogether, Meighan outlines the steps you can take to make eating well into an everyday habit.
Meighan is a dietitian, and What Are You Doing For Lunch? is a no-nonsense cookbook. There are no glossy pictures, no sensuous food descriptions. The recipes are straightforward and basic. Many are aimed at novice cooks, especially young adults. (Meighan offers a recipe for making PBJ sandwiches, for example.)
Meighan lists the kitchen tools you need to get started and gives advice about menu planning and food shopping. If this sounds a little dry, she also offers some juicy motivation -- charts that show how much money you can save with the brown bag equivalents of restaurant dishes. (Twenty days could save you $82.50, for example. That's something to chew on.)
To help your lunch resolutions work, Meighan begins with a quiz that personalizes your lunch style. Grab and Go types need foods that are easy to throw together, like a PBJ or a maybe a strawberry and cream cheese sandwich. The Traditionalist prefers tried-and-true lunch staples with a few twists -- a classic ham-and-cheese made into a tortilla wrap, or egg salad livened up with curry.
Creatives will go a little farther -- and spend more time in the kitchen -- for dishes like smoked salmon and greens or yogurt parfait. Midday Gourmets might run to vegetarian chili or carrot soup. Social Networkers like to plan communal lunches and eat with other people (some of the more involved recipes require access to a communal microwave or toaster oven, as well as a bit of counter space).
I tried out a few recipes, starting with a Social Networker recipe for Cobb salad. Without getting into a Curb Your Enthusiasm-style fight about the origin of the Cobb, it's a classic composed salad, and Meighan's recipe has five people splitting the ingredient prep and sharing a big bowl of lettuce, tomatoes, avocados, eggs, chicken and bacon, all tossed with a blue cheese dressing.
If you manage to pull off the five-person Cobb, then bravo. Requiring high levels of co-ordination and co-operation, this recipe is sort of like those team-building exercises they make you do at corporate retreats. I've also heard of lunch clubs in which each person takes a turn to bring lunch for everyone. In a five-person club, that means one day with a lot of work and then four days of relaxing and eating.
I also made some whole-wheat blueberry muffins, the muffin being fought-over territory in the battle between healthy and processed food. While supposedly wholesome, the average coffee-shop muffin is over-sized, over-priced, often baked in some distant city and so jammed with fat and sugar that it's basically a cupcake in everything but name. Meighan offers a healthier homemade version, packed with blueberry antioxidants.
Finally, in an affectionate nod to Harriet the Spy, I tried a tomato sandwich sparked with the addition of yogurt and pesto spread. (Bonus marks for homemade pesto, but you can buy it in jars at the supermarket.)
1 head romaine lettuce
1 head Boston or red leaf lettuce
1 pkg. sliced bacon (turkey bacon works fine)
2 ripe avocados, peeled and cut in small pieces
2 hard-boiled eggs, finely chopped
2 tomatoes, chopped
2 whole skinless, boneless cooked breasts or 1 cup of cooked chicken
Homemade salad dressing
150 ml (2/3 cup) red wine vinegar
30 ml (2 tbsp) Dijon mustard
250 ml (1 cup) olive oil
250 ml (1 cup) grated blue cheese (can substitute Roquefort)
10 ml (2 tsp) sugar
salt and pepper, to taste
Mix ingredients in jar with lid and shake rigorously
Person 1: Cut up lettuce, tomatoes and avocados.
Person 2: Cook and drain bacon the night before. When cooled, break into small pieces. Hard-boil eggs and cut up.
Person 3: Cook or purchase 1 cup of cooked chicken the night before. When cooled, cut into small pieces.
Person 4: Make the salad dressing the night before and refrigerate, or purchase 1 bottle of blue cheese or Roquefort dressing and refrigerate. Bring large serving plate and arrange ingredients on top of the lettuce in rows. Combining ingredients also works.
Person 5: Bring Grab and Go items, Midday Gourmet soup, or fruit and rolls.
30 minutes before lunch: Layer lettuce on serving plate and arrange other ingredients in rows. Ingredients can be combined, but if there are vegetarians in the group, separate the chicken and bacon. Keep dressing on side.
Tester's notes: I love Cobb salad, and this version is delicious and filling -- so filling, in fact, that Meighan's suggestion to serve with soup would almost be too much. This is a good example of a dish that's pricey at a restaurant but fairly thrifty when made at home and shared.
(I suspect that "shake rigorously" is a typo that's meant to read "shake vigorously," but I like the idea of applying rigour to salad dressing.)
Blueberry and whole-wheat Muffins
30 ml (2 tbsp) packed brown sugar
1 ml (1/4 tsp) cinnamon
175 ml (3/4 cup) fat-free milk
60 ml (1/4 cup) canola or soybean oil
60 ml (1/4 cup) honey
250 ml (1 cup) all-purpose flour
250 ml (1 cup) whole-wheat flour
15 ml (3 tsp) baking powder
2 ml (1/2 tsp) salt
250 ml (1 cup) frozen blueberries DO NOT THAW, or fresh blueberries
Preheat oven to 205C (400F).
1. Place paper baking cup liners in a 12-muffin pan.
2. In small bowl, stir together brown sugar and cinnamon, and set aside.
3. In large bowl, beat milk, oil, honey and egg with spoon until well blended.
4. Stir in flours, baking powder and salt just until dry ingredients are moistened (batter will be lumpy).
5. Gently mix in blueberries.
6. Divide batter evenly among muffin cups. Sprinkle with sugar-cinnamon topping.
7. Bake 18-20 minutes or until toothpick inserted in centre comes out clean and muffins are golden brown.
8. Immediately remove from muffin pan. Can freeze when cooled.
Tester's notes: The small size lets you get a handle on portion control, and this not-too-sweet muffin gets a boost from the blueberries.
Pesto and tomato sandwich
4 slices whole-wheat bread
60-90 ml (4-6 tbsp) prepared pesto
45 ml (3 tbsp) plain yogurt
1 thinly sliced tomato
salt and pepper, to taste
1. Add yogurt to prepared pesto. If a toaster oven is available, place bread in oven for up to 2 minutes.
2. Spread bread with pesto and add thinly sliced tomatoes.
3. Season with salt and pepper.
4. Place sandwich in toaster for 2-3 more minutes (optional).
Tester's notes: Like some of Meighan's recipes, this requires a little lunchtime prep with kitchen facilities, so it probably won't work for kids' lunches. Tomato sandwiches made in the morning tend to get soggy (though that's just how Harriet the Spy likes them). This recipe makes more than enough yogurt-pesto mix, but it's nice to have some around.