Thursday, January 31, 2013

More Awesome Lunchbox Ideas


Whew, I had to do that, it's been a big couple of weeks - in so many ways. Last Thursday I had my annual checking-breasts-for-cancer MRI (results not in yet), which still - even 5 years down the track - freaks me out. It likely always will, but in a way, the reminder of cancer is good. Cancer itself is bad, of course, but the reminder to make the most of my life is good. 

I. remember. 

Nelle started school and I started my new fellowship (I'm apparently still a scientist, regardless of what I say), and we did mad dashes around the house to save things from the extraordinary rain. I've been reading and writing lots of poetry, and just sent off 6 of my favourites to a poetry contest. My first one! We booked tickets for a trip to Phuket and Sri Lanka. We had lunch with friends and brunch with friends and my friend Michelle dropped by with a heavy bagful of mangoes from her very own tree. I love this time of post-travel catching up, and settling in.

And now? It's almost the weekend, and I'm going to slide into the corner of our apple-green couch with a book and a pot of tea and a super-blowy fan, and keep on exhaling. 

I'll remember to inhale, too. Don't worry.
Amanda xx
PS. Over the weekend I'll start putting together a post about Nelle's first week of lunchboxes, including brand new school-friendly recipes (and photos) - but until then, I had a look through the archives for some Lunchbox Food Group ideas. 

Of course, you can make these for yourself as well ...






Sandwiches and wraps

Little bites

Cookies (some of which are actually chewy)


Monday, January 28, 2013

The Last Weekend Before the First Day of School

A long long unbearably long long weekend, torrents of water
and sideways-driving rain, trees down leaves blown, inside
with all the windows shut, over flows and blocked drains, time
for another cup of tea, and then ...

Silence. Wind gone, basil turning gently toward the sun,
there's no power but please let there be school, please
can we have this first day, she's so excited, no no no - wait
yes yes yes and there she is, my baby girl in a new dress
and mary janes and a backpack bigger than she is walking
up those stairs to start.

I have never felt so proud and so sad and so happy in all my life.
Happy first day of school, baby girl,
Amanda xx

Friday, January 25, 2013

The New Lunchbox Food Groups

I don't quite remember learning my first Food Pyramid, but I'm pretty sure I was in a Princess Lea hairstyle and a handmade dress at the time. Ah, the food groups. The breads and grains, the veggies and fruits, the meat, the milk. This many servings of this or that or whatever, and you'll live forever! 

Little did I realise those food groups, stacked so convincingly atop one another, were embroiled in more controversy* than a baby-seal-steak. Nutritionists pitted against health professionals pitted against agricultural lobbyists, in a win-or-die fight for supremacy. 

What? Dairy's out? Over my dead body.

Of course I'm exaggerating a little bit here, but I want to make the point that choosing the "right" food can seem impossible in light of all the research and guidelines and - yes - propaganda out there. I've spoken about my own Food Guidelines before - based around variety and moderation and presentation and enjoyment.

And in my opinion, lunchboxes are no different. Variety, moderation, presentation and enjoyment. Except that kids are kids, and they'll be distracted. They'll want to eat as fast as possible so they can go play. They'll either be jealously eyeing up their friend's lunchbox, or showing off their own.

Personally, I'm going for the second.

So here are my very own LUNCHBOX FOOD GROUPS:
  2. CHEWY
Not what you were expecting?  Well, there are caveats of course. Otherwise you could end up with a lunchbox full of Doritos + saltwater taffy + cupcakes + soda. In a minute, I'll give some examples of the foods that I use within each category, but let's first consider our food guidelines as they apply here:

Variety - That means different lunchbox foods every day - but don't worry, it won't be hard.

Moderation - That means too much of a good thing is not a good thing - a lunchbox full of dried fruit is still a lot of (natural) sugars. But it also means sticking (when possible) to homemade, preservative-and-additive free foods.

Presentation - This is critical for successful lunchboxing, and is what inspired my original post on lunchbox styling here. I no longer use plastic lunchboxes (which feature prominently in the photos on that post), but the point is:
the contents of those lunchboxes look f***ing amazing.
How could you not eat a lunch with all those beautiful colours and textures and flavours, all presented in bite-size pieces? I can't tell you how many teachers or carers or parents have commented (positively) on Nelle's lunches over the years, and mainly it's because of presentation. 

If you want something to be eaten, make it look good. Make it rainbow. You'll be surprised.

Enjoyment - I will give you some ideas for lunchbox foods below, and over the next little while some recipes, too, but remember what your own child likes and doesn't. I never pack a lunchbox full of controversial foods, but I do like to test out new things here and there. 

And I always try to put in one AWESOME food, which may be secretly packed with nutrition - ha! - but which my daughter feels excitement for having. Things like muffins or homemade muesli bars or even cookies. I can tuck zucchini into anything, people. And so can you.

Ok, let's look at some great contenders for each of the Lunchbox Food Groups:

Crunchy | Crispy
These tend to be some of Nelle's favourites, so I'm not averse to including 2 in a lunchbox, provided they're not both fruit.
  • cut, sliced, sticked veggies
  • fruit slices
  • homemade veggie chips
  • baked chickpeas
  • homemade crackers like these or these or these

I'll only include fruit here if I haven't included whole fruits as well. For a lunchbox, I prefer to stick to one kind of fruit (unless I'm totally desperate).

Soft | Bready
I find these go down best in small sizes and/or unusual shapes, and if I'm including a slightly-sweet one (like a sweetish muffin or cookie), I'll generally also include a savoury one (sandwich etc).
  • homemade mini muffins like these or these or these
  • puff pastry bites - baked around favourite fillings
  • tortilla sushi - tortillas rolled around cheese or beans or whatever, and sliced
  • bread sandwiches with nut butter or cheese or organic meat (no nitrites)
  • avocado sushi rolls, with or without nori
  • scrolls - again, baked around favourite savoury fillings
  • potato puffs
  • homemade cookies like these or these or these or these or these  - baked with minimal sugar and (where possible) maximal veggies

I tend to save soup or smoothies for afterschool-food (another post, later), and go for milk or water at lunch. I prefer Nelle eats whole-fruit (dried or raw) rather than juice. 


So these are my Lunchbox Food Groups - the basis for the lunches I pack every day. I hope these ideas will help you feel more confident about what you're packing off to school. In coming posts, I'll give you heaps of great recipes to use for each Food Group, as well as that tricky After School | Pre-Dinner time.

All good, mammas (and daddas). All good.
Amanda xx
*Deconstructing the food pyramid. 2012. Nutrition Health Review 106:2,7.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Choosing a Healthier Lunchbox :: Why I Buy Steel and Wood Instead of Plastic

In 2011, I wrote about lunchbox styling here - and given that schools across Australia start up again next week (including my baby girl's) - I thought I might revisit the topic. Revamp it. So over the next little while, I'll try to write some posts about lunchbox-based stuff - recipes, ideas, shopping lists, tips to make life easier. 

Because this time of year I think we could all use easy.

I've used all kinds of things as lunchboxes in the past: scrapbooking trays, old cookie tins, metal pencil cases, and - perhaps surprisingly - real lunchboxes. I still haven't found my perfect fit. My perfect lunchbox would be scrapbook-tray sized, stainless steel, and would have a removable multi-compartmented insert so you could just rinse the main part of the box and slot in a new insert for the next day (while the dirty insert gets washed overnight). It'd have a handle, a clip lock, and some cute designs etched on the top. 

Sounds awesome, right? Alas, it doesn't exist. But until someone steals my idea and makes a fortune on the design, here are some things to think about in choosing lunch-carrying devices from what actually does exist:

Steel vs plastic lunchboxes
I've used plastic in the past, but I've now replaced nearly all the plastic (including melamine) storage-and-food stuff in our house with glass or steel, so this year I've transitioned to stainless steel lunchboxes. They're expensive, yes, but safer. 

What do I mean? Many plastics contain chemicals that - if ingested - act as estrogen-mimicking compunds in the body, and these excess estrogens (natural or otherwise) appear to be associated with unhappy changes in breast tissue. If you've had breast cancer (as I have), a family history of breast cancer (as my daughter has), or are just concerned about all the estrogens present in our modern environment, you might want to consider reducing the plastics you use.

Now, of course you're not usually going to sit down munch on plastic directly - but in my opinion, there's enough evidence out there that the estrogen-like compounds in plastic food containers may leach into food or water to make it not worth the risk. There'll be enough times when I can't control the plastics being used. At home? This is my territory.
Go steel.

Features to go for in a lunchbox
In a future post, I'll be talking about the Lunchbox Food Groups (which aren't going to be what you expect!) - but to really enhance the look and variety of food within a lunchbox, it helps to have multiple compartments. The more, the better!

Other features to look for? Ease of cleaning, destructability, and spill-resistance.

Non-lunchbox stuff
Again, in my attempt to remove plastics from the kitchen, we no longer use plastic cutlery or water bottles. Instead, I recommend finding a dishwasher-safe stainless steel water bottle or two - as a bonus, the water doesn't taste weird and plastic-y after a day. Same goes for mini-thermoses and so on.

I have in the past sent stainless steel cutlery to preschool, but I'm running out of the random ones that I don't mind losing. This year, I've bought packs of bamboo or sustainably-harvested wooden cutlery - meaning fewer plastics going into my child's mouth (getting bitten and chewed and so on) but also less waste going into landfill. And if the forks or spoons don't make it home from school? No big deal. If they do? Bamboo cutlery lasts ages, but I even handwash and reuse my wooden ones till they show signs of visible wear.

Where to get all this stuff?
Check out your local organic or natural foods store for stainless steel lunchboxes, thermoses, water bottles and biodegradable cutlery. In the US, check out Wholefoods or Sprouts, or even order direct on Amazon. Here in Brisbane, I purchase my lunchbox-y things from Wray Organic and Biome. Yes, steel is be more expensive than plastic, but if cared for properly it should last longer, too. Go for quality!

More tips and recipes coming soon,
Amanda xx

Sunday, January 20, 2013

School Time :: Or, The Start of Letting Go

School's almost starting and my baby's hair's still tangled and her shoes don't fit quite right, I haven't got her a proper backpack yet, or her uniform, and what time is drop-off, will she be happy, will she still run to cuddle me hello when I come to take her home? All these wonderings, so many wonderings.

In 8 days' time, I'm going to pull up with all the other mums and dads outside her school, her real school, Big-Kid School, and she'll have this whole other life outside of me, and I'll have to let her go - I know 

this is the start of the letting go. 

And there's nothing I can do but build threads between us, so that one day when she's all grown up and too far away, we'll both know we're like spiders keeping different corners of the same web

and it'll all be ok.
Amanda xx

Friday, January 18, 2013

Patatas Bravas :: Or, Roasted Potatoes with an Easy Homemade Tomato Ketchup Alternative

I had to give you that title, lest you think I've gone all fancy on you now that I'm back home in my own kitchen in Brisbane. Nope. No way. This is an incredibly easy recipe that maybe you won't want to make when it's 35degC outside, like I did, but hey. Sometimes a girl needs some potatoes. Now.

I hope this post will show you that sometimes really simple things have exotic-sounding names, because their origins are far-away countries with a Mediterranean climate and a love of olives and wine and dancing. That doesn't make them any less simple, though it does make them adaptable.

What do I mean?

Me, feeding my child:
"Look! Roasted potatoes with tomato ketchup!"

Me, feeding dinner party guests:
"Voila! Patatas bravas! How about another glass of wine?"

See how easy that is? Almost as easy as the recipe itself.
Happy weekending,
Amanda xx

Patatas Bravas (or)
Roasted Potatoes w/ Paprika & Tomato Sauce
serves 4-6

Having loved patatas bravas at a number of tapas restaurants the world over (most recently, here), I was eventually going to have to make them for myself. And my family, of course. I stuck with my own low-oil method of roasting a good, crispy potato and hunted for a good sauce recipe online - the sauce recipe here is a mishmash of several, including this one. Once you get everything chopped, plant a glass of red wine firmly in one hand (preferably yours) for the remainder of the recipe.

The time
20 min prep + 20-30 min roasting 

The ingredients (roasting)
1kg potatoes, scrubbed and chopped (I used dutch cream)
boiling water, to cover
2 Tbs extra virgin olive oil
a sprinkling of sea salt

The ingredients (sauce)
1 med onion, finely chopped
1 tsp minced garlic
1-2 Tbs extra virgin olive oil
1 c passata (or tomato puree)
2 tsp Spanish paprika
a pinch or two of chile powder
a pinch of raw sugar
1/2 tsp sherry vinegar (or w/wine vinegar)

*Try to use organic ingredients when you can!

The process
1. First,  preheat the oven to 200degC (400degF). Nice and hot. 

2. Get your potatoes washed and chopped, pop them in a large non-metallic dish, and cover them with boiling water. Leave for 5 or so minutes - this will speed your roasting-and-crisping process markedly. Then, drain the water, pat the potatoes dry, and spread them across a baking sheet, dousing and coating them with the olive oil and sea salt. 

Roast in your preheated oven until the potatoes are browned and crispy, turning them periodically if need be. I estimate they'll take 20-30 min to roast, but as I've managed to rub the temperature markings off my oven dial, I really have no idea what exact temperature I used. Oops. So I'm not even going to try to guess how long the roasting will take you, but I'd imagine you'll get a glass of wine down in the meantime.

3. While the potatoes do their thing, make the sauce. Start by sauteing the chopped/minced onion and garlic in olive oil over med heat until soft, then add the remainder of the sauce ingredients. After the sauce starts to bubble optimistically, reduce the heat and simmer 5-10 min to get all those flavours mingling, then remove it from heat entirely and set aside till the potatoes are ready. The sauce is great served at room temperature, so don't worry about keeping it hot-but-not-burned. Leave it be.

4. When they're finished, simply spoon the potatoes onto a paper-towel-lined plate to remove excess oil - then transfer them in nice-sized portions onto individual serving plates. The sauce can either go on top of the potatoes or in a small dish alongside them, your choice.

Enjoy! xx

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Cooking with Kids :: Or, a Little Reminder that the Extra Time is Totally Worth It

I need to get my ass back in the kitchen - and while I'm at it, I'm bringing my daughter with me, lest she forget how to crack an egg properly and all that. This is not the easy road, because that consists of Nelle sitting quietly in the living room watching kids' TV while I breeze about the kitchen with a glass of wine in hand, opening jars of passata and boiling linguine. But there are so many great reasons to ditch the easy road, now and then. 

Yes, I want to teach her good food values, and spend focused time together. I want to give her tools for life, help her to feel proud, and important, and creative - and cooking can do that. So why aren't we cooking together anymore?

The uncomfortable truth is - it's my fault. 

Things get busy, I get absorbed in writing and research and obsessive scrubbing of the kitchen floor. Suddenly, I'm running through lists and revising papers in my head while I chop, slice, peel, shred, mash, stir or wash, because it feels like there's no other time in the day to catch up. And I set my daughter down anywhere besides the kitchen so she won't interfere with my hurried dinner preparations, so she won't slow me down.

But isn't that the point? I'm always trying to figure out ways to slow down. I dream of moving to the country, to a place where I can still get a good coffee but then wander about my garden picking herbs and berries. Stepping out of this perpetual hurriedness I struggle with. And there's the simplest answer in the world right over there in her new school uniform, with that hopeful, aching-to-hang-out smile on her face. She practically has a neon sign above her head, with an arrow flashing down towards her and two words: "Slow. Down."

Of course.

So we'll get into the kitchen today, do some baking. She'll start sampling tiny cubes of raw sweet potato or carrot peels or finger-dustings of buckwheat flour just because they're there, because how else do you find out about these things? And I'll have to let her experiment, because buckwheat flour on its own isn't something I can describe, and maybe I don't even really remember what it tastes like, either. Maybe I'll have to try it all over again, with her. 
How many forgotten flavours, sounds, sights, moments are there out there for us to explore?
And all in an extra 10, 15, 20 minutes in the kitchen.
Consider this Resolution #2.
Happy 2013, happy slowing down,
Amanda xx

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

San Francisco :: Or, Blending In

Sorry about that, I've been a little distracted by San Francisco.

San Fran's one of my favourite ever cities, but a place where it's hard to blend in. I don't know how you'd do it, how you'd look local - having a kid with you helps, I think, but not when you're taking in every view through a Nikon DX-whatever lens. Maybe if you had a dog of some variety, everyone seems to have a dog or two, and people here seem to have giant dogs as much as little ones, even in the narrowest, steepest-staired of apartments. I think the bigger your dog, the more local you'd seem. Maybe you could rent one, like you rent a bike to ride around Golden Gate park ... and people would take photos of you, a native with your wild beast, in your element.

I suspect if you thought about food, talked about food, and ate food constantly, you might blend in ... though I can't say I've heard any locals obsessing about their next meal, I find it hard to imagine they wouldn't. This city teems with beautiful cafes and restaurants, strung out along the main streets but also dotted here and there in small spaces in historic buildings in sometimes-leafy, always-hilly neighbourhoods with tantalizing names: Russian Hill. North Beach. Telegraph Hill. Restaurants you could almost walk past if you happened to get a bit of fog in your eye at just the wrong time. 

Just tonight I had dinner at one of these places, just 2 tables wide and maybe half a dozen long, where I ate some of the best food I've ever eaten and watched my daughter literally lick the plate clean - and yes, I let her do that even at nice restaurants because she should enjoy her time unbounded by social conventions. She'll grow up soon enough, and licking plates or bowls will no longer signify 'extraordinary' but will merely be something that happens when it's 11:30 at night and the very last scoop of ice cream in the house has just been eaten, and those two occasions are nowhere near the same.

I can't say I've seen any local San Franciscans of any age lick their plates, but they might. The food is that good here.

I think maybe if you live in this city you either give up your car because it's impossible to park it anywhere or because you don't like the person you are when you drive it, or maybe you do like that person too much, and that's the problem. 

But then again, you aren't going to see locals wandering out into the middle of real-live-functioning streets to take photos of steep hills or historic prisons or crazy spire things. 
Seriously, people.

Personally, I don't know a thing about being a local around here. But I can tell you it feels amazing to step out the marble-fringed front door of this apartment we've rented for a handful of nights, and look down the stairs at all the tourists wandering up the hill with their dangling cameras, and think if only I had a dog.

More soon, when I'm more focused,
Amanda xx

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Reading Between the Lines || Resolution #1

A couple years ago, I resolved not to have resolutions ... and that worked fine back then. But now I'm 37 and ovary-less and off my anxiety meds and my brain doesn't hold on to little, scrappy things like lists the way it used to, so I feel the need to make myself culpable for certain things, certain resolutions. This week, in honour of the brand new year ahead, I think I'll share them with you - one by one by one, till we hit the tail end of the habits I plan to form this year. And then I'd better get moving on them, don't you think?

#1 - A daily dose of poetry

A few weeks ago, I found some wonderful poems (like this one) and posted links to them on Twitter. And someone said to me "I need more poetry in my life," and it made me think about all the poetry that is in our lives, even outside the pages of Margaret Atwood books and literary magazines

So this year, I'm going to do a 365 project based on a daily dose of poetry. Every day, I'll post a poem or a link or a poetic phrase that I love on my Facebook page, and we can hopefully all be reminded to listen just a little. Because it's out there, everywhere. Maybe sometimes I'll send a picture with it, to show you how I see things - but I hope you'll make your own judgements and draw your own images and tell us all what you think, as well.

That's poetry.
Happy 2013,
Amanda xx

See you over there.