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Brown-bag gourmet Skip the sandwich and pack a chef-created lunch for school

  • The go-to item for school lunches is the sandwich but varying lunch items can keep things fun for kids. A back-to-school  alternative at Tokyo Cafe in Fort Worth, Texas, contains Japanese style meatballs, chocolate jello and sauteed peaches wth granola and berries. (Ron T. Ennis/Fort Worth Star-Telegram/MCT)

    The go-to item for school lunches is the sandwich but varying lunch items can keep things fun for kids. A back-to-school alternative at Tokyo Cafe in Fort Worth, Texas, contains Japanese style meatballs, chocolate jello and sauteed peaches wth granola and berries. (Ron T. Ennis/Fort Worth Star-Telegram/MCT) Purchase photo reprints »

  • The go-to item for school lunches is the sandwich but varying lunch items can keep things fun for kids such as this cannellini bean dip with pita chips. (Ron T. Ennis/Fort Worth Star-Telegram/MCT)

    The go-to item for school lunches is the sandwich but varying lunch items can keep things fun for kids such as this cannellini bean dip with pita chips. (Ron T. Ennis/Fort Worth Star-Telegram/MCT) Purchase photo reprints »

  • The go-to item for school lunches is the sandwich but varying lunch items can keep things fun for kids such as this grilled barbecued salmon with cucumber slices and feta crumble prepared by Vance Martin of Lili's Bistro in Forth Worth, Texas. (Joyce Marshall/Fort Worth Star-Telegram/MCT)

    The go-to item for school lunches is the sandwich but varying lunch items can keep things fun for kids such as this grilled barbecued salmon with cucumber slices and feta crumble prepared by Vance Martin of Lili's Bistro in Forth Worth, Texas. (Joyce Marshall/Fort Worth Star-Telegram/MCT) Purchase photo reprints »

  • The go-to item for school lunches is the sandwich but varying lunch items can keep things fun for kids such as these green chile chicken squash "sliders" as prepared by Mark Hitri, chef at Billy Bob's Texas. (Ross Hailey/Fort Worth Star-Telegram/MCT)

    The go-to item for school lunches is the sandwich but varying lunch items can keep things fun for kids such as these green chile chicken squash "sliders" as prepared by Mark Hitri, chef at Billy Bob's Texas. (Ross Hailey/Fort Worth Star-Telegram/MCT) Purchase photo reprints »

  • The go-to item for school lunches is the sandwich but varying lunch items can keep things fun for kids. A back-to-school  alternative at Tokyo Cafe in Fort Worth, Texas, contains Japanese style meatballs, chocolate jello and sauteed peaches wth granola and berries. (Ron T. Ennis/Fort Worth Star-Telegram/MCT)
  • The go-to item for school lunches is the sandwich but varying lunch items can keep things fun for kids such as this cannellini bean dip with pita chips. (Ron T. Ennis/Fort Worth Star-Telegram/MCT)
  • The go-to item for school lunches is the sandwich but varying lunch items can keep things fun for kids such as this grilled barbecued salmon with cucumber slices and feta crumble prepared by Vance Martin of Lili's Bistro in Forth Worth, Texas. (Joyce Marshall/Fort Worth Star-Telegram/MCT)
  • The go-to item for school lunches is the sandwich but varying lunch items can keep things fun for kids such as these green chile chicken squash "sliders" as prepared by Mark Hitri, chef at Billy Bob's Texas. (Ross Hailey/Fort Worth Star-Telegram/MCT)

The humble sandwich is nearly a no-brainer when it comes to back-to-school 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 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, PEACH AND WHITE SESAME ‘COBBLER’ AND CHOCOLATE GELATIN

Kevin Martinez, chef de cuisine

Tokyo Café, Fort Worth, Texas

“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, Fort Worth

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, Fort Worth

“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, Fort Worth

“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.”

JAPANESE MEATBALLS WITH TARE SAUCE

Makes approximately 16 meatballs

¾ pound 80/20 ground beef

¼ pound ground pork

2 tablespoons fresh ginger, chopped

2 tablespoons garlic, minced

½ 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).

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.

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

½ 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.

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.

- Tokyo Cafe, 5121 Pershing Ave., Fort Worth, 817-737-8568; www.tokyocafefw.com

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.)

¼ cup finely diced onion

¼ cup finely diced celery

½ cup shredded cheddar cheese

¼ 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.

- Billy Bob’s Texas, 2520 Rodeo Plaza, Fort Worth, 817-624-7117; www.billybobstexas.com

CANNELLINI BEAN DIP

Makes approximately 2 ½ cups

2 cups cooked cannellini beans, rinsed

1/3 cup sauteed shallots

1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh rosemary

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

½ 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.

- The Bastion Restaurant, 2100 Hemphill St., Fort Worth, 817-913-6972; www.bastionrestaurant.com

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.

- Lili’s Bistro, 1310 W. Magnolia Ave., Fort Worth, 817-877-0700; www.lilisbistro.com

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