The Energy Chef: Herb Mesa's Back-to-School Bites

As the first day approaches, I start to think about the age-old question: What should I make them for lunch? I look at lunchtime as an opportunity to introduce them to healthy, delicious food combinations. Here's a peek at what I'm packing up for them.

The first day back to school is both a happy and sad day for me. I love having my girls around, but let's face it -- after an entire summer of trying to keep them busy, I am usually ready to send them back!

As the first day approaches, I start to think about the age-old question: What should I make them for lunch? I look at lunchtime as an opportunity to introduce them to healthy, delicious food combinations. Here's a peek at what I'm packing up for them.

Packing Lunch: Time-Saving Tips

Who has time to pack up kids' lunches? YOU do!  Making lunch can be easy if you prepare ahead of time. I like to start off strong at the beginning of the week with something I can prep on Sunday night, like my curried chicken salad wraps.  A few minutes of prep time the night before means a little more sleep on hectic weekday mornings.

The Main Event

The main dish should include a mix of healthy carbs for energy, as well as enough protein and healthy fat to keep them satisfied until school lets out.

For a more traditional option, make a turkey and Swiss cheese sandwich on a multi-grain baguette with your child's favorite veggies. When you're in a rush or when only PB&J will do, substitute a whole-grain bread and natural peanut butter (my girls like crunchy) instead of white bread and sugar-laden traditional PB. Peanut butter provides a good amount of protein and lots of healthy fats, and who doesn't like this sandwich when it's cut into a cool, fun shape?!

For something a little different, try my curried chicken salad wrap. My girls weren't sure about this dish at first, but it quickly became a favorite!  The recipe makes enough that you'll have a great lunch for yourself, too.

Curried Chicken Salad Wrap

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients:
1 12.5-ounce can of chicken (drained and rinsed)
1 granny smith apple, chopped
1 large carrot, peeled and shredded
1/4 cup raisins or dried cranberries
1 1/2 teaspoons agave nectar
1 tablespoon Greek yogurt
1 tablespoon nonfat sour cream
1 tablespoon curry powder
Salt & pepper to taste
4 whole-wheat tortillas (without trans fat or hydrogenated oils)

Directions:

Mix all the ingredients (except the tortillas) in a large bowl until combined. Add 1/4 of the mixture into each whole-wheat tortilla and roll up.

On the Side

My 9-year-old likes to peel her own carrots -- it's fun for her -- so I buy the full-sized ones (which are cheaper and more flavorful than baby carrots) and let her prepare her own snack to take with a sandwich.

Something Sweet

Dessert certainly doesn't have to be a pre-packaged, sugary treat. Take an hour (any spare hour you have) to make my whole-grain peanut butter chocolate chip cookies. You can freeze them and put one in with lunch each day! Whole grains and healthy fats make the treat satisfying, and the small size helps control portions.

Peanut Butter Chocolate Chip Cookies

Yield: 24 cookies

Ingredients:
1/4 cup soy milk (plain or vanilla)
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 egg
2 tablespoons canola oil

1/2 cup natural peanut butter, either crunchy or smooth (only peanuts and salt)

3/4 cup old fashioned oats
1 cup whole wheat flour
2/3 cup cane sugar
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/3 cup semisweet chocolate chips

Directions:

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a medium bowl, combine soy milk, vanilla extract, egg, canola oil and peanut butter and mix well. In a large bowl, combine oats, flour, sugar and baking soda. Pour the peanut butter mixture into the dry ingredients and stir until a stiff dough forms. Mix in the chocolate chips. Form into 1-inch round balls and drop onto lightly greased cookie sheets. Bake for 13-15 minutes, or until lightly browned.

Here's to all of the back-to-schoolers: Have a great year both academically and socially, and most important -- nutritionally!

Next Food Network Star season 6 finalist Herb Mesa is a restaurant-trained chef, a self-taught healthy cuisine chef and a certified personal trainer. Herb teaches ‘balance through food and fitness’, and works as a personal chef and trainer in Atlanta.

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