Straight-A suppers

How to get healthful, veggie-packed dinners on the back-to-school table for possibly picky young pupils.

Posted: September 06, 2012

This summer my family joined first lady Michelle Obama in battling obesity by eating homegrown food from pots on our deck: 47 cherry tomatoes, 13 jalapeños, 8 cucumbers, and various herbs.

We accomplished this without hiring a gardening staff.

But now the 2012-13 academic year is upon us, bringing with it a different culinary challenge: wedging nutritious dinners into the tempo of life containing homework, afternoon sports, and parental work schedules.

Add to that a renewed focus on moving children toward healthier meal choices by involving them in the cooking or growing process.

There's no lack of new sources of advice on the subject, Michelle Obama's beautifully photographed book, American Grown: The Story of the White House Kitchen Garden and Gardens Across America, the most prominent among them. While we all know the importance of the subject matter, we also know it remains difficult for many families to put into practice.

Released just as the 2012 spring planting season got going, Obama's book is equal parts history, nutrition, cookbook, gardening, and community-building manual. It explores relevant initiatives across the country, including the Fresh Food Financing Initiative begun in Pennsylvania in 2004 to help put supermarkets in underserved areas, including Philadelphia.

Obama devotes lots of time to involving children and their schools in changing their attitudes toward processed foods versus fresh, eating, and exercise.

Her book also offers recipes emphasizing vegetables - witness the quichelike Spinach Pie - but does not exclude the judicious consumption of meat, fat, and carbs. Braised Pork Shoulder With Butternut Squash and Greens, for example, is a hearty meal whose leftovers can be shredded and combined with barbecue sauce for dinner on school nights.

It's inspirational, but if you are seeking a more extensive collection of recipes and practical advice for feeding your children during the school year, consider The Cleaner Plate Club: Raising Healthy Eaters One Meal at a Time by working moms Beth Bader and Ali Benjamin (Storey Publishing, 2011).

The authors' blog,, which was the seed of the book, is a great supplement to this paperback.

In addition to recipes that are vegetable-heavy but simple so they don't "frighten" kids, Bader and Benjamin delve into the psychology of children regarding unfamiliar food and children's issues revolving around food.

The Shepherd's Pie here is one good example of the team's approach to simple but additive-and-preservative-free cooking for kids that does not vilify any category of food, including red meat.

If you're interested in more "homework" and banishing chicken nuggets from school-day dinners, turn to Katie Workman's The Mom 100 Cookbook (Workman, 2012) and the author's blog at

Like Bader and Benjamin, and Obama, of course, Workman (also a colauncher of, an online cookbook recipe collection) is a working mother who knows the value of "go-to" recipes that can help home cooks dig out of the rut of preparing dinner every evening for children.

Workman's recipes are not daring, as her "Japanese Restaurant Salad" included here demonstrates - and that's a good thing. As moms and dads know, different can be off-putting to children.

Workman also notes that making salad dressing, because it can be done by shaking it in a jar and customizing it, is a great kid project.

All of these recipes are simple and contain steps that could be performed by a child or young teenager.

Or have them pick the produce from your garden, which hopefully produced more than mine.

Spinach Pie

Makes 6 to 8 servings

1 9-inch unbaked piecrust

2 tablespoons olive oil

6 cloves garlic, minced

1 small onion, chopped

1 pound fresh spinach, well  washed and drained

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

2 large eggs, beaten

1 cup half-and-half

1 teaspoon grated lemon zest

1 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme leaves

6 ounces feta cheese, crumbled

8 ounces Swiss cheese, grated

1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Place the piecrust in a pie plate on a rimmed baking sheet lined with parchment paper.

2. In a medium skillet over medium heat, drizzle in the olive oil. Add the garlic and onion and saute until translucent, 5 to 7 minutes. Do not let the garlic burn. Add the spinach, a little at a time, and cook until wilted. Season with salt and pepper and set aside to cool.

3. In a medium bowl, whisk the eggs with the half-and-half. Add the lemon zest and thyme. Add the spinach, the feta cheese, and half of the Swiss cheese evenly over the top.

4. Pour the mixture carefully into the piecrust and sprinkle the remaining Swiss cheese evenly over the top.

5. Bake for about 40 minutes, or until the center is set. Cool for at least 10 minutes before serving.

- From American Grown by Michelle Obama (Crown, 2012)

Per serving (based on 8): 421 calories, 16 grams protein, 27 grams carbohydrates, 14 grams sugar, 28 grams fat, 103 milligrams cholesterol, 538 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber.

Japanese Restaurant Salad

Makes 4 to 6 servings

For the dressing:

3 medium-size carrots,  peeled and cut into about 1-inch chunks

1 piece (2 inches) fresh ginger, peeled and cut  into disks

1 shallot, minced, or 1/4 cup  minced onion

3 tablespoons unseasoned rice vinegar, or 1 1/2 tablespoons white wine vinegar

1/4 cup canola, peanut, or  vegetable oil

1 tablespoon Asian (dark)  sesame oil (see note)

1 teaspoon granulated sugar   or honey

4 teaspoons miso paste   (optional, but  recommended)

2 teaspoons mirin (optional,   see note)

For the salad:

6 to 7 cups thinly sliced    romaine lettuce (about    1 1/2 heads lettuce) or 2   hearts romaine

1/2 cup shredded peeled   carrots

1/2 cucumber (preferably  seedless or English), peeled, cut in half   lengthwise, and thinly      sliced crosswise

Handful of cherry or grape  tomatoes

1 cup steamed tiny broccoli florets

1. Make the dressing by placing the carrot chunks, ginger, shallot or onion, rice vinegar, canola oil, sesame oil, and sugar in a food processor fitted with the metal blade. Pulse until well combined. Add the miso and mirin, if using, and ¼ cup of water, and puree until nicely blended and fairly smooth. If you want your dressing a little thinner, you can add another tablespoon or two of water and puree again.

2. Make the salad: Place the lettuce, shredded carrots, cucumber, tomatoes, and broccoli in a large serving bowl and drizzle about ½ cup of the dressing on top, or more if desired. Toss the salad and serve. Serves 4 to 6 with about 2 cups dressing, enough for a few more salads.

Note: Asian (or dark or roasted) sesame oil is made from toasted sesame seeds and has a deep, nutty flavor.

- From The Mom 100 Cookbook by Katie Workman (Workman, 2012)

Per serving (based on 6): 112 calories, 2 grams protein, 8 grams carbohydrates, 4 grams sugar, 9 grams fat, no cholesterol, 32 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber.

Healthier Shepherd's Pie

Makes 4 to 6 servings

1 tablespoon extra-virgin   olive oil

1 onion, chopped

1 garlic clove, chopped

1 pound lean ground beef

1/4 cup uncooked white rice

1 (28-ounce) can diced   tomatoes, drained

4 cups frozen mixed vegetables (about 2     packages)

Salt and freshly ground   black pepper

2 pounds sweet potatoes    (about 2 large), peeled    and chopped into 1/2-inch cubes

1/4 cup milk

2 tablespoons butter or olive oil

1/3 cup grated Monterey Jack   cheese

1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Saute the onion and garlic until translucent, about 3 minutes. Add the ground beef and brown until no longer pink, 10 to 15 minutes. Add the rice, tomatoes, and frozen mixed vegetables. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and let simmer for 15 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.

2. Meanwhile, steam the sweet potatoes until fork-tender, about 20 minutes. You can do this in an electric steamer. Alternatively, put a couple of inches of water into a large pot, set a steaming basket in it, and bring to a boil. Set the sweet potatoes in the basket, cover, and let steam.

3. Let the potatoes cool slightly, then mash them in a large bowl with the milk and butter.

4. Spread the meat mixture in the bottom of a 2-quart casserole dish. Top with the mashed sweet potatoes and sprinkle the cheese on top. Bake until the cheese melts and the top begins to get golden, 10 to 15 minutes.

- From The Cleaner Plate Club by Beth Bader and Ali Benjamin (Storey Publishing, 2011)

Per serving (based on 6): 547 calories, 34 grams protein, 74 grams carbohydrates, 10 grams sugar, 14 grams fat, 84 milligrams cholesterol, 183 milligrams sodium, 13 grams dietary fiber.

Braised Pork Shoulder With Butternut Squash and Greens

Makes 8 to 10 servings

For the pork:

Vegetable oil

1 4-pound pork shoulder,   excess fat removed

2 carrots, peeled and diced

1 onion, diced

5 cloves garlic

3 bay leaves

2 poblano chiles, stemmed,   seeded, and diced

2 ancho chiles, stemmed,   seeded, and diced, or 2 tablespoons ancho chili   powder

1 tablespoon chipotle chili   powder

6 cups low-sodium chicken   stock

11/2 tablespoons salt

For the squash:

1 small butternut squash,    peeled, seeded, and cut into 1-inch cubes

1/4 cup olive oil, plus more    for tossing the squash


1 cup bulgur wheat

2 1/2 cups boiling water

2 to 3 tablespoons chopped    sage

1/2 cup chopped toasted    pecans

For the greens:

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 clove garlic, chopped

1 bunch kale, collard greens,    or Swiss chard, washed,   large ribs removed, and   cut into bite-size pieces

1 cup braising liquid from  the pork shoulder

Salt and freshly ground   black pepper

1. Make the pork: Heat a large pot over high heat. When hot, coat with vegetable oil and sear the pork shoulder on all sides until dark brown. Remove and set aside.

2. Add the carrots to the pot and cook for 2 to 3 minutes; then add the onion, garlic, bay leaves, poblano and ancho chiles, and the chili powder. Cook until there is some color on the vegetables.

3. Place the pork shoulder back in the pot and add the stock and salt. Add water until the shoulder is just covered by the liquid. Bring to a boil and reduce the heat to a simmer. Cover and cook 2½ to 3 hours; the meat should be fork-tender and easily come off the bone. Set aside.

4. Make the squash: About 30 minutes before serving, preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Line a rimmed baking sheet with foil. In a medium bowl, toss the squash with a little olive oil and sprinkle of salt and spread in a single layer on the baking sheet. Cover with foil and roast for 20 minutes, or until soft.

5. Meanwhile, place the bulgur wheat in a medium heat-proof bowl. Add the boiling water and let sit for approximately 20 minutes. Add the roasted squash, sage, pecans, and a little olive oil and stir gently to combine.

6. When the pork is cooled, remove the meat and set aside. Strain the stock and discard the vegetables and bay leaves. Let the stock stand for a few minutes, until the fat rises to the top of the container; skim the fat and return the stock to the pot. Reduce the stock over medium heat for 10 to 15 minutes; add salt to taste.

7. Make the greens: In a large saucepan over medium-high heat, heat the olive oil. Add the garlic and cook until light brown; do not burn.

8. Add the kale and stir to coat with the oil and garlic. Add the braising liquid and bring to a boil. Lower the heat and simmer for 10 minutes, or until tender. Season with salt and pepper.

9. Slice the meat, discarding any bones. Pour the remaining braising liquid over the meat and serve with the squash and greens. Serves 8 to 10 with pork left over to add to tomato sauce to serve over pasta, use in fried rice, or combine with barbecue sauce to serve on a bun. Or add bits to a pot of beans.

- From American Grown by Michelle Obama (Crown, 2012)

Per serving (based on 10): 627 calories, 36 grams protein, 22 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams sugar, 44 grams fat, 122 milligrams cholesterol, 1,203 milligrams sodium, 5 grams dietary fiber.

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