Top Cooks: What's for lunch, Mom?

ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER This month's Top Cook, Anita Garimella Andrews, with husband, Erwin, and 16-month-old Sanaa, for whom the nutritionally designed packed lunch is for to take to day care.
ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER This month's Top Cook, Anita Garimella Andrews, with husband, Erwin, and 16-month-old Sanaa, for whom the nutritionally designed packed lunch is for to take to day care.
Posted: August 16, 2013

IT'S A parental terror about as universal as stepping on a Lego barefoot: packing kids' lunches for school and day care. This month's Top Cook, Anita Garimella Andrews, has faced and conquered it. She had to. Because of the family's schedule, she packs three meals a day and two snacks for her 16-month-old daughter, Sanaa.

"I think moms who have children who go to day care have similar things to think about as those of school-aged children," said Andrews. "What can I pack that's easy to do, healthful, will go over well and minimize mess?"

Andrews, a Spring Garden resident, puts her considerable business-organization skills (she's the general manager of analytics and optimization at Delphic Digital) to work planning meals. Most of these techniques can adapt to growing bodies and developing taste buds.

Her system is built on units of interchangeable elements made in advance or quickly assembled. The routine begins on Sunday and includes about 45 minutes of pre-prep and organization.

Andrews mixes batches of yogurt and fresh fruit, tofu purees with fruit, and oatmeal to make breakfasts for the week. Although Sanaa eats breakfast at day care, the weekly breakfast batch-cooking is also a good way to get everyone at home a nutritious first meal and out the door.

"I keep plenty of fresh fruit on hand," Andrews said, "because those are super easy. Sometimes, to help with a fruit, like a plum that's a bit sour, I'll add a little honey on top."

For lunch and dinner, Andrews said, "I think of one 'entree-ish' dish, plus two sides that include fruit, vegetable or dairy."

She likes having known quantities and ingredients so that she doesn't have to think too much when she is packing for the day.

Lunch is often a banana-and-peanut-butter sandwich, an alternative that kid-proofs the traditional peanut butter and jelly. "Let's face it, with PBJ, the tendency is pull the bread apart and lick off the jelly," said Andrews.

With the sandwich, Andrews will add a serving of her premixed yogurt and fruit or a tofu puree with vegetables that's been sweetened with a little store-bought apricot puree. This is a recipe she found online that is a big hit and ensures that her daughter gets some greens, typically a more difficult vegetable to introduce.

Snacks can be store-bought fruit cups or purees that are organic and without added sugar.

Andrews acknowledges that there's not much time to prepare grown-up meals either, so she's a firm believer in leftovers as part of meal planning. Dinner entrées will become the next day's lunch or dinner, to be served with the yogurt and tofu sides.

Nutritionwise, Andrews simplifies things. She said: "The milligrams and servings are generally confusing, so I prefer to reduce it to a yes or no question. I look at whole grains, fruit and vegetables, calcium and protein items."

Andrews believes that if there is variety within those categories, she's probably delivered a nutritional meal. For example, if the oatmeal uses a berry for a fruit, she'll choose a fruit other than a berry in the next meal. She looks for variety in color as well, following a green vegetable by something yellow or red.

"I'll make sure I've hit all those boxes in a meal and offered variety throughout the day," she said.

Of course, all kids go through phases, and Andrews is prepared for that, too. Raw tomatoes are definitely out right now, but she'll reintroduce them when Sanaa is a little older. Lunch meat fell out of favor recently, but there are still plenty of choices until it cycles back in.

"I firmly believe - and hope - that the good foundation I am setting now should lead to good things when she gets older and can be more verbal about her preferences and deliberate about her choices," Andrews said.

You'll need to adapt proportions to your needs. Essentially, you'll want a two-to-one ratio of milk to oats to create a week's worth of individual servings. Adjust the fruit to taste.


2 cups milk

1 cup unflavored quick oats

1 cup fruit (stone fruit such as peaches, berries and bananas work well; avoid citrus)

Cinnamon or nutmeg to taste

2 tablespoons brown sugar or honey

In a 4-quart or larger pot, over low heat, bring milk (use whole for younger children, low-fat or skim for adults and older kids) just to the point of a simmer.

While the milk heats, wash, dry and chop fruit into kid-size bites.

Turn off the heat and add the oatmeal, stirring well, for about 30 seconds. For thicker oatmeal, continue cooking for a few seconds more.

Add the fruit and allow to sit for 3 to 5 minutes, or until the fruit is soft but not mushy. Season to taste with cinnamon or nutmeg and stir in brown sugar or honey.

Pour into storage container and allow to cool to room temperature before putting the lid on. Refrigerate for up to one week. Makes five 1/3-cup servings.

Source: Anita Garimella Andrews

Andrews likes this recipe because it makes a big quantity that keeps throughout the week and because it includes orange and green vegetables.

She uses more liquid than the original recipe called for to make it more toddler texture-friendly, but the amount can be adjusted for a dish that has more bite to it.


2 pounds butternut squash

3 large russet potatoes

1 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme

1 tablespoon chopped fresh marjoram

1 teaspoon chopped fresh sage

2 cups finely diced broccoli florets

Salt and pepper to taste

3 cloves garlic, peeled and minced

2 to 3 cups heavy cream (to lighten the dish, use 1 cup heavy cream with 1-2 cups canned evaporated skim milk, undiluted)

4 ounces Gruyere cheese, coarsely grated

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Peel squash with a vegetable peeler and trim ends. Carefully cut squash in two so that you have the round bottom and the neck in tact. Halve the bottom and remove seeds, then cut the neck and round halves into 1/8-inch slices.

Peel potatoes and cut into1 1/8-inch slices.

Blend together herbs, salt, pepper and minced garlic.

In a greased, 9-by-12-inch baking dish, layer the squash, potato and broccoli, sprinkling the seasoning mixture on each layer.

Slowly pour cream or cream mixture over all. Cover with foil and bake 45 minutes. Remove foil, top with cheese and continue baking until the liquid is nearly absorbed, the squash and potatoes are tender, and the cheese is lightly browned.

Cool for 10 minutes before cutting. Makes 12 servings; more for smaller children.

Source: Adapted from Alfred Portale's Twelve Seasons Cookbook.

On the third Thursday monthly, "Top Cooks" spotlights a home-cooking whiz and one of their recipes. To nominate a cook, email or write: Top Cooks, Philadelphia Daily News, 801 Market St., Suite 300, Philadelphia, PA 19107. Include your name and a daytime phone number.

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