Submitted by Neal Learner, Alexandria, VA - NealLearner.com
One of the signs of getting old, they say, is the need for less sleep. If true, I reached old-cootdom in my mid-40s. It seems no matter how late I go to bed I’m wide awake at 5:45 a.m. I’ve come to view sleep as a simple biological necessity, not a pleasure to indulge in. For me, six-and-a-half hours generally gets the job done.
This is not necessarily a bad thing, I’ve discovered, as it gives me the chance to earn bonus points with my family. How? I use the extra time in the morning to make my wife and kids a hearty breakfast and well-thought-out lunch. I even win extra credit tokens for bringing my wife coffee in bed.
I’m not a butler, a Mr. Mom or prone to doing things I really don’t feel like doing. What I am is a practical man. So instead of lying in bed looking at the ceiling, I figure why not make use of this time to benefit my 9- and 11-year-old daughters, who need all the rest they can get, and my wife, who loves her sleep more than just about anything else in the world.
So before my digital clock turns over to 6:00 a.m., I slip out of the covers, trod lightly downstairs and start making hot water for coffee. Then I look in the refrigerator to consider the options.
On Mondays, I generally like to keep lunch simple. I may pull out a bag of frozen Swedish meatballs, spread them on a pan and pop them in the oven. Then I’ll start a pot of water boiling for rotini pasta.
While these are cooking, I consider the day’s side dishes. One of them will always be fresh fruit. For some reason, my daughters are loving plums and nectarines these days. Before, it was fresh strawberries or grapes. On occasion, I’ll slice up a kiwi, pear or mango, just for variety. Unpealed bananas, oranges and tangerines also work well, but the school’s short lunch period generally means the no-pealing-required option wins out.
Next comes the salty option. My daughters are big fans of cheese, so I frequently include a slice of Spanish Mancho (my wife, who is from Barcelona, introduced us to this wonderfully dry white cheese). Other favorites include a zipper-bag full of raw nuts or vegetable chips. From time to time, I’ll also toss in some veggies, such as carrot sticks, sliced bell peppers and grape tomatoes, which I realize are not technically vegetables, but they are tangy versus sweet.
Last, I consider the sweet, which these days usually consists of a Ferrero Rocher hazelnut chocolate bonbon. Alternatively, I may drop in a chocolaty Pepperidge Farm cookie or other baked good, sometimes homemade, usually store-bought. After Halloween, my daughters ate Peanut Butter Cups, Snickers and Milky Way bars for weeks.
To wash this down, I give the girls a box of reduced fat Hershey’s chocolate milk, which doesn’t contain the dreaded corn syrup and provides them with some nutritional value.
Once the sides are in the bag, literally, I turn back to the pasta and meat. I drain the pasta and mix in a healthy dose of olive oil topped by a dash of salt and pepper. The pasta then goes into a small thermos bottle for each girl followed by the sizzling meatballs.
Voila, a tasty, hearty, homemade lunch that keeps your kids happy, makes other kids jealous and impresses the moms.
While the sides stay fairly constant with fruits, salties and sweets, I definitely like to mix up the main dish.
One of my girls’ favorites is a soup and sandwich combination. The soup of choice these days is lentil vegetable made by Amy’s Organic Soups. Heating that up is a no-brainer, but the accompanying sandwich is a bit more involved (P&J on Wonder Bread this is not). I take a French baguette and slice it lengthwise, leaving it slightly attached along one edge. Into the oven it goes for toasting. Once it comes out, I rub raw garlic on the inside of the bread. Next I slice a fresh heirloom tomato in half and scrape and squeeze the juice onto the bread; throwing away the skins afterwards (this is traditional Spanish-style recipe that I also picked up from Barcelona). I cover these with drips of olive oil and top them off with slices of meat. My older daughter prefers prosciutto, ham or turkey, topped with a bit of cheese for good measure. My little one is happy with canned tuna fish mixed up with mayonnaise.
I also make a lot of lunches by raiding leftovers from the evening meal. A reliable hit is stir fry rice, which I make by slicing leftover meats and vegetables into small chunks and mixing them with rice and sauce. I prefer a mildly spicy Thai peanut sauce, but barbecue, soy or others work fine as well. Once a week, I pull out my handy George Foreman electric grill to make quesades from leftover steak and chicken, and shredded cheese. On Fridays, I punt and cook up a frozen pizza, which I wrap up in individual slices.
As the week progresses, it can be tough to come up with menus that maintain a “wow” factor. But I’m pretty sure it’s never boring. My kids report that as they sit down to lunch, they always wonder: “What did he pack us today?”
Breakfast involves another series of options, and I usually start off the week easy. On Mondays, the girls come down to a bowl of cereal (after all, I did grow up in Battle Creek, Michigan, home of Kellogg). There will always be fresh fruit and juice to go along with this. As the week goes on, I add variety. My kids love a good plate of scrambled eggs or an omelet with a side of toast and honey. A bowl of old fashion Quaker Oats also hits the spot on a cold morning. And never count out that chunk of left-over cake.
So that’s the weekday morning routine: Wake early, make coffee, make lunches, make breakfasts, take shower, get dressed, eat breakfast, get out the door, make it to school with seconds to spare, head off to work.
Then the weekend rolls around: I sleep in until 6:30 a.m. and make the girls pancakes and bacon.
Neal Learner is a writer, musician and cook who lives with his wife and two daughters in Alexandria, Va. He recently released his first album of children’s music, “Would You Like to Be a Mermaid?,” and is the 2010-2011 PTA president at his daughter’s elementary school. See his work at NealLearner.com.