Halloween Food

One of the things I try to do every year is to send some treats to school with my kids for Halloween. Some years those treats aren’t food, and instead come in the form of seasonal trinkets such as erasers and pencils (especially the stacking point kind because it brings back so many happy memories from my childhood). If I choose to send along food, I prefer for it not to be straight-up candy, since I know that the kids will be getting enough of that when it comes time for trick-or-treating. This year, Thing 2 requested that I whip up another batch of her favourite Graveyard Five-Layer Dip, which was an easy enough wish to grant. But since Thing 1’s favourite thing is, in her words, “chocolate with chocolate in it and chocolate on top,” I had to make something else for her.

I was inspired by Delish’s Pumpkin Patch Brownies for Thing 2’s dish, enough so that I even baked a second batch for her to take to her Girl Guides Halloween party as well. However, I wanted to make the brownies themselves from scratch instead of from a boxed mix. (I generally find that if a boxed mix requires additional eggs, water, and oil, you’re really just paying a lot extra per pound to have someone pre-mix your dried ingredients for you.) I used the Book Club Brownies recipe on page 762 of the Joy of Cooking (75th Anniversary Edition, Rombauer & Becker, 2006). It’s a solid recipe that is based on the Brownies Cockaigne that has appeared in Joy since the original 1931 edition. Since I knew that these brownies would be eaten in a classroom, I opted for making them slightly less messy by not adding the frosting and Oreo “dirt”. Instead, I just traced the “vines” on with green icing and made sure that every square got a pumpkin — since every kid argues about which piece is “better” based on number of toppings.

As can be surmised from my Happy Halloween! post, we also carved our pumpkins this year. In an attempt to waste as little food as possible, I had the girls separate the guts from the seeds while I cleaned out the pumpkins. Then I roasted the seeds with a drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkle of salt, on a sheet pan in the oven for about 30 minutes at 300°F (150°C), checking every ten minutes or so. They turned out lovely and will make a wonderfully crunchy, salty snack while they last. It always surprises me how few seeds you get from a single pumpkin! This is the result of five quite large gourds, and it probably won’t last us a week.

Back to School Lunches

The Tuesday after Labour Day here in Canada means back to school for elementary school students in the public board. For my children, this comes with no little bit of anxiety, but as they get older I think it’s mostly balanced with a healthy dose of excitement. A big part of that excitement, I think, is getting to see their school friends on the regular again. Summer friends, i.e. neighbourhood friends and friends you meet at the park or wherever you’re traveling to, just don’t have the same staying power.

Of course, some of their excitement is purely material. While we don’t do a full back-to-school wardrobe in our house, each kid gets a first-day-of-school outfit (they’re usually identical, since they surprisingly still enjoy that). They also get new indoor and outdoor sneakers, as well as stacks of new school supplies in their favourite colours — mostly because they will have destroyed just about everything from the year prior by the end of June.

Although the kids are responsible for making their own lunches for the most part during the school year, for the first day I will generally do the honours. This year I’m trying to reduce the number of small containers sent to school because so few of them return (or return intact). Instead of lunch bags, this year I bought plastic, sort-of obento-style containers instead. Since everything fits in one box and the dividers don’t have to come out, I’m hoping that this means that less will be lost or left at school.

This year’s back-to-school lunch included:

– chopped pear from my pear tree
– cheese string
– slice of glazed lemon loaf
– nacho-flavoured Goldfish
– salami sandwich on bread machine beer bread

I was inspired by the lunches that I ate while in Japan on an exchange trip back in high school. I’ve seen some great videos on how school children in Japan help prepare and clean up from communal lunches, but that wasn’t a thing where I went (or possibly wasn’t for anyone in the time period I was there, I don’t know). Instead, we all “brown bagged” it, just like we do back here in Canada. The mother of the family usually woke up super early every day to make fresh obento boxes for her family. Mama-san, as she requested I call her, made some absolutely delicious food! I only too photos of two of the lunches; the one above is an assortment of little sandwiches, each one different, and a bottle of iced tea.

(And yes, I was taking pictures of my food even back in high school. Even when I had to pay to have the photos developed and printed. Some things just don’t change.)

And this one was a more stereotypical Japanese obento, with little bits of all kinds of dishes (it was so long ago that I can’t remember exactly what each one was, I just remember it was tasty), and some nori and I think a rice ball on the side.

When the weather was nice — and we were there during a particularly gorgeous spring — we all sat outside, exchange students and hosts and other Japanese students curious about the foreigners. It was a lovely way to spend a lunch hour.

Having had a school lunch in two different countries, and now being responsible for making sure my own children eat healthily at school, I do wonder about this meal in countries I haven’t visited. What do you eat for lunch? (Although I’m told that in some places you call it “dinner”…)

Seasonal School Snacks

I mentioned in my last post that since it’s in season, I wanted to do more cooking with maple syrup over the next little while. Well, after reading a book about kids learning to cook, Thing 1 has been bugging me to make fruit leather with her. Since fruit leather is just pureed fruit that has been dried, I figured why not? Also, it’s a great way to use up an overabundance of fresh fruit (not really a problem here in the spring) or the fruit that you’d forgotten about in the freezer (more of an issue of mine right now).

My parents actually used to make fruit leather and dried fruit for my brother and I when we were kids. This was the era of the Fruit Roll-Up, but my brother’s sensitivity to corn (and hence corn syrup) made most versions of this store-bought snack inadvisable. Actually, the dehydrator that I’m using now is exactly the same one we used when I was a kid; my parents let me have it when they realized they hadn’t used it since my brother and I moved out.

The instructions for the dehydrator recommend that if you’re going to use a sweetener when making fruit leather, you should “use corn syrup, honey or fruit juice instead of granulated sugar which tends to crystallize”. We’ve discovered that maple syrup actually makes a great, all-natural sweetener for fruit leather that does not crystallize — and it adds a lovely flavour as well.

As an aside, if you don’t have a dehydrator, you can make fruit leather in the oven by drying it out at 200°F (93°C) for eight hours or so… But a dehydrator is a much smaller machine and uses a lot less electricity, so if you’re going to make fruit leather often, I’d recommend buying a purpose-built machine.

This is also the week leading up to Easter, which in our family means at the very minimum it’s time to dye some eggs! The kids like to take hard-boiled eggs to school in their lunches, so I made up a dozen for the week.

I used food colouring to dye the eggs vibrant, food-safe colours. There are all kinds of kits out there for dyeing and decorating Easter eggs, but a lot of them aren’t intended for consumption afterwards, so I like to stick with food colouring. The kids may decorate more eggs over the long weekend, though, and those will probably be with paint and glitter. They might be old enough to blow out the eggs to create permanent ornaments this year. Well, I know that Thing 1 is, but Thing 2 is not always as gentle as her big sister… And empty eggshells are mighty easy to smash.

The nice thing about blowing out eggs for decorating is that you can save the yolks and whites and make lovely scrambled eggs, or breakfast burritos, or tamagoyaki (either by itself or in sushi), or egg drop soup. This way, no part of the egg would be wasted. I have to admit, wasting food is a pet peeve of mine. Sometimes it can’t be avoided, but all efforts should be made not to, you know?

Christmas Prep

We’re right smack dab in the middle of Christmas prep around here, dashing from hither to yon to prep for school spirit days, family events, and hosting over the holidays. Of necessity, suppers have been quick and easy; I think tomorrow I will be breaking out the slow cooker just to make dinner that much easier.

Last night, though, I rummaged through the freezer and turned up with some rather nice basa fillets. I dredged them in flour, sprinkled them with a bit of garlic powder and salt, and lightly fried them in a glug of olive oil in a non-stick pan. (As an aside, when making this kind of dish, does anyone else think about that lightly fried fish fillets meme?) I topped the fried fish with crumbled bacon and served it alongside boiled baby potatoes and steamed carrots.

I still wasn’t feeling spectacularly well last night, so I didn’t get as much prep work done as I wanted to, but the hectic pace around the holidays is one of the reasons I start canning way back in the summer. As planned, I plunged into my shelves of homemade preserves to get gifts together for my kids’ teachers.

As with Guiders, I consider teachers to be especially important to my children and, as such, they are deserving of some nice things around Christmas to show my appreciation. Teachers put in long hours in a job that I, to be completely frank, am vastly temperamentally unsuited to do. Before my children were born, I seriously considered home-schooling, but as time went on I realized that teaching is definitely not one of my gifts. I have the utmost appreciation for those people who can do so, especially while both funding and support are slowly withdrawn from the public school system over the years.

This year, my kids’ teachers are getting amaretto cherries, spiced pear jam with pineapple, handmade cloths, and a box of Girl Guide cookies. (I considered giving the cookies to the Guiders too, but I thought they could probably use a break from this fundraiser by this point.) I hope that the teachers will be able to enjoy these foods over the winter break — or any time after, really, as they’ll last about a year unopened.

First Day of School

The first day of school for the public school board in Ontario is always the day after Labour Day, which this year ends up being today. My girls are back to school, and although part of me is sighing in relief that they’ll be in someone else’s care for a couple of hours every day, I know the house will also seem echoingly empty without them around. I think I’ll learn to live with it, though.


Thing 1 and Thing 2’s lunches for the first day of school.

School-provided lunches really aren’t a thing around here; heck, the school doesn’t even have a cafeteria. Everyone brown bags it, although some kids do get a special lunch delivered by the “Lunch Lady” once or twice a week, which has never really seemed like value for money to me. Most of the year my girls pack their own lunches the night before, and they have almost since they started to go to school. I tried to pack Thing 1’s lunches for her starting in Junior Kindergarten, but too often more than half of the food came back home – although her teachers reported that she was complaining of hunger. Once Thing 1 made her own lunch, a lot less of the food came back home, and the complaints became rare. I had to help her out a lot at first, but by the time Thing 2 started school, she wanted to make her own lunch to be just like Thing 1. I’m not saying that it’s not a struggle sometimes. What should be a short and simple process can take ages when the kids do it themselves. Sometimes they are more interested in doing just about anything else and getting them to make their lunches can be a seemingly endless argument. But in the end, I think that the independence is important, and that it’s a good thing that my children learn basic food handling and prep early on. My husband and I are always nearby to make sure that they make healthy choices — and to ensure that they don’t accidentally bring anything with tree nuts or peanuts to school.


Thing 2’s lunch.

However, on the first day of school, for a special treat, I like to pack their lunches for them. I made up some fresh whole wheat bread using the Nan’s Pan Rolls recipe, and I also threw together some Blueberry Bran Muffins. The bread I used to make Hungarian salami sandwiches with mayonnaise (even though I prefer mustard myself). Each girl also got Goldfish, strawberries, vanilla yogurt, and string cheese. I packed Thing 2 a container of sliced English cucumber, while Thing 1 prefers an apple.

Am I the only one who finds those “school lunches in other countries” videos and articles interesting? I don’t know if you could consider this to be a typical Canadian lunch, though. I remember being very interested in my classmates’ lunches when I went to school because they were all so different. Some of them contained Wonder Bread sandwiches with peanut butter and jam or bologna and mayonnaise; others ate crusty French bread, sharp cheese, and cherry tomatoes; others always contained a thermos of soup and a travel package of crackers; others had warm dishes of rice and curry and spice. Some kids ate the same thing religiously, others had an entirely different daily menu. I think our household was somewhat between those extremes, with recurring favourites alongside seasonal and leftover dinner fare.


Thing 1 and Thing 2’s school bags, packed and ready to go.

At any rate, my kids’ lunches and supplies were ready the night before. New-ish outdoor shoes were set by the front door, brand new sneakers were in their backpacks, packages of markers and pencil crayons and duotangs and paper filled up the rest of their bags. Their lunches and water bottles were in the fridge, waiting to be grabbed on the way to the door. Hopefully all of this preparation will set a positive tone for the rest of the year. Will they like their new teachers? Will they get along with their classmates? Will they enjoy the new challenges that their schooling puts in front of them? Who knows? There’s really nothing I can do to influence most of that. But lunch, though, lunch I can do. And no matter how the first day turns out, it always goes better on a full stomach.