Over brown bag sandwiches? Here are three alternative grains for the lunchbox!
Hands up if you can’t go a day without grains? Our hands are up there with you, mamas! Grains are the dietary staple of many people (mamas and kiddos alike!). In general, they are filling, tasty and add bulk to otherwise scant meals.
In Hong Kong the easiest way of incorporating grains into your family’s lunch repertoire is by means of bread, rice or noodles. Believe me, I love a good bowl of white rice or a BBQ pork bun as much as the next person, however my ever expanding waistline necessitated the search for healthier grain options. The recent focus on gluten free and healthy meal options has brought into the market a wide range of alternative grains. Some are well known – think quinoa, couscous and bulgur wheat, others are less so. Here are three of my favourite grains and tips to help Sassy Mama’s turn them into delicious, nutritious lunch box items for the whole family.
Quinoa (pronounced keen-wah)
Possibly the best known of the bunch, quinoa is not only rich in amino acids (the building blocks of proteins) but it is rich in anti-inflammatory phytonutrients. There’s evidence that these phytonutrients enhance the immune system so they help ward off common diseases in kids and adults. This amazing grain is in fact not technically a cereal, but is more closely related to beetroot and spinach, but we’ll leave that tidbit of info out for the kids! The flavour is nutty and slightly bitter and the texture is firm. This close to perfect ingredient can easily be used as an alternative to rice or as an ingredient in many delicious recipes.
Lunchbox idea: Quinoa and honey bars (makes 12 bars)
1 cup unsalted almonds
½ raw quinoa, rinsed
¼ cup raw pumpkin seeds
¼ cup raw sunflower seeds
3 tablespoons of desiccated coconut
1 cup dried dates, pitted
2 tablespoons honey
A pinch of salt
(Optional 100g dark chocolate)
- Grease 20cm x 20cm baking sheet with a little bit of vegetable oil and preheat the oven to 180°C. If you are worried that the bars might get stuck you may also line the sheet with parchment paper. This allows for easy removal and guarantees it won’t stick.
- In a dry frying pan, over a medium heat, toast the almonds quinoa, pumpkin and sunflower seeds until you can smell the nuttiness (about 10 minutes). Add the coconut and toast for 2 minutes more. Allow to cool completely.
- In a food processor, process the dates, honey, salt and 30 ml of cold water until it makes a smooth mixture.
- Transfer to a mixing bowl and mix in the toasted nut mixture.
- Press into the prepared baking sheet and bake for 18-20 minutes. Allow them to cool and then cut into bars.
*For an added treat melt 100g of dark chocolate and drizzle over the bars once they are cooled down.
Although not gluten free, bulgur wheat is a high fibre, low kilojoule alternative grain. Moreover, it is high in iron, a nutrient often lacking in mainly plant-based diets. Children of various ages need between 7-15 milligram of iron per day depending on their age and if the children in your house do not favour a steaming plate of broccoli for lunch, bulgur could be a good alternative. This grain also has a nutty flavour but the texture is chewier, making it a good base for salads.
Lunchbox idea: Bulgur pizza salad (6 servings)
1 cup fine bulgur
1 ¼ cup boiling water
½ red onion, finely diced
1 tablespoon fresh oregano, finely chopped (dried is adequate if you cannot find it)
3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon olive oil
¼ cup sun dried tomatoes
120 g diced mozzarella
8 slices of salami or ham, diced (optional: good to add this if this is eaten as a main meal)
5 romaine lettuce leaves shredded (optional)
- In a mixing bowl mix the bulgur with 1 teaspoon of salt. Stir in the boiling water and cover with plastic wrap immediately. Allow to stand until all the water is absorbed (15-20 minutes).
- While the bulgur is cooking in a another mixing bowl combine the red onion, oregano, lemon juice, olive oil, sun-dried tomatoes, mozzarella and salami. Season with salt and crushed black pepper.
- Fluff the bulgur wheat and add it to this mixture.
- Add the lettuce last and toss the salad well.
Freekeh (Pronounced free-kah)
Gaining popularity since 2010 this ancient grain is popular for its incredibly high fibre content (almost twice as much as quinoa!). It fills you up and keeps you feeling fuller for longer (read ideal for weight loss, mama!). This grain is also a good source of protein for vegetarian diets and it is high in minerals such as Magnesium and Selenium. In addition, it is said that this grain acts as a probiotic making it ideal for the health of the digestive tract in both adults and children. This grain is however not gluten free as it is essentially just wheat which is harvested while the kernels are still young and green. The kernels are roasted resulting in a slightly chewy but firm grain with a nutty and slightly smoky flavour.
Lunchbox idea: Lightly curried freekeh pita breads (4 servings)
1 cup cracked freekeh
2 ½ cups of good quality vegetable stock
3 tablespoons of olive oil
1 small red onion
1 garlic clove, minced
3 tablespoons of curry powder
1 small potato, small dice
1 carrot, small dice
¼ cup whole almonds chopped finely
¼ cup raisins
½ cup plain yoghurt
5-10 leaves fresh cilantro, finely minced
6 normal sized pita breads
Salt and pepper to taste
- Put the freekeh and stock in a saucepan over a medium heat and bring to a boil. Once it starts boiling cover it and reduce the heat to a simmer. Allow it to cook for 25 minutes. Remove from the heat and allow to cool.
- In a sauté pan fry the onions, potato and carrot in olive oil for about 10 minutes. Add the garlic, curry powder and fry until the carrots and potatoes are soft. Remove from the heat and add the almonds and raisins.
- Once this mixture has cooled mix it with the cooked freekeh and season to taste.
- Mix the yoghurt, juice from ¼ lemon and cilantro in a small mixing bowl.
- Cut each pita bread open. Using a table spoon spread the insides with the yoghurt mixture. Fill each pita with the curried freekeh.
Honourable mention: Teff
The least well known and more difficult to come by is teff. This native Ethiopian grain packs a serious nutritional punch and is probably one of 2016’s most notable superfoods. These tiny seeds are high in calcium, iron, zinc and protein in addition to being naturally gluten free. It has a very mild, earthy flavour and is traditionally ground into flour to make a spongy sourdough bread called “injera”. The presence of vitamin B3, iron and protein and minerals make this grain ideal for all ages, but specifically for children in their growing years. Teff is often used in baking for recipes like pancakes and bread and it is also sometimes served as porridge.
Lunchtime for kids and adults does not need to be dreary. Try these super grains for your next lunch box and you’ll have another reason to look forward to lunch time! If you can’t find them in your local Taste or Marketplace take a look in the wide range of Hong Kong health food shops as well as online.