Pack Healthy School Lunches Your Kids Will Eat

Final Main ImageIt’s that time of year again when kids are gearing up for school or are already settling into their classrooms (do I hear a collective sigh of relief?). If you have children in grade school, you may be wondering what to do about their midday meals, specifically whether you should pack their lunches or trust they’ll eat whatever the cafeteria dishes out.

Let me just say if your little darlings are finicky eaters, they’re probably better off bringing their lunches from home. The trick is to make them appealing and nutritious at the same time. I know, easier said than done, right?

Well, good thing I have some ideas for tasty and healthy meals, as well as fun and functional ways to tote food & beverages to school!

Say Goodbye to Boring Bag Lunches

Back in the day, if you weren’t lucky enough to own one of those groovy tin boxes with your favorite TV characters, you had to carry your lunch in a flimsy, worn-out brown paper bag that was barely big enough to hold a sandwich and an apple.

These days you’ll find an awesome assortment of durable, roomy and cool-looking lunch bags, boxes and containers, many at discounted prices during back-to-school sales. Here’s a sample:

Insulated Lunch Bags. These lightweight bags come in so many patterns and styles – from cartoon characters and action heroes to cute critters and bright geometric designs – you’re sure to find something to suit any age and taste. Find fabulous lunch bags. like the one below, at Amazon.com!

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DIY Lunch Box.
Pick up a plain tin lunch box, like the one above from Oriental Trading, and let your child decorate it his or her own way with glitter, markers, magnets, stickers… you name it!

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Rubbermaid LunchBlox®.
  This Bento-style kit includes 3 colorful containers with leak-proof lids to help you organize and store snacks, fruit, veggies, dips and sandwiches, plus a Blue Ice® pack to keep food chilled and fresh. Everything snaps together to fit inside tall or flat lunch bags. See the complete LunchBlox line at Rubbermaid.com.

Best Bets for Beverages and BrothsContigo water bottles

Contigo AUTOSEAL® Gizmo Kids Water Bottle. The BPA-free reusable water bottle is leak- and spill-proof and has an easy-clean transparent lid. Go to reuseit.com for all kinds of clever water bottles for kids!

 

Crayola® Juice Box Holder. No more crying over spilled juice! Just place the juice box in this sturdy, squeeze-proof plastic container and the juice stays put! Get one now for only $3.99!

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THERMOS Brand FUNtainer Food Jar.

The compact, double-wall stainless steel container holds up to 10 ounces and keeps food hot or cold for hours. Choose from a variety of FUNtainers at Target.com.

Kid-friendly (and mother-approved) menu ideas:
* Pita-bread pizzas — If they like pizza, they’ll devour these! Take pita rounds (without the pockets) and top them with pizza sauce from a jar, pepperoni and grated mozzarella. Bake in a toaster oven and wrap them in foil to stay warm.
* Sandwiches in fun shapes — Use crust or cookie cutters to turn ordinary sandwiches into something “magical” like butterflies, hearts or dinosaurs! Get a 5-Pack of Sandwich Crust Cutters at Amazon.com
* Pinwheels — Spread cream cheese on a flour tortilla, cover it with deli ham or turkey, shredded cheese and lettuce, roll it up and slice into bite-size pieces.
* Kabobs — Take wooden skewers and lace them with chunks of ham or turkey, cheese and fresh fruit like pineapple or apple.
* Mini pot pies — make these ahead of time, heat ’em up and wrap in foil to keep them warm. Here’s an easy pot pie recipe from Betty Crocker.
* Pasta — Most kids like mac & cheese, spaghetti & meatballs and ravioli. Needless to say, homemade is better than the pre-made kind you pop in the microwave. Try these delicious, kid-tested pasta recipes from allrecipes.com.
* Vegetable alphabet soup — Heat it up in the a.m., put it in a thermos and it’ll still be “mmm, mmm good” at lunchtime.
* Ants-on-a-Log — A good-tasting, good-for-you snack that’s fun to make and eat! Just spread peanut butter on stalks of celery and sprinkle with raisins.
* Veggies & dip — A great way to get youngsters to eat their vegetables! Fill a container with baby carrots and include hummus or ranch dressing for dipping.
* Yogurt — Click here to find the best yogurts for kids.
* Something to drink — low-fat milk and ice water are the best choices for beverages. Juice boxes are good, too, as long as they’re low in sugar. Sodas are a no-no, of course. Even diet soft drinks have been proven to be unhealthy.
* Include some fresh fruit (grapes, berries, an apple or pear), string cheese, crackers, maybe a granola bar or cookies (from scratch) for dessert, and they’re good to go!

Visit our Kid Stuff Pinterest board for more school lunch ideas!

Smart Perks blogger Catherine B. tried brown-bagging her lunch once in first grade but gave it up after the paper bag ripped and she lost half her meal on the sidewalk.

4 Deliciously Different Things to Do with Zucchini

If you have an overabundance of zucchini in your garden, you’re probably thinking “what the heck am I going to do with it all?” Yeah, I’ve been there and I know from experience that if you don’t pick them soon enough, your zucchini will turn into overripe, torpedo-size gourds!

Sure, we joke about leaving bags of the green stuff on neighbors’ doorsteps and using giant zucchini as door stops, but the truth is there are so many wonderful ways to prepare summer squash, you’ll wish you had more!

Let’s start with these amazing recipes!

zucchini shrimp scampi

This savory shrimp scampi uses spiralized zucchini in place of pasta and has only 214.3 calories per serving! 

Zucchini Shrimp Scampi (Serves 4)
Ingredients:
2 tbsp. unsalted butter
1 lb. medium shrimp, peeled and deveined
3 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 tsp. red pepper flakes, or more, to taste
1/4 cup chicken stock
Juice of 1 lemon
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1-1/2 lbs. (4 medium-size) zucchini, spiralized
2 tbsp. freshly grated Parmesan
2 tbsp. chopped fresh parsley flakes

Directions: Melt butter in large skillet over medium-high heat. Add shrimp, garlic and red pepper flakes. Cook, stirring occasionally, until pink, about 2-3 minutes. Stir in chicken stock and lemon juice, season with salt & pepper. Bring to simmer. Stir in zucchini noodles until well combined, about 1-2 minutes. Serve immediately, garnished with Parmesan and parsley, if desired.
Recipe and photo courtesy of Damn Delicious.

Watch this video on how to spiralize zucchini.
Don’t have a spiralizer? Shop for one now at Amazon.com.

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Try this good-tasting, good-for-you snack with your favorite dip!

Baked Parmesan Zucchini Crisps   
Ingredients:
1 cup all-purpose flour
2 cups Panko breadcrumbs
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
2 zucchinis, thinly sliced to about 1/4 inch-thick rounds
3 large eggs, beaten
1 tsp. dried oregano
Salt & pepper
Directions:
1. Lay out paper towels and place zucchini slices on the paper towels. Sprinkle zucchini with salt on both sides. Cover zucchini slices with more paper towels and press down. Leave for 20 minutes. Paper towels should be wet and zucchini slices fairly dry.
2. Preheat oven to 400° F. Line large baking sheet with parchment paper.
3. In a shallow plate, combine Panko breadcrumbs, Parmesan cheese, oregano, salt & pepper; set aside.
4. In a 2nd shallow plate, add flour seasoned with salt & pepper.
5. In a 3rd plate, beat eggs with salt & pepper.
6. Dredge zucchini slices in flour, dip into eggs then dredge in Panko mixture, pressing to coat.
7. Place zucchini slices on prepared baking sheet. Repeat until all zucchini rounds are done. Bake for 20 to 30 minutes, or until zucchini rounds are golden and crispy. Serve with your favorite dip.  (We like it with ranch dressing.)
Recipe from jocooks.com.

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This yummy zucchini quiche is easy to make and there’s bacon in it… need I say more?

Zucchini Bacon Quiche (Serves 6-8)
Ingredients:
1 tube (8 oz.) refrigerated crescent rolls
2 tsp. prepared mustard
6 bacon strips, diced
3 cups thinly sliced zucchini (about 1-1/4 lbs.)
1 medium onion, chopped
2 eggs, lightly beaten*
2 cups (8 oz.) shredded mozzarella cheese*
2 tbsp. dried parsley flakes
1/2 tsp. pepper
1/4 tsp. garlic powder
1/4 tsp. dried oregano*
1/4 tsp. dried basil*

Directions:
1. Separate crescent dough into eight triangles; place in a greased 10” pie plate with points toward the center. Press dough onto the bottom and up the sides of plate to form a crust; seal perforations. Spread with mustard.
2. In a large skillet, cook bacon over medium heat until crisp. Remove to paper towels; drain, reserving 2 tablespoons of drippings. Sauté zucchini and onion in drippings until tender. In a large bowl, combine eggs, cheese, seasonings, bacon and zucchini mixture. Pour into crust.
3. Bake at 375° for 25-30 minutes or until a knife inserted near the center comes out clean. Cover edges loosely with foil if pastry browns too quickly.
*I changed this Taste of Home recipe by adding an extra egg and replacing mozzarella with Colby Jack cheese and dried basil/oregano with Adobo seasoning. My husband devoured it!

Southwest Zucchini Boats

These fun zucchini boats are packed with flavor and they’re healthy, too!

Southwest Zucchini Boats (Serves 4)
Ingredients:
4 medium zucchini
1 lb. ground beef
3/4 cup salsa
1/4 cup dry bread crumbs
1/4 cup minced fresh cilantro
1 tsp. chili powder
1/2 tsp. ground cumin
1/4 tsp. salt
1/8 tsp. pepper
1 cup (4 oz.) shredded Monterey Jack cheese, divided

Directions:
1. Cut zucchini in half lengthwise; cut a thin slice from the bottom of each with a sharp knife to allow zucchini to sit flat. Scoop out pulp, leaving 1/4″ shells.
2. Place shells in an ungreased 3-qt. microwave-safe dish. Cover and microwave on high for 3 minutes or until crisp-tender; drain and set aside.
3. Meanwhile, in a large skillet, cook beef over medium heat until no longer pink; drain. Remove from heat; stir in salsa, bread crumbs, cilantro, chili powder, cumin, salt, pepper and 1/2 cup cheese. Spoon into zucchini shells.
4. Microwave, uncovered, on high for 4 minutes. Sprinkle with remaining cheese. Microwave 3-4 minutes longer or until cheese is melted and zucchini are tender. Serve with sour cream if desired.
Photo and recipe from Taste of Home.

Looking for something on the sweeter side? Check out these recipes for Chocolate Zucchini Bread and Cake from my 8/4/15 blog post.

You’ll find tons more zucchini recipes on Pinterest too!

Smart Perks blogger Catherine B. is hoping these recipes will entice her husband to eat more vegetables. 

Go-To Recipes for End of Summer Get-Togethers

Summer may be winding down (can you believe we’re closing in on August already? Dang!), but chances are you still have a family reunion, picnic, backyard barbecue, or town celebration coming up, and then of course there’s Labor Day weekend. Whatever it is, you’ll probably be providing some kind of side or dessert to round out the meal and share with the group. You could go with the usual macaroni salad or bars from a box, but why not shake things up and impress your relatives or friends with something totally unexpected?

If you’re looking for something different and delicious to bring to the table, I’ve got some recipes you should definitely try!

calico beans

Calico Beans beats basic baked beans any day! Photo courtesy of crockpotladies.com

Calico Beans 
Ingredients:
1/2 lb. bacon, in pieces
2 lbs. ground beef
1 cup chopped onions
1 cup chopped celery
1 (16 oz.) can baked beans in tomato sauce
1 (15-1/2 oz.) can kidney beans
1 (16 oz.) can butter beans
1 cup ketchup
3 tbsp. vinegar
1 tsp. dry mustard
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 tsp. salt
Directions: Fry bacon pieces; remove from grease. Brown ground beef. Add onions and celery at end of browning. In baking dish, combine remaining ingredients; add bacon and ground beef mixture. Bake covered at 350° F for 45 minutes or for 6-8 hours on low in a slow cooker.

coleslaw

More zesty and colorful than classic coleslaw! 

Sweet-and-Sour Coleslaw 
Ingredients:
4 cups chopped or shredded cabbage (I buy the kind in a bag)
1/2 medium red bell pepper, chopped
1/2 medium green bell pepper, chopped
1 tbsp. jalapeño pepper, chopped
1/2 cup thinly sliced green onions
1/4 cup cilantro, chopped
1 small can cooked corn kernels, cooled
Dressing:
1/3 cup rice vinegar
1/3 cup sugar
Salt to taste
Directions: Place cabbage, peppers, onions, cilantro, and corn in a large bowl. Mix vinegar, sweetener, and salt in a small bowl, add to cabbage mixture and toss well. Chill before serving.   Recipe and photo from allrecipes.com

cowboy caviar 3

Why settle for regular salsa when you can dip your chips in Cowboy Caviar? Photo courtesy of culinaryhill.com

Cowboy Caviar  
Ingredients:
1 can garbanzo beans – drained and rinsed
1 can pinto beans – drained and rinsed
1 can black beans – drained and rinsed
1 can white corn – drained
4 stalks celery
1 green, 1 yellow & 1 red pepper – chopped
1 small red onion – chopped
Dressing
1 cup canola oil
½ cup vinegar
½ cup sugar
Directions: Boil dressing ingredients together. Mix dressing with bean/veggie ingredients and refrigerate overnight.

caprese salad

A light, refreshing Italian salad that’s easy to make and simply delish! 

Caprese Salad 
Ingredients:
2 lbs. assorted fresh tomatoes, chopped
1 lb. cubed mozzarella
1 cup chopped celery
1 cup chopped fresh basil
1/3 cup olive oil
2 tbsp. red wine vinegar (I use balsamic vinegar)
Salt & pepper to taste
Directions: Toss ingredients together and chill before serving.
Photo and recipe from Foodnetwork.com

snow cone cupcakes

These snow cone treats are actually cupcakes, which means they won’t melt! Photo courtesy of lovefromtheoven.com

Snow Cone Cupcakes
You’ll find all kinds of recipes for these and other clever summer-theme cupcakes on Pinterest!

Deviled Eggs are always a hit at summer parties, but instead of going with the same old mayo and mustard recipe, try one of these Unique Deviled Egg Toppings!

Looking for handy ways to store, serve and carry your food & beverages?  Check these out:

snap and stack 2Snapware® Snap ‘N Stack Food Storage Eggtainer
Ideal for picnics and potlucks, this multi-use tote has two removable egg holders for deviled eggs and stackable containers for bars or cookies. Buy it now at boscovs.com

 

crock potCrock-Pot Oval 7 Quart Red Slow Cooker with Travel Bag
Perfect for hot appetizers, entrees, and side dishes (like Calico Beans!). Comes with a travel bag for easy toting to summer parties. Buy it now at shopko.com

cooler
Rubbermaid 60-Quart Wheeled Cooler

Keep beverages cold on the go with this roomy, easy-to-maneuver cooler. It holds up to 62 cans with ice, plus has built-in cup holders. Buy it now at homedepot.com

Enjoy!

Smark Perks Blogger Catherine B. loves summer. She just wishes it lasted longer (if only she could say the same for winter!).

The Smart Cookie’s Guide to Royal Icing

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Royal icing is having a major moment. Seriously. Decorated cookies are almost as popular as Pokemon Go right now.

There is a cookie cutter for virtually anything or any occasion you can think of.

So if you’re planning a party, or just want to do something special for a friend, you can just jump online and order a cookie cutter specific to whatever tickles the person’s fancy, from unicorns to 50s muscle cars to French Bulldogs and saguaro cactus (yes, everything and anything!)

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Of course, I want all the pretty things I see online.  And, I suffer short-term memory loss when it comes to my inability to bake, and whatever my last failed attempt was. So whenever I see some intricately decorated iced works of art on Pinterest or Instagram, I think “Oooooh, I want to do that!”

But royal icing seemed so intimidating! I’m a canned frosting from the baking aisle kind of girl. However, the fancifully decorated cookies you see everywhere right now require royal icing, which has that beautiful, smooth matte finish that makes a cookie look so professional, like it came straight from a wonderful bakery.

I enlisted the help of my go-to baking expert and good friend Mary, and said, “TEACH ME! I want to be your icing Jedi!!!” So she shared her techniques in this video, along with her amazing set of decorating supplies, and we set out on an odyssey of summer cookie decorating adventure.

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I got to do what I do best. Shop. I found adorable summer-themed cookie cutters on Etsy from Frosted. There are a bajillion great shops – just enter your desired shape + the word cookie cutter in the search box on Etsy and you’ll find some really unusual ones. Or, you can request a custom cutter if you don’t find what you’re looking for. Etsy is my go-to for unique and original everything.

I did manage to make the cookies beforehand using the package Betty Crocker Sugar Cookie Mix, although I baked one batch on wax paper instead of parchment. But the real purpose of this exercise was for Mary to teach me to decorate cookies using royal icing. My only other experience with it was a disaster, trying to make my own Ginger Bread House with a store-bought kit containing premade icing. It was too thick and well…see for yourself.

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Needless to say, Martha Stewart chose a different photo for her December issue of Living.

For this icing, my baking Yoda used a recipe from Sweet Sugar Belle which she modifies slightly. Mary used the whisk attachment rather than the paddle attachment on her KitchenAid mixer, and Vanilla Bean paste. We also added additional warm water by the drop as necessary when it came time to ice, in order to get the desired consistency, so the icing would settle when the cookie was gently tapped.

Take a look at the video Mary & I made, and you’ll never be intimidated by making royal icing again.

 

 

Smart Perks Blogger, Melanie Bisson, learned the hard way, NEVER to put plastic cookie cutters in the dishwasher. Special thanks to icing guru, Mary Haehn. 

 

It’s a Cool, Cool Summer

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When I was young, one of the highlights of summer was the ice cream man coming to our neighborhood once a week to deliver sweet relief from the sweltering heat. We’d hear the familiar melodious sound of his truck down the block and dash into our houses to grab a few quarters from our piggy banks. By the time he stopped at our street we were ready with coins in hand, eagerly waiting to dig into orange cream bars, Push-up Pops, Eskimo Pies and sundae cups. Aaaahhh, those were the days.

Sadly the ice cream man wasn’t around when my kids were little. So, we’d get ice-cold goodies at the community pool, local DQ or the grocery store.

Now that I have grandchildren, I want to start a new tradition – creating our own refreshing frozen treats.

You’ll find a fabulous assortment of fun and colorful containers and contraptions to prepare and enjoy your favorite frosty creations.  Check these out…

pops

Ice Pop Molds – Make your own pudding, fruit, yogurt and juice pops with these handy little molds! Pick up a 6-Pc. Set now from Amazon!

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Zoku Ice Cream Maker – Whip up a bowl of fresh gourmet ice cream, gelato, sherbet or sorbet in less than 10 minutes!

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Ice Cream Bowls & Spoons – I love these cute little bowls with matching spoons! They’re perfect for picnics, birthday parties & summer celebrations. Get a set of 12 bowls & spoons for only $13.99 at Oriental Trading Company.

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Zoku Slush & Shake Maker – Use this specially-designed cup to mix up milkshakes, smoothies, iced coffee and floats, or turn your favorite soft drinks into slushies!

Here are some recipes you’ll want to try, too!

Chocolate Pudding Pops
Ingredients:
1 (3.9 oz.) pkg. instant chocolate pudding
2 cups milk
1 cup thawed whipped topping
Directions:  Beat ingredients with whisk for 2 minutes. Pour into ice pop molds (or you can use paper/plastic cups and wooden pop sticks). Freeze for 4-6 hours or until firm. To unmold, run water on the mold for a minute or so. (If using paper cups, peel paper off pops before serving). Variation: try other flavored puddings like vanilla or banana. Serves 6.
Recipe from Kraft.com

Fresh Fruit & Yogurt Pops
Ingredients:
2-1/2 cups plain vanilla yogurt (divided)
1 cup fresh blueberries
1 cup fresh raspberries
1 tbsp. honey
Directions: Mix honey and berries together in a bowl; set aside. In blender, combine 2 cups yogurt with berry mixture, blend until smooth. Fill ice pop molds a quarter full with yogurt and layer berry mixture on top. Freeze about 6 hours or until frozen. Serves 6.


Homemade Strawberry Ice Cream  
Ingredients:
1 pound strawberries
2 cups heavy cream
1 cup whole milk
1 cup sugar
Directions:
1) Wash and trim strawberries; cut into 1/4″ slices. Place half of sliced strawberries in food processor or blender and puree. Set aside both sliced and pureed strawberries.
2) Combine cream, milk and sugar in medium saucepan and cook over medium heat, stirring until sugar is completely dissolved. Remove from heat and pour mixture into large bowl. Add strawberry puree and mix well. Cover with plastic wrap and chill in refrigerator until completely cool.
3) While cream mixture is chilling, dice remaining sliced strawberries into smaller pieces to mix into ice cream. Pour cooled cream mixture into Ice cream maker and process according to manufacturer’s instructions. Towards end of process, stir in diced strawberries. Transfer ice cream to airtight container and freeze for at least 2 more hours before serving. Makes approximately one quart.

See more ice cream recipes at RealSimple.com
Find ways to make smooth no-churn ice cream without a maker!

Hot Fudge Sauce
Ingredients:
2 cups powdered sugar
1 (12 oz.) can evaporated milk
1 cup chocolate chips (milk or semi-sweet)
1/2 cup (stick) butter
1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
Directions: In saucepan, mix powdered sugar, evaporated milk, chocolate chips, and butter. Melt and bring to boil. Boil 8 minutes, stirring constantly. Stir in vanilla. Take off heat and serve over ice cream. Store in airtight container in refrigerator and reheat as needed. Makes 2 cups.

sundae closeup finalTop off your sundae with sprinkles, nuts, cherries, fresh fruit, candy pieces, pretzel bits, cookie crumbs, peanut butter, whipped cream… you name it!

Think Outside the Ice Box
Tickle your taste buds with unique flavor combos like brown butter & bacon, cilantro & lime and curry & mint – click here for recipes
Or, try this Miso Butterscotch Milkshake  (It seems like an odd combination – miso paste and ice cream? But, I’ve been told it’s surprisingly delicious, a perfect blend of sweet and salty.)

As you can see, the sky’s the limit when it comes to creating your own frozen treats. Here’s to a cool and sweet summer!

Smart Perks Blogger Catherine B. adores ice cream. If she didn’t care about calories, she could probably eat a carton of chocolate almond in one sitting.

 

Get Grilling with Tasty Recipes and Helpful Hints

Grill

Summer’s almost here and that means we’ll be grilling like crazy. After all, the backyard barbecue is not only an easy and popular way to cook and entertain this time of year, everything just tastes better when it’s fresh off the grill — burgers, brats, ribs, steak, pork, poultry, seafood, potatoes, vegetables, even fruit!

Self-proclaimed grill masters like my husband will tell you that it takes time, practice and a little trial and error to prepare the perfect medium-rare rib eye or lightly charred chicken. But, having the right tools and info upfront will help you hone your barbecuing skills and avoid potential disasters, like setting your garage on fire or under-cooking your entree.

Since I’m not an expert on the subject (nor admittedly is my husband), I’ve included a few web links for grilling guidelines, recipes, resources, and more.

kingsford.com — sponsored by Kingsford (the only brand of charcoal we’ll use), this site offers an impressive collection of recipes, ideas and techniques from professional outdoor chefs.

best-grilling-tips-and-recipes.com — the folks behind this site searched high and low to compile some of the greatest outdoor grilling recipes and tips available online.

BBQGuys.com — in addition to being an excellent online resource for quality grills, smokers and grilling tools, these guys provide insights, articles, instructional videos, and loads of inspiration to help you become a master griller.

And now for some enticing recipes…

raw salmon filet

Make your salmon more savory with select herbs, lemon, olive oil and garlic – I get requests for this recipe all the time!

Herb-Crusted Salmon
Ingredients:
Four fresh or frozen salmon fillets (skin-on), 3/4″ thick
1/3 cup chopped fresh oregano
1/3 cup chopped fresh cilantro
1/4 cup sliced green onions
1 clove garlic, minced
1 tbsp. fresh lemon juice
2 tsp. olive oil
1/4 tsp. salt
1/8 tsp. pepper

Directions: Thaw salmon fillets, if frozen. Rinse and pat dry with paper towels. Combine oregano, cilantro, green onion, garlic, lemon juice, oil, salt and pepper in food processor or blender. Cover and process until chopped. (Or, use a knife to finely chop oregano, cilantro, green onion and garlic. Transfer to a shallow bowl, then stir in lemon juice, oil, salt and pepper.) Generously coat both sides of salmon with herb mixture. Place salmon, skin-side-down, on clean, lightly oiled grill rack directly over medium-hot coals or preheated gas grill. Cook until salmon is brown on the outside and flakes easily with a fork (about 6-8 minutes per side), turning fish once halfway through grilling. If there’s any skin left on the salmon after grilling, remove it before serving.
Need help grilling salmon? Click here for tips.

Grilled Asparagus

grilled asparagus

You may not be a fan of the green spears, but you will be after sampling these!

Ingredients:
1 lb. fresh asparagus spears
1 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
3 tbsp. balsamic vinegar
Sea salt
Cracked black pepper

Directions: Snap off tough (woody) ends of asparagus. Lightly season with salt and pepper and place in a shallow bowl. Cover with olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Marinate for 1 hour, turning asparagus frequently. Preheat grill and place asparagus spears on clean, lightly oiled grill rack. Cook 4-5 minutes on each side until asparagus is tender with a fork. Turn often so they brown on all sides. Remove from grill and serve immediately. Yields 4 servings. Variation: Omit the vinegar and sprinkle asparagus with lemon juice and Parmesan cheese.

Pineapple Chicken Kabobs

Grilled chicken with pineapple

Looking for something different to do with chicken, I found this recipe from Mum’s the Word on Yummly.

Ingredients:
1 lb. chicken breasts cut up into large bite sized (approx. 1″) chunks
1 fresh ripe pineapple (canned is okay, but fresh is better), cut into bite sized chunks
1 red onion, sliced into 1″ pieces
1 tsp garlic powder
1 Tbsp. brown sugar
1/2 tsp. ground ginger
1/2 tsp. black pepper
1 Tbsp. oil (vegetable or canola)
2 Tbsp. water
1/4 cup low sodium soy sauce

Directions: In a medium sized bowl, combine garlic powder, brown sugar, ground ginger, black pepper, oil, water & soy sauce. Whisk vigorously for 1 minute until combined. Add chicken and mix until chicken is coated with sauce. Dump entire contents into a gallon sized zip lock bag (or cover bowl with saran wrap) and marinate in  refrigerator for 3-4 hours, mixing contents of bag/bowl every hour to ensure even marinade. Place wooden skewers in a pan of water and allow them to absorb the water while chicken is marinating. When chicken is done marinating, alternately skewer pineapple, onions and chicken until skewers are full, leaving 2″ on each end. Spray grill with a non-stick spray and place skewers on grill rack. Cook for 10-15 minutes or until chicken is done, rotating every 5 minutes to ensure even grilling. Serve immediately over rice. NOTE: I add extra raw veggies like bell peppers (cut into chunks) and cherry tomatoes.

Steak Marinade
Ingredients:
1/2 cup soy sauce
1/2 cup olive oil
2-3 cloves garlic, minced
3 tbsp. red wine vinegar
Dash of fresh pepper

Directions: Mix ingredients together in a bowl. Place marinade in a large freezer bag with steak, coating steak completely. Seal bag and refrigerate for 8-12 hours or overnight. Discard marinade and grill steak to desired doneness.

Make your own wood chips to infuse grilled food with a delightful wood-smoke flavor
We’ve always enjoyed that smoky, barbecue-y flavor you get from grilling with charcoal and my husband found a way to enhance it. Whenever he prunes/trims our apple trees, he cuts the trimmed branches into thumb-size (about 1″) chunks. Leaving the barks on, he lets the wood chunks dry for a couple of weeks then places several directly in with the charcoal briquettes. (Experts recommend soaking wood chips in water for a few minutes first for a slower burn.) Of course you can always get wood chips from the store, but why buy ’em if you don’t have to!  Click here for ways to use wood chips on gas grills. 

Here’s to a fun and flavorful Memorial Day weekend!

SAVE 78% on steak, chicken, burgers and more for grilling with this deal from Omaha Steaks – use promo code 44644KXS at check out to get your discount. 

Smart Perks Blogger Catherine B. loves just about anything from the  grill and the fact that someone else does the cooking for a change.

Appealing Banana Recipes

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The other day a few co-workers and I were discussing the ideal ripeness of bananas. Some of us like them best when the pulp is a bit firm and the peel is all yellow with green tips. Others prefer to eat them when the banana is a little mushy and the skin is covered with brown specks, which is apparently more flavorful and better for you. One thing we agreed on is how quickly this sweet, delectable fruit can go from bright green and barely ripe to dark brown and slimy.

Our conversation got me thinking about all the bananas I’ve wasted over the years because they were past their prime. Silly me, I could have used them in tasty treats like banana bread, banana bars or banana muffins!

Granted I don’t bake much, but I decided I needed to find ways to salvage overripe bananas (I have a habit of buying a bunch and forgetting to eat them until it’s too late). I’ve included some recipes here and I guarantee you’ll go bananas over them! (Sorry, I had to slip that in there.)

Banana Streusel Muffins (Yields 1 dozen)

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Tweak the recipe a bit to go from Banana Streusel to Banana Nut Muffins!

Ingredients:
1-1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. baking powder
½ tsp. salt
3 large very ripe bananas, mashed
¾ cup sugar
1 egg, lightly beaten
½ cup butter, melted
Topping:
1/3 cup packed brown sugar
1 tbsp. all-purpose flour
1/8 tsp. ground cinnamon
1 tbsp. cold butter

Directions: Preheat oven to 375ºF.  In a large bowl, combine dry ingredients. In a separate bowl, combine bananas, sugar, egg and butter; mix well. Stir into dry ingredients just until moistened. Fill greased or paper-lined muffin cups three quarters full. Combine the first three topping ingredients; cut in butter until crumbly. Sprinkle over muffins. Bake for 18-20 minutes or until muffins test done with toothpick. Cool pan on for 10 minutes before removing muffins.

Variation: use the same recipe for Banana Nut Muffins only skip the topping and add a half cup of chopped walnuts to the batter before baking.

 Recipe courtesy of Taste of Home

Gluten-Free Banana Bread with Blueberries
A co-worker brought this bread in one day (his wife’s recipe) and if he hadn’t told me beforehand, I never would have guessed it was gluten-free!

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Who knew gluten-free bread could taste so good?

Ingredients
2 cups gluten-free baking flour – click here for a guide to gluten-free flours
1 tsp. baking soda
½ tsp. salt
½ cup butter, softened
1 cup white sugar
2 eggs
2 tbsp. vanilla extract
2 ripe bananas, mashed
1 cup fresh blueberries

Directions: Preheat oven to 350ºF. Grease large loaf pan. In a medium bowl, mix together Flour Blend, baking soda and salt. In a large bowl, beat butter and sugar with an electric mixer until light and fluffy (the color will be lighter too). Add 1 egg and blend with butter mixture before adding the second egg and vanilla extract. Beat mashed bananas thoroughly into the mixture. Add flour mixture in small increments while beating until combined into a thick batter. Fold blueberries into the batter and pour into loaf pan. Bake for 30 to 35 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Let pan sit for 10 minutes before removing bread and cooling on a wire rack.

banana bars

These bars are so moist and delicious they melt in your mouth!

Banana Bars with Cream Cheese Frosting

Ingredients:
1 cup granulated sugar
1 cup mashed very ripe bananas (2 medium)
1/3 cup vegetable oil
2 eggs
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp. salt
Cream Cheese Frosting
1 package cream cheese, softened
1/3 cup butter or margarine, softened
1 tsp. vanilla
2 cups powdered sugar

Directions: Heat oven to 350°F. Grease bottom and sides of rectangular pan, 13x9x2 inches, with shortening. In large bowl, mix granulated sugar, bananas, oil and eggs with spoon. Stir in flour, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon and salt. Spread in pan. Bake bars 25 to 30 minutes or until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean. Cool completely, about 1 hour. Meanwhile, in medium bowl, mix cream cheese, butter and vanilla with electric mixer on medium speed until blended. Gradually beat in powdered sugar with spoon, scraping bowl occasionally, until smooth and spreadable. Spread cooled bars with Cream Cheese Frosting. Store covered in refrigerator.

Recipe & photo from Bettycrocker.com

Fried Banana & Peanut Butter Sandwich
A favorite of Elvis Presley (and my husband) – it’s like a grilled cheese sandwich only with peanut butter and bananas. Sounds like a weird combo, but it’s actually pretty good!

Ingredients:
2 slices white bread
2 tsp. butter
1 small ripe banana, peeled and sliced
2 tbsp. creamy peanut butter

Directions: Spread peanut butter on one side of bread slice. Top with sliced banana. Cover with other slice of bread and butter both sides. Heat skillet over medium heat and fry the sandwich on each side until golden brown and peanut butter is melted, about 4 minutes.

Check out our Sweet Tooth board on Pinterest for other appealing banana recipes & more!

FINAL NOTE: Instead of tossing the banana peels, save them for composting!

Enjoy!

Smart Perks Blogger Catherine B. loves fresh fruit. She just needs to remind herself to snack on berries, grapes or bananas instead of junk food.

Photos by Mary Haehn.