When it comes to lunch box grub, pumpkin pie is the low-hanging fruit of squash-inspired eats. Because what kid — or adult — would refuse a slice of brown sugar-sweetened pumpkin pie slipped into a lunch box?
Of course, most of us aren’t willing to indulge our kids — or our inner kids — with pie every day. Even if we really want to.
Which actually is too bad. Because pumpkin is one of the easier varieties of produce to get children to embrace. And since pumpkin is packed with all the healthy fiber, vitamins and other goodnesses we strive to feed our kids, it’s worth finding ways to work with it.
So let’s start with the easy stuff — canned pumpkin. Grab a few 15-ounce cans of pumpkin puree (don’t get pumpkin pie filling, which is sweetened and seasoned) and you’re good to go. It’s convenient, available all year and pretty cheap.
Spoon 1/4 cup or so into a yogurt- or milk-based smoothie along with some honey, cinnamon and a pinch of salt and you have a seriously delicious — and seriously healthy — pumpkin pie smoothie. Add a banana for even more yum.
Substitute an equal amount of canned pumpkin for 2/3 of the liquid (not counting the egg) in your favorite pancake recipe. (Or here is my personal recipe.) Works for waffles, too. Want to make them even healthier? Use white whole-wheat flour.
3. Bread: The Internet is overrun with recipes for pumpkin bread. This is my favorite. But if you have a favorite banana bread recipe, just substitute an equal amount of canned pumpkin for the bananas. And you can usually cut the sugar by half.
OK… So you’ve maxed out on canned pumpkin. Let’s move on to the real deal. When you’re at the farm stand picking out your pumpkins for carving, grab a small sugar pumpkin (sometimes called baking pumpkins). Peel it, cut it into large chunks and scoop out the seeds and fibers, same as you would a butternut squash. Now cut it into smaller chunks. What next?
At dinner, steam it the same as you would butternut squash, then mash it. Mix in some butter, salt, pepper and — if you are so inclined — a bit of brown sugar and a pinch of cinnamon. In the morning, nuke the leftovers and pop them in a thermos. You could sprinkle on a little extra brown sugar before closing the thermos as an extra enticement.
Instead of cutting the large chunks into smaller ones, cut them into really small ones — as in diced. At breakfast, pop the diced raw pumpkin in a skillet (if you like, you can add a diced potato, too) with some butter and saute until browned and tender. Add any leftover meat you have (sausage, chicken, steak, pork, whatever) and saute until heated through. Season with salt and pepper, and you’re done in about 10 minutes. Now serve some for breakfast and pop the rest in a thermos.
What about all the glop you scooped out of the pumpkins you carved? Pumpkin seeds are delicious toasted and salted straight up, but also can be used in all sorts of great ways.
OK, let’s get real. Few of us have time to make granola from scratch. But there’s no shame in buying a basic granola and doctoring it with your favorite add-ins. Toasted pumpkin seeds and dried cranberries are fine seasonal choices. Pack your doctored granola in a bag or container and accompany with a container of yogurt or applesauce for sprinkling it on.
Yup, back to the banana/pumpkin bread. If you’re baking up a loaf, add a handful of toasted pumpkin seeds to the mix. It adds a delicious crunch and some great fiber. And if you salt them first, you’ll get that awesome interplay of salty-sweet.
Feeling lazy? Carving a giant gourd just isn’t happening this year? No fear. Grocers these days sell bags of hulled raw pumpkin seeds (sometimes called pepitas) that can be used in so many crazy delicious ways.
8. Pumpkin seed butter
That’s right — peanut butter, but made entirely from pumpkin seeds. Check your nut allergies at the door! It’s stupidly easy. Get two 7-ounce packages of raw hulled pumpkin seeds (about 3 1/2 cups). Spread them on a rimmed baking sheet at bake at 325 F for 15 minutes, or until very lightly browned. Remove from the oven and let cool. Dump the seeds into a food processor. Process for several minutes, or until they form a dry sand-like mixture. Add 2 tablespoons olive oil and 1 teaspoon kosher salt. Puree until it forms a thick peanut butter-like mixture. Use as you would peanut butter. Tightly covered, it keeps for several weeks in the refrigerator.
9. Pumpkin noodles
Take some of that awesome pumpkin seed butter you made and mix it with a splash each of hot sauce and vinegar (any variety will work). Toss that mixture with warm pasta. Done. Eat it hot (or pack it hot in a thermos) or pack it cold for a cold Asian peanut noodle salad.
J.M. Hirsch is the national food editor for The Associated Press. He blogs about the trials and tribulations of his son’s lunches at LunchBoxBlues.com. His cookbook, Beating the Lunch Box Blues, is the first to be released by Rachael’s new publishing venture, Rachael Ray Books. Hirsch’s previous books include High Flavor, Low Labor: Reinventing Weeknight Cooking and Venturesome Vegan Cooking. He lives in New Hampshire with his son, wife, and too many cats.