As I started preparing the Powerpoint slides for a school nutrition webinar that Guiding Stars registered dietitian, Allison Stowell, and I recently presented, I started looking through my photo and recipe archives for the most successful recipes from my work with school lunch programs. I came upon my recipe for BLT Salad, a dish that has proven to be a real winner among the children we’ve served it to.
That might come as a surprise, considering this pasta salad is made with a ton of spinach and whole wheat pasta, and I’ll be the first to admit: when the first child came through the lunch line at the first grade school we served it at, I was nervous. Would they reject it in all its dark leafy greenness? My answer came quickly: they all loved it. Even the few children who said “I don’t eat leaves” came around when we encouraged them to try just one bite and they realized that these leaves weren’t as scary as they looked.
The rationale for including this recipe on the lunch menu was threefold. First, we wanted something that would be useful as both a main dish or a side dish, and with the generous vegetable and protein content, a pasta salad fit the bill. Second, as we send the recipes for the dishes we make at school home with the children, we wanted to make sure they were easy, economical and versatile. Finally, with the goal of increasing the lunch program’s offering of healthy vegetables, I wanted to introduce the kids to spinach within the context of a familiar taste and approachable format; again, pasta salad was a logical choice, especially one containing the ubiquitous ranch dressing all kids seem to love.
The recipe we made featured my own recipe for a low-fat ranch dressing with a Greek yogurt base (I provide the recipe for that dressing with the pasta salad recipe below). That said, I would encourage you to try the recipe with a bottled low-fat ranch dressing if that’ll make the difference in whether you choose to make this recipe or not. With all the whole grain pasta and veggies you’ll be serving, it’s still a net gain for your family even if the calories are a little higher than they would be with the homemade dressing. Do try to make some time to experiment with the homemade ranch, even adjusting the seasonings to suit your family’s preferences.
Doesn’t it always seem like pasta salad is under-dressed or the pasta is overcooked? That dry pasty pasta salad we’ve all had before is generally a result of an overly enthusiastic hostess trying to get everything prepared early. Unfortunately, the pasta absorbs the moisture in the dressing, leaving just the solids clumped on all the ingredients. Whether you make this pasta salad with homemade or bottled ranch dressing, be sure not to combine your ingredients too far ahead of serving: keep it under an hour if possible. If you really want to assemble everything early, combine your pasta, tomatoes, and bacon, throw the spinach on top (if you mix it in it might wilt on you, which won’t affect the taste but will certainly affect the visual appeal), and mix the dressing in when you’re ready to serve.
As I mentioned earlier, this salad makes a great main or side dish. Try adding some grilled and sliced chicken and some diced avocado to it for a Cobb Salad-style dish. You could always opt to serve it right inside an avocado half California-style.
Made for a school lunch program, this pasta salad will please picky eaters of all ages.
Servings: 20 (55 G )
Prep Time: 5 Minutes
Cook Time: None
- 1 lb. whole wheat pasta such as rotini or macaroni, cooked, drained and cooled under running water
- 3/4 cup low-fat ranch dressing (recipe below pasta salad directions)
- 2 cups baby spinach leaves
- 1 pint of cherry or grape tomatoes, halved
- 1/2 cup low-fat shredded cheese such as mozzarella or Mexican blend
- 2 tablespoons bacon bits
Greek Yogurt Ranch Dressing:
- 1 cup lowfat buttermilk
- 1/2 cup lowfat plain Greek yogurt
- 1 Tbsp chopped fresh parsley
- 1 teaspoon chopped fresh chives
- 1 teaspoon lemon juice
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/4 teaspoon of dry dill (or a teaspoon chopped fresh)
- 1/4 teaspoon mustard powder
- 1/4 teaspoon garlic powder
- 1/8 teaspoon black pepper
- 1/8 teaspoon paprika
Combine all ingredients together in a large bowl and stir well to combine. Serve immediately or within 2 hours for best quality. To prepare the dressing, mix dressing ingredients thoroughly.