University of Vermont

Cultivating Healthy Communities

Food & Nutrition Programs

Lunchbox Confidential

women eating lunch
Chicken Soup Compromise? With many different ways to make delicious soup, EFNEP educators Louise Brunelle, from left, and Frances Fleming agree it’s a satisfying healthy, affordable, easy-to-make lunch. Other EFNEP educators’ lunches showed that a wrap can pack a lot of vegetables, cheese and nutrition in a small package. Small packages are key to the portion size of roasted garden vegetables and meat – leftovers lookin’ good.

We all can’t help but wonder what’s really in the refrigerators, pantries and lunchboxes of people who teach nutrition for a living. Do they practice what they preach when they’re not in the front of the class?

So when I was invited to talk to Vermont’s team of Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program educators at their fall meeting in Berlin, I was excited to introduce myself to the seven women who serve the whole state with nutrition programs and learn more about this venerable 45-year-old federal program operated by the University of Vermont Extension. I wanted to hear how they reach Vermont’s eligible adults and children of low-income families and help them choose low-cost nutritious food, manage food budgets, become more self-sufficient and connect to other valuable service organizations. Learn more about the Expanded Food and Education Nutrition Program (EFNEP) at EFNEP’s headquarters are in UVM’s nutrition and food sciences department. The unexpected bonus was that when I arrived, they were eating their bag lunches. I knew immediately that my very first lesson was in the bag, so to speak.

Seven busy working women – nine actually, because the program coordinator and assistant were also on-hand – had made quick, easy, healthy lunches that were modest in portion size and affordability. Their lunch sacks revealed a nutritional balance of foods. I hope they’ll forgive me if their first impression of me was of my looking over their shoulders, snapping photos and asking for chicken soup recipes. But so many good ideas converged in this one spot. Indeed, these women walk the talk, yet eat the treat.

“EFNEP educators do tend to routinely model good nutritional behavior without even thinking about it,” says Amy Davidson, who coordinates the program’s eight employees in as many offices that cover the state. “After all, every day they offer free programs, classes and individual visits tailored to qualified adults, youth and children on a wide range of food and nutrition topics, so they have delicious, inexpensive, simple, healthy menus and recipes at their fingertips. And when they get together conversation tends toward sharing ideas.”

What’s in the Bag?

Davidson is right. They weighed on who does and doesn’t like kale chips and how to make them crisp and not too salty. The asked each other who still eats canned asparagus nowadays. They relaxed while eating, then got back to business.

Like all of us, for some people on demanding days the best choice for a packed lunch is from the supermarket salad bar, last night’s take-out or homemade pasta or even a simple grab-and-go: yogurt, granola bar, in-season local apple and milk.

Here’s what else I noticed.

• Most people included side dishes of in-season fruits and vegetables – usually about a cup – freshly sliced carrots, sweet peppers, apple, raspberries, banana, celery and the like.

• Several got a dose of calcium and that feeling of fullness that lasts from milk, yogurt, cheese or cottage cheese.

• Whether it’s a salad, sandwich or leftovers, vegetables played the starring role in the main item – always more vegetables than any other ingredient.

• Chocolate! That’s right, a small serving of dark chocolate was the sweet of choice for at least three of the women.

Susan Edwards, the EFNEP educator working out of UVM Extension’s St. Albans office built a tall sandwich of cucumbers, lettuce, tomatoes, cheese and guacamole on whole wheat bread. Likewise, EFNEP program assistant Wendy Hull’s vegetable and cheese sandwich was nested into a whole-wheat wrap cleverly pinned with what is usually a cob corn holder.

Sometimes nothing hits the spot like hot soup. Louise Brunelle, a 14-year EFNEP veteran who works from UVM Extension’s Burlington office has made chicken soup so often that she doesn’t use a recipe. This time, she says, “I used the chicken frame instead of also low-cost chicken necks and backs” to make a rich broth. She added an onion, carrots, celery, low-sodium bouillon and egg noodles. Yogurt and an apple polished off her lunch.

Frances Fleming employed her homemade chicken soup to combat a cold. She says she opts for “dark meat like legs and thighs, because they’re juicer and cheaper.” Her recipe also calls for an onion and carrots “and parsnip if I’m in the mood.” She adds rice and brings out the flavor with whole peppercorns, a bay leaf and parsley. Pretzels and a hot cup of tea completed her lunch, plus a little dark chocolate. Fleming serves EFNEP clients in Washington County from the Berlin office.

Here’s a hearty chicken soup recipe that combines the elements of both of their suggestions.

Easy, Affordable, Homemade Chicken Soup

Although it’s delicious minutes after making it, the secret to the heartwarming flavor of chicken soup on a chilly day is to make it a day ahead to let the flavors of fresh vegetables develop. Refrigerate, skim off the fat and reheat. Some folks swear it’s a cold remedy. Others say it’s an act of kindness that makes the homemade soup “good for what ails you.”

Total Preparation Time: 1 hour


1-½ lbs. chicken thighs and legs, including bones
6 medium carrots, trimmed
4 celery stalks
1 large yellow onion quartered
Bay leaf
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
3 ounces egg noodles
Fresh parsley, chopped, optional


Place the chicken in a large pot. Cut 3 of the carrots and 2 of the celery stalks in half cross-wise. Cut the onion in four pieces, reserving one quarter. Add the cut vegetables to the pot with bay leaf and ground pepper. Cover with cold water (about 8 cups).

Bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer, skimming any foam that rises to the top, until the chicken is cooked through, about 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, thinly slice the remaining carrots, celery and quarter onion. Set aside.

With a slotted spoon remove the chicken to a bowl to cool, and discard the cooked vegetables. To the broth, add the remaining cut carrots, celery and onions and simmer until firm tender, about 5 minutes.

Meanwhile, remove the skin and bones from the cooled chicken and discard it. Shred the meat.

Add the noodles to the soup and cook according to package directions, about another 6-9 minutes, until tender. Add the chicken back to the soup, and the parsley, if using.

Ladle into individual bowls.


Cheryl Dorschner writes for the University of Vermont about food, nutrition and food systems – from garden to plate and test tube to supermarket.

To find out if you’re eligible for Vermont’s Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program programs, contact an EFNEP educator ( near you or e-mail