The school year is upon us. And if you have young children, chances are you’re nervous: about homework, schedules, and, let’s face it, lunches. Is there a more thankless task than packing one’s child a daily meal? Sandwiches that come home uneaten; bananas that ripen into brown corpses at the bottom of a backpack; complaints, comparisons, hunger strikes, mood swings.
I asked several Boston chefs (and parents) the impossible: How do you make lunch prep less painful? Here’s their advice — and a few of their recipes.
FOR THE BORED CHILD
Create diversions with condiments and utensils. “Don’t be afraid to pack lunches that require utensils and condiments,” says the Gallows Group’s Rebecca Roth Gullo. “My girls love to dip veggies into ranch, hummus, or tzatziki using small sauce containers or have a salad with dressing. Collect condiment packets [and] include them! Hard boil and peel an egg, and send along a little salt packet. Send along a mayo packet with a sandwich so it doesn’t get soggy! Vegetarian sushi? Awesome. Send along some soy sauce and cheater chopsticks.”
Get crafty with surprise (but tame) ingredients. “A good trick I’ve learned over the years is to slightly change things up without saying a word, so there’s an ‘a-ha’ moment after the fact, and kids tend to think they’re enjoying an entirely new meal,” suggests Marc Orfaly, culinary director at ReelHouse. “For example, rather than serving mac and cheese, I’ll change up lunch by preparing ramen and cheese. I’ll also swap out bologna for prosciutto or salami, and chopped iceberg for chopped romaine for a healthier option. The ‘a-ha’ factor that I’m referring to comes from when your children [later] say, ‘But Papa, I’ve never had that!’ and I can respond, ‘Yes you have — for lunch yesterday!’ ”
FOR THE TIME-STRAPPED PARENT
Befriend your crock pot. While there are a plethora of Instant Pot and crock pot cookbooks out there, sometimes simple is best, especially when it comes to sandwich fillings.
“I’ve become a huge fan of my crock pot. I love that it is a set it and forget it,” says Sarah Wade, executive chef at Lulu’s in Allston. One go-to? Crock pot ketchup glazed meatloaf with potatoes and carrots, perfect glossed with mayo in a sandwich [see recipe]. “I make enough that we can eat for dinner one night and I get two lunches out of it,” she says.
Follow a formula. “We have a note card in our pantry that reads: protein, fruit, veg, snack, sweet/treat. So when packing our daughter’s lunch, we go down the list to make sure she has enough food and also healthy enough food,” says Timothy Willis, culinary director of the Lyons Group. “My favorite lunch takes one minute to pack: Sabra hummus (all-natural ingredients), Snack Factory pretzel chips (for dipping), a banana, cherry tomatoes, and cookies or a Hershey’s kiss.”
Cook in bulk. Lenox Hotel executive chef Sean MacAlpine makes pizza with his son, who maintains a low-sodium diet due to nephrogenic diabetes insipidus. It makes eating at school a challenge. So his dad creates scratch-made dough — which is lower in sodium and not as tough as it sounds.
“I make three half-sheet trays at a time, cut into portions, and freeze. I do this about every three weeks, and when packing lunch, it goes from freezer to lunchbox and is heated at school,” he says. [See recipe.]
Be realistic. If you don’t love to cook, don’t try to outdo yourself with elegant sandwiches and obscure condiments. And if your kids are picky, don’t assume that this will be the year that they suddenly embrace kale. Such ambition will only cause heartbreak (and uneaten lunches). Go with what you know.
“Punch in your weight class,” urges Jeremy Sewall from Island Creek Oyster Bar and Row 34. “Don’t try new stuff on your kids. Make sure you try it before you serve it. They need food to get through the day, so you want to be sure they’re getting balanced nutrition with things they will eat. Quinoa salad is delicious, but they will never eat it! Simply cut veggies, cupped fruit, and simple proteins are great ways to incorporate a few healthy things.”
FOR THE KID WHO WANTS CONTROL
Visit a farmers’ market. Involve your kids in the lunch process by showing them where their food comes from before it hits the lunchbox. Bistro du Midi chef Robert Sisca takes his twin 5-year-olds to farmers’ markets for a firsthand glimpse. (His favorite is Blackbird Farm in Smithfield, R.I.) Through September, you’ll find fresh tomatoes, corn, and, soon, squash.
“I let them pick out what they want to eat,” he says. An added bonus: He often purees veggies, such as butternut squash, and blends in unfamiliar spices like cumin or curry to subtly expand his kids’ palates. These purees keep well in a Thermos the next day.
Make a cooking date. Just like a soccer practice or piano lessons, set aside time in your calendar for weekend meal prep. Alta Strada and Tico chef Michael Schlow saves time by batching food for the week during family cooking dates. “We make big batches of family favorites like meatballs, lasagna, lentil soup, Bolognese sauce [see recipe], and chicken stew. We take them out the night before and have it ready to be reheated,” he says.
And if all else fails? Realize that sometimes even chefs hit a wall and you might, too.
“We get stuck with the same monotony of other parents and rely on applesauce pouches, goldfish, and turkey-and-cheese sandwiches like everyone else,” admits Catalyst’s William Kovel, who has unsuccessfully tried to introduce his children to kimchi, broccoli florets, and almond butter.
“Our best bet for something healthy and kid-friendly is a thermos. We heat up dinner leftovers since that’s a more successful meal time.”
His go-to? Annie’s mac and cheese.