What's for lunch?
The new school year brings fresh anxiety for parents over what to pack for their persnickety kids. Four chefs who've been there with their own broods come to the rescue.
Ah, the pleasures of packing school lunches. For the first few days, your kid can't get enough of that awesome, hormone-free, sustainably raised turkey sandwich-but then he cops to swapping it for Lunchables. The homemade chicken soup you slaved over all weekend? Not hot enough for Miss Picky Pants by the time lunch rolls around. And that fail-safe standby PB&J is no longer an option now that most schools are peanut-free. Then there's round two, when kids bound out of school hungry enough to chew off the arm you're holding their backpacks with. To score some fresh ideas and preserve our sanity past October, we asked four Chicago chefs how they face the brown-bag and after-school-snack dilemmas with their own kids.
MELISSA GRAHAM, chef and owner, Monogramme Events & Catering; and president and founder, Purple Asparagus. Mother of Thor, 6
“Lunch is an endless trial-and-error process. We start out with one basic ingredient that my son likes, then try to build on it with a variety of add-ons. And it’s got to look appealing. Bright colors and foods that hold up to still look good by midday are crucial.”
Lunch Graham keeps three tortilla wraps, which she rolls and slices into pinwheels, in heavy rotation: thinly sliced apple (with a squeeze of lemon juice) and cheddar cheese; hummus and grated carrots (“and alfalfa sprouts on the days Thor is feeling adventurous”); and turkey and a mild cheese such as Muenster.
After-school snack For the ride home: ZBars, bags of Just Fruit Munchies or homemade trail mix. At home: yogurt with honey and fruit, homemade applesauce (“we make huge batches in the fall”), and freshly popped popcorn sprinkled with different spices. Graham likes to use smoked sea salt and the spice blends, such as Old Taylor Street Cheese Sprinkle, sold at the Spice House (1512 N Wells St, 312-274-0378, and other locations).
DIRK FLANIGAN, executive chef, the Gage. Father of Devlin, 16, and Luciana, four months
“There was a time when my older daughter would eat anything, but then she didn’t want to bring pork loin drizzled with balsamic vinegar to school; she wanted to be like everyone else. Still, even at her pickiest, she would eat plain bread with a protein.”
Lunch When his daughter would eat only a handful of things, Flanigan made sure those items were the best he could find or make himself. A dinner of barbecued chicken and homemade biscuits that his daughter had helped prepare became the next day’s lunch on many days.
After-school snack Yogurt with honey; hearty soups (such as potato). Flanigan made a point of keeping lots of fresh fruit around so it was easy for his daughter to grab.
ARNIE TELLEZ, chef, Shaw’s Crab House. Father of Emily, 9, and Brandon, 6
“My wife works as a teacher, and our mornings are hectic. I try to keep things simple for us and for our fussy, younger child but also healthy and interesting enough to keep both kids from getting bored.”
Lunch Emily loves sushi and eats soft-shell crabs when her dad brings them home. But Brandon’s favorite foods are ketchup and chicken nuggets (in that order). For him, it’s usually a simple turkey-and-Swiss sandwich with mayo. Tellez rotates in fresh fruits and yogurt for variety, along with treats such as homemade oatmeal cookies.
After-school snack The kids eat a meal-size snack when they get home, usually shredded chicken tossed with tomatoes, onion, cilantro and queso fresco on a tortilla that Tellez makes in batches big enough to last two days. At dinnertime, they go for something small such as a bowl of cereal.
KIM SCHWENKE, pastry chef, 312 Chicago. Mother of Claire, 6
“I approach my daughter’s lunch the same way I prep at the restaurant. I have a lot of things ready to go that take just five or ten minutes to pull together. But I don’t get ‘cheffy’ and prepare elaborate meals for her; this is my real, day-to-day life. I don’t have the time.”
Lunch Claire doesn’t like sandwiches, so Schwenke often makes her cold pasta salads dressed with olive oil and chopped vegetables. In fall and winter, she roasts a chicken during the weekend (you can also buy a rotisserie chicken) to use over a few days, either on its own or with rice or pasta. Schwenke also makes her daughter what she calls “an hors d’oeuvres party in her lunch box,” with chopped fruit, veggies, cheese and crackers. “She gets jealous of the kids with Lunchables, so I make my own.”
After-school snack When the weather turns cold, Schwenke keeps a stash of apples on hand in the car (“the smallest variety so they’re perfect for my daughter to hold and eat”). She buys granola bars by Kashi or ones that are “as whole-grainy as possible”; when she has time, she and Claire make a batch of homemade ones (pictured; for the recipe, go to timeoutchicagokids.com). “If I involve her in making something, she might be more inclined to eat it.”
Best granola bar ever recipe:
2 c old-fashioned oatmeal
½ c shredded unsweetened coconut
¼ c wheat germ
½ c dried unsweetened banana chips
½ c raisins
½ c chocolate chips
½ c agave syrup
½ c peanut butter
2 t vanilla extract
2 bananas-puree in blender
¼ t salt
1 Toast the coconut and wheat germ. Melt the agave, peanut butter, vanilla, banana puree and mix together with all dry ingredients except chocolate chips. Cool slightly and add chocolate chips to the mixture.
2 Line a 8x12 baking dish with parchment paper. Press granola bar mix in and press down.
3 Bake in 300-degree oven for 30 minutes. Cool for two hours and then cut into bars.