​7 Healthy School Lunches That Chefs Make For Their Own Kids

​Send your kids to school with these creative, healthy, and easy-to-make lunches.

August 9, 2017
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rice burrito for school lunch
Photograph courtesy of Karen Hatfield

Getting your kid out the door every day with a reasonably quick, healthy school lunch—one that they’ll actually eat—can occasionally be a somewhat Herculean task, especially when school begins and the crush of work commitments, homework, and extracurriculars begin to pile up. We figured no one is better at churning out creative meal ideas under a time crunch than professional chefs, so we asked a few: how do you manage it?

Related: 9 Back-To-School Backpacks Your Kid (And The Planet) Will Love

Their answers all centered on a few key points: spending a little time planning and prepping ahead—as much as you’re able to, even if it’s only to lay out a few things the night before—makes the process much easier; picky eaters are more likely to be appeased when they’re part of the shopping and preparation process; and for kids in the “but-my-friends-don’t-eat-that” phase, it’s all about compromise—and taking the long view. As Richmond-based chef Lee Gregory points out, “at least it’s not a bag of Doritos and a can of Coke.”

Read on to see how seven chefs from around the country approach school lunches, plus their favorite dishes to make, from noodle salads to picnic lunches to sushi burritos. (Then check out our favorite plastic-free ways to pack lunch).

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diy sushi school lunch
Photograph courtesy of Nina Clemente
Build-your-own sushi rolls

Nina Clemente, Chef at The Standard Plaza in New York City and Di Alba in Los Angeles

“I’m lucky—she sort of has a refined 50-year-old’s palate,” chef Nina Clemente says of her four-year-old daughter Indigo. “She’ll say, ‘Mommy, I want some endive and fennel.’” Still, lunches can occasionally be a challenge. “I like to do things that she can build on her own. If I’m able, I’ll have her contribute to making her own lunch; that tends to make her more excited to eat it and talk about it with her friends.” The current house favorite is a kid-friendly build-your-own sushi roll: Clemente packs seaweed snacks, jasmine rice cooked with unsweetened coconut milk and drizzled with soy sauce, black sesame, a piece of cooked fish or “whatever we’ve had the night before for dinner,” and some trimmed cucumber batons into a lunch container and lets her daughter assemble them as she likes.

Related: 5 Things I Learned When I Meal Prepped Every Sunday For A Month

hummus school lunch
Photograph courtesy of Gio Osso
White bean hummus with veggies

Gio Osso, Chef at Virtu Honest Craft, Scottsdale, Arizona

Osso’s children are younger—his oldest, who is 3½, starts preschool this year—but the family has already got packed lunch on lock. One of his kids’ favorites is a white bean hummus—Osso replaces the chickpeas in the traditional version with white beans and tops it with feta, olive oil, cut-up cucumbers, carrots, and grape tomatoes. “The kids devour it,” he says. “I’ll make a decent sized batch of the hummus, put it in the fridge and it lasts for a few days.” Getting them involved, he says, makes them excited to eat whatever he prepares. “That’s a huge part—they can see what it feels like, what it looks like; then when it comes to the table on the plate they’re excited to try it.”

Check out the video below for an easy white bean hummus (and avocado hummus, and beet hummus) recipe.

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kid size banh mi for school lunch
Photograph courtesy of Katy Kindred
Kid’s banh-mi

Katy Kindred, Co-owner of Kindred restaurant, Davidson, North Carolina

Katy Kindred says that for her family, spending some time preparing food on the front end is essential. “Take a couple of hours, get it done, and then the whole week you have quick easy things,” she says. “When we get home from the store, we take the time to cut florets of broccoli off the stems and dice the stems; then we make green smoothies with them with Greek yogurt and tons of fruit. When we buy cilantro, we go ahead and clean it and wrap it in a moist paper towel and have it ready to go. And we can spend some time as a family prepping stuff—they can participate in that too.”

Her favorite go-to lunch is what she calls a “kids’ banh mi.” “It sounds very adventurous, but kids tend to like it because the marinade is a little sweet, the pickles are refreshing, the textures are clean, and the colors are bright.” Kindred takes pre-sliced pork or pork shoulder and marinates it briefly in fish sauce, sugar, and sesame oil, then cooks it on the stovetop. Shredded carrots get a quick pickle in sugar, rice wine vinegar, and salt. (Check out these 3 more ways to make quick pickles.) She butters a baguette, adds the filling and a little cilantro—and jalapeños for the adults. “Wrap them up and they last a while—they’re good for picnics and school lunches,” she says.

Related: What Makes Vietnamese Fish Sauce So Good?

picnic style lunch
Photograph courtesy of Wes Shaw
Picnic lunch

Wes Shaw, Chef at Presidio Social Club, San Francisco

Shaw’s kids love a lunch they call “picnic,” which his older son, Lucas, will take to school and his younger daughter, Sophia (above), will eat at home. He assembles some vegetables, a little cheese, some hummus or yogurt, and a little cold chicken or some nitrate-free salami and packs it all together. “They’re pretty vocal about what they like to eat,” he says. “We always keep certain things on hand: snap peas, green beans, always some type of cheese.”

Related: Have You Discovered The Life-Changing Magic Of Snack Dinner?

Shaw likes to get his kids involved early in kitchen prep, which makes them more interested in what’s on their plates. “Our son, we give him a little paring knife; he’s getting good with it. He’s started helping me wash dishes, started learning how to cut things up. He’s just getting more and more interested.” (Here’s how one mom taught her son to bake by giving him free reign in the kitchen.)

rice burrito for school lunch
Photograph courtesy of Karen Hatfield
Sushi rice burritos

Karen Hatfield, Chef and co-owner of Hatfield’s, The Sycamore Kitchen, and Odys + Penelope, Los Angeles

To streamline the preparation, Hatfield echoes many other parents: it’s all about being prepared. Her husband and restaurant partner is the lunch maker of the house, she says, and gets up a little early each day to make lunch for their kids. “It’s his thing—he takes a lot of pride in it. The man loves order. He sets out the coffee the night before; we do grocery store runs after work and get stuff ahead. We have a rice cooker that sits on our island so there’s a lot of freshly steamed rice happening at 7am.”

Related: Prep A Week’s Worth Of Lunches With This One-Pan Salmon And Veggie Meal

One of his current specialties, favored by their daughter, is sushi rice burritos: rice topped with nori, avocado, beans, roasted chicken from the night before, or whatever else might be left over in the fridge. (Here are the 6 healthiest beans you can eat). Their son might get sushi rice and nori, or rice balls stuffed with tuna salad.

Hatfield says her children can occasionally be picky eaters: “You have to listen to them. A full lunch will come home if they’re not into it.” But getting their input can solve a lot of problems. “One likes to peel tangerines and one hates peeling them, but also hates if they’re dried out—so we wrap it up. My kids will just opt out if it doesn’t suit them and then you’ve got to figure out why. It takes commitment.”

 
 
packaged lunch for school lunch
Photograph courtesy of Chrissy Gregory
Healthy versions of packaged foods

Lee Gregory, Chef-owner of The Roosevelt and Southbound, Richmond, Virginia

At 9 and 11 years old, chef Lee Gregory’s kids can occasionally be picky about what they’ll eat—especially when the influence of their friends comes into play. The chef-owner of Richmond’s Roosevelt and Southbound restaurants stresses the importance of working with your kids to send them to school with lunches they’ll like. “When they go to school and they’re surrounded by their peers, it just changes,” he says of their eating habits. “They’re next to a kid with a small Coke and a bag of Doritos. That’s real for kids. We try to work around it.” His tip? Get them involved, and try to relax about making everything from scratch. Gregory and his wife talk through likes and dislikes with them and stock up on healthy versions of packaged foods from retailers like Wegman’s: packs of hummus and apple butter; organic yogurts; cheese sticks. “Their tastes are pretty vanilla, [but] we’re no fools—we want them to enjoy eating,” he says. “If we make them eat vegetables, we reward them by having something to dip them in—apple butter; ranch dressing.”

Related: 8 Best Allergen-Free Snacks For Kids With Serious Food Allergies

 

soba noodle school lunch
Photograph courtesy of Brooke Williamson
Soba noodles

Brooke Williamson, “Top Chef” Season 14 Winner and chef at Company for Dinner Hospitality Group (Hudson HousePlaya ProvisionsThe Tripel, and Da Kikokiko), Los Angeles

One of “Top Chef” Season 14 winner Brooke Williamson’s favorite lunches to make for her nine-year-old son is a simple noodle dish that she puts together with a little rice vinegar, sesame oil, and soy sauce to taste. “I’ll switch up the noodles: buckwheat, soba, udon. I have these green ramen noodles that cook in 30 seconds and they hold well in the fridge.” He also loves sushi rice, she says, so “I’ll make a batch in a rice cooker and it’ll last a couple days—it’s great for snacks. I’ll just put that in a thermos and send him with some cucumbers and tofu to put on top.”

Related: No-Cook Noodles For When It’s Too Hot Out To Boil Water

Like the other chefs we talked to, Williamson emphasizes working with your kids to make things they’ll actually eat. Her son is always a part of the process. “He helps shop—he loves walking around the supermarket and picking out what he likes, and it’s helpful to me to know that I’m not buying stuff that he won’t eat. I’ll ask him what he wants so that it’s never a surprise. School lunch is not necessarily my time to experiment with new foods for him—that’s dinner.”

The other key? That’s right—planning ahead. “One thing I always make sure to do is to be prepared the night before. I’m not a morning person. If I can make my morning any less stressful, I’ll do anything that it takes—getting his lunch together the night before, or as prepared as possible, is my number-one rule.”