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Chefs Share Life-Changing School Lunch Ideas

Chefs Share Life-Changing School Lunch Ideas

Jan Mercker

Escape the chicken nugget rut with these school lunch ideas

How’s day 203 of preparing every.single.meal for your kids going? Quarantines and virtual learning are changing what lunchtime looks like around the country. Instead penciling in family dinners, now we’re feeding little and not-so-little kids breakfast, lunch and dinner while teleworking and managing school. If your creativity in the kitchen is wearing a little thin, we’ve got some brilliant school lunch ideas from our favorite chefs.

These recipe ideas, plus a few tips and tricks, will help you shake things up, get some good stuff in your kids and maybe (just maybe) make things a little easier on Mom and Dad.

‘Let’s see what we have in the fridge

Northern Virginia chef Chris Pepin (no relation to Jacques!) took on a new role when he was laid off from a corporate culinary job in the wake of COVID this spring. He’s now executive chef, education supervisor and culinary instructor for his two teenage sons.

While Pepin’s wife works full time from home, he’s generating great school lunch ideas for a picky eater and a kiddo with special needs. In Pepin’s house, it’s all about getting in nutrition any way you can and making it taste great.

Pepin has a background in community agriculture and culinary education. After working for noted chef Stan Frankenthaler at Boston’s Salamander restaurant, Pepin got involved with the nonprofit The Food Project in Massachusetts, helping young people learn to grow and prepare healthy food. He taught culinary arts at a D.C. charter school for adults and has worked in numerous corporate kitchens.

For Pepin, losing his corporate chef’s job was “a complete blessing in disguise.” He has expanded his home garden and taken on an extra garden plot in a community garden to grow produce for the nonprofit Ampersand food kitchen in Leesburg, Virginia.

For Pepin, meeting the nutritional needs of children and teens isn’t always easy. But he’s got plenty of creative school lunch ideas for healthy, easy meals.

1) Prep ahead

For Pepin, prepping multiple meals in advance is a time saver and stress reducer. 

As fall weather hits, he’s making big pots of soup for jarring or freezing. Last week, he was grabbing those last gorgeous tomatoes out of the garden and preparing a roasted tomato soup. 

“Soup is an easy application of, ‘Let’s see what we have in the fridge.’’” Pepin makes sure to have the holy trinity of celery, onions and carrots on hand at all times. The rest depends on what veggies or legumes are in the pantry or garden. And soup is easy for kids to pull out and reheat during the week.

Pepin also recommends preparing pasta meals ahead of time and freezing them. Kids can microwave or boil in a FoodSaver bag. He and his sons like to make twice-baked potatoes with favorite toppings and freeze them.

“All kids have to do is take it out of the fridge and pop it in the microwave and it’s easy access,” Pepin said.

2) Go semi-homemade

Pepin and his family are big proponents of the semi-homemade approach. The idea is to combine pre-made and from-scratch elements for healthy but easy meals. Instead of a frozen pizza, Pepin suggests getting creative with a store-bought flatbread. It lets even the pickiest kids get creative and choose ingredients they love, and it’s fun. 

Pepin also suggests leveling up jarred tomato sauce by adding things like pureed carrots and spinach. Butternut squash — roasted and pureed with a little maple syrup or brown sugar has — also become a favorite sauce element for a flatbread pizza.

Photo by Vita Marija Murenaite on Unsplash

3) Try a different approach

Sometimes rethinking your approach to vegetables is all it takes for a completely different reception, Pepin says.

“Maybe your mom boiled the cauliflower, but have you ever had fried cauliflower or roasted cauliflower with some kind of seasoning? It’s a completely different flavor and taste and a way to approach cooking foods you may not have considered before.”

4) Invest in equipment

When times are tough, not everything has to be a full-scale production — even for a chef.

“We got a toaster oven and — honest to God — it is a life saver,” Pepin said.

With easy to navigate pre-programmed settings, a toaster oven makes those semi-homemade delicacies and homemade frozen dishes a piece of cake to reheat. An air-fryer can let older kids try some fun new recipes without worrying about dealing with grease on the stove. 

5) Sneak in nutrition

With a picky eater in the house, Pepin is all about sneaking in the nutrient-rich ingredients in fun ways. 

Bananas are a favorite as a kid-friendly, inexpensive fruit, and they mask flavors of nutritious ingredients kids might turn up their noses at.

“I look at bananas as a universal opportunity, and they can be used for so many different elements, especially for snacking,” Pepin said. 

Celina Albertz on Unsplash

Try a smoothie with berries, bananas and yogurt and throw  in just a little spinach, and nobody will notice. “Honestly you would never ever taste the spinach with the other components,” Pepin said.

He’s also a big fan of banana bread for delivering nutrition in a tasty way. He might just throw in a little bit of grated zucchini from the garden. Who’s gonna know?

6) Take them shopping

Pepin is an enthusiastic gardener and farmers market fan. The colors and variety of the produce can be inspiring. And when kids choose ingredients, it creates ownership.

“Most kids know tomatoes from the grocery store, but you go to the farmers market and you see 15 or 20 different colors of tomatoes,” he said. “Bring your children to the farmers market and let them see the bounty of offerings and have them pick out the vegetables.”

Pepin uses apps like Yummly and Allrecipes to come up with easy snacks and awesome school lunch ideas.

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“It doesn’t take long to sit down with our children and find recipes based on what you got at the farmers market”

school lunch ideas
Chef Chris Pepin frequents his local farmers market in Northern Virginia, and often takes his kids shopping with him. [Photo by Chris Pepin]

School Lunch Ideas: Mediterranean Style

Nick Palmeri, owner of Gaetano’s Ristorante in Las Vegas, named his restaurant for his dad Gaetano. His father hailed from Sicily, where getting maximum nutrition out of precious vegetables was a way of life. Palmeri has some great school lunch ideas with a healthy Mediterranean twist. Built around vegetables, proteins and grains, it’s kind of like creating a Cava in your kitchen. And it’s all about cranking out serious brain food.

7) Build from a base

For Palmeri, the secret to great school lunch ideas is starting with a great base and adding on. 

“You can make large quantities and change it up,” he said.

Palmeri recommends starting with a grain, olive oil and salt and it will store in the refrigerator for a week or more. Then add fun ingredients and change it up daily.

Palmeri is a big fan of Israeli couscous (AKA giant couscous). With a bigger grain than traditional couscous with a chewy texture, it’s a fun alternative to pasta that kids love. 

Last week, Palmeri made an Israeli couscous base and added grilled roasted eggplant, grilled roasted zucchini and homemade roasted red peppers (you can also do store-bought peppers).

school lunch ideas - cous cous
Nick Palmeri, owner of Gaetano’s Ristorante in Las Vegas, recommends mixing things up for kids, like serving Israeli couscous rather than pasta. Then, add fresh tomatoes, basil, mushrooms or chicken — whatever your kid likes best. [Photo by Nick Palmeri]

And the sky’s the limit for additional toppings: grilled chicken, sausage, goat cheese and beyond.

“It’s a great dish, it’s an easy dish, it keeps well so you can meal prep it for the week,” Palmeri said. “Your child is getting carbs, they’re getting their vegetables. You get the meatiness of the vegetables and the creativity you can create around it.”

8) Swap out what doesn’t work

What? Your kids aren’t fans of eggplant? No problem! Swap in peas or any other vegetables until you find what works, Palmieri says. And sometimes they might surprise you.

“You just keep adding ingredients and give them a little spoonful…Just keep experimenting with the child and see what they like.”

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