I love cooking — that’s why I don’t like packing school lunches. It’s no fun making food that inevitably tastes subpar after hanging out in a brown bag for hours. Online schooling eliminates that issue but invites countless other mealtime problems, so I’m approaching “school lunch” the same way I always have: as a chore, not a joy. (And yes, I’m writing less as a professional cook and more as a working mother of three who is very, very tired.)
The tips below come from years of optimizing efficiency in restaurant and test kitchens and in my kitchen at home as well. They also address the cooking questions mom friends have asked me since quarantine started and the challenges they’ve shared. Feeding children is as much a mental and emotional struggle as it is a logistical one. Here are some ways to make it easier:
Go easy on yourself
You don’t need to stack artisanal sandwiches or fashion Hello Kitty faces on onigiri rice balls concocted from ham and seaweed. If you have the desire and energy for that next-level lunch-making, go for it. If not, don’t feel bad about it.
There have been days when I’m so exhausted from work (ironically, cooking) that I’ve simply popped open a can of beans, cut up a pepper and tossed string cheese packs on the table for a “meal.” My kids are still alive.
Don’t make three meals a day; batch cook for future meals
In April, one of my friends told me how wiped out she was from cooking breakfast, lunch and dinner — and doing all the dishes in between. My response: That’s crazy. Unless you actively want to be doing all that, don’t.
Instead, cook a lot when you feel like it and save leftovers for the times you lack kitchen motivation. Morning people can make huge breakfasts that last until lunch; folks with evening meetings can prep enough lunch to stretch to dinner. If you’d rather not eat the same thing for two meals in a row, refrigerate or freeze leftovers to reheat for future meals.
If you don’t want to do breakfast, buy cereal or make a big pot of oatmeal to last all week. If your kids insist on eggs every day, teach them to fry or scramble their own if they’re old enough to deal with the stove. Otherwise, boil half a dozen at once and keep them in a grab-bowl in the fridge. To streamline daily lunch prep, prepare big batches of building blocks, such as grains and beans, and keep them ready-to-scoop in refrigerated airtight containers.Create a lunch routine
A lot of kids are perfectly content eating the same lunch most days or prefer the regularity of a scheduled menu. (And most home cooks find that deciding what to make is half the struggle of preparing a meal.) Make everyone happy by establishing a regular lunch repertoire: You can keep dishes in rotation to eat when cravings strike or assign certain lunches to certain days. My youngest always looked forward to “pasta Mondays” in her school cafeteria, so I’m going to re-create that for her, both to make her happy and to eliminate the stress of decision-making for me.
Leftovers are the best
If there’s a silver lining to school-at-home, it’s the ability to reheat leftovers for your kids midday. Popping a plate in the microwave takes less time than slapping together a grilled cheese sandwich, and it feels special to eat a steaming not-steam-table hot lunch.
Prepare dishes that hold up or even improve post-chill, such as roasted vegetables or anything stewed or braised. Rice, whether fried or seasoned with cilantro and lime, still tastes great after zapping. While pasta usually doesn’t reheat well, this one-pan number does. Toasting the noodles first keeps them al dente forever.
Assemble a ‘lunch box’ for the fridge
If you’re more of a cold-lunch family, make last-minute assembly easier by keeping all the ingredients together. Once you’ve figured out your repertoire, group what you need in an open container in the fridge. When it’s time for lunch, simply slide out the box full of sandwich or taco or salad fixings. It saves a little time and a lot of frustration digging around for that pack of sliced provolone. Do the same for any pantry items dedicated to lunch, keeping the box easily accessible wherever you have space.
If you’re adding leftovers or other unmarked ingredient containers to either box, use painter’s or masking tape to label them. So when someone who knows how to read keeps asking, “What do we have for lunch?,” you can simply gesture toward your lovely labels.
Experiment with seasoning vegetables
I’m often asked how to get kids to like vegetables and other nutritious foods, and I wish I had a magic solution that works for everyone. The one thing I can say is that a little seasoning goes a long way. Some kids like plain raw carrots, celery, cucumbers and tomatoes. All of those options — and really, anything else — taste better with a little sprinkle of salt. If you’re feeling ambitious, you can make a dip, salsa, dressing or crunchy topping to serve with raw and cooked vegetables.
Pickles add a bright tang to a meal, and homemade ones can be a fun family project. If you want an instant pickle-y option, simply toss sliced vegetables with a pinch each of salt and sugar and a splash of lemon juice or vinegar.
Let kids DIY
One of the first lessons in any professional kitchen is to taste what you’re cooking. You become invested in the dish’s outcome and learn about seasoning in the process. Over many years of teaching cooking classes and hosting playdates, I’ve seen how getting kids involved in prepping the meal makes them more likely to eat the food. Even toddlers can have a (messy) hand in it. Whether they sprinkle cheese on a tortilla, spread jelly over peanut butter or stir sauce into ramen, they’ll be more excited to eat their own creations.
I would be lying if I said this will make your life easier. It will not. It will make your kitchen messier and take more time, but it may make your little (and big) ones consume more if they’re fussy eaters.
Older kids can make their own lunches from start to finish, and yes, that process should include putting dishes away. You can set up the menu and fridge lunch-box, or let them determine what they want. My daughters are now teenagers and enjoy putting together their own midday meals. And because grocery shopping is one of the few things they can do during quarantine, they also like trips to choose their own ingredients.
With everything we have to do as parents during online schooling, baking cookies may not seem like a smart move. It’s neither “lunch” nor “vegetables.” But the act of it can be therapeutic alone time or sweet family bonding time, and the result of it is a way to brighten kids’ “school” days. Cookies can’t replace classmates or teachers or recess (or lunch, I guess), but they can bring joy.