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Pack School Lunch Like a Pro

Five local chefs and restaurateurs dish on what they send to school with the kids

If your house operates anything like mine, as soon as the kids are tucked in to bed, you begin preparations for the following morning. My husband and I unpack and repack school bags and diaper bags, but the task we play “not-it” to complete is always making lunches for the kids. Why? Because it’s a lengthy process of staring in the fridge, trying to figure out what to give them that they will actually eat. Our preschooler has lots of foods that are off-limits on campus such as nuts, squeezable yogurt and anything that requires refrigeration or heating. Pair these restrictions with a picky eater, and my husband and I will do anything — walk the dogs, do the laundry, scrub the toilets — to avoid the chore.

And guess what? We’re not alone in our lunch packing frustration. It quickly becomes a topic of conversation in all of our social circles with moms and dads, with kids of all different ages and at various stages. So I decided to consult the experts — you know, the ones who get paid to make food every day? I talked to local chefs and restaurateurs — all of them parents as well — to find out what they put in a school lunch that their kids eat rather than trade.

My request came with a few non-negotiables: Nothing could be too complicated. I don’t have time to make another meal after putting my kids to bed, so options had to be easy to assemble, be made using items I already have in my kitchen (I’m definitely not making an after-8pm run to Whole Foods for a specific aioli) and be something my kids would consume without me fashioning it into creatures with faces.

So close the Pinterest board on your computer, resist sending the same ham-and-cheese sandwich or giving in to pizza day at school, and let these tricks and ideas from Dallas-Fort Worth pros inspire you. Then check out the sidebar for their favorite lunchtime recipes.   

Sarah Penrod 

Personal chef and cookbook author Sarah Penrod lives in Denton and makes daily lunches for her two boys — Gabriel, 6, and Micah, 4 — one whom she describes as a fantastic eater; the other, terrible.

HER SCHOOL LUNCH PHILOSOPHY: Find something kids like and make it in mass quantities on the weekend. She cooks lots of homemade chicken tenders and oven-baked chimichangas that she fills with nonfat refried beans, cheese and light sour cream. “I never force something on my kids because I know their tastes are going to change,” Penrod says. “Instead, when I find something that they like, I offer it to them as often as possible.”

A STRATEGY TO STEAL: Penrod makes the items in bulk but freezes everything individually. She puts the cooked and cooled chicken fingers or burritos on a cookie sheet lined with wax paper and pops it into the freezer. Once they’re frozen, she tosses her creations into a freezer bag or Tupperware. The night before school, she thaws a few chicken fingers or one burrito to send for lunch, leaving a plentiful stash for the next day and the next day and … you get the point.

WHAT SHE PACKS: In addition to chicken fingers or chimichangas, her boys get leaves (the spinach variety) with ranch dressing in their lunches almost daily. “It’s a fun and simple way to make sure they’re eating their veggies,” she explains.

HER MOST INVENTIVE ADDITION: Penrod tries to get creative with her kids’ limited palates. She takes inspiration from her clients following paleo and vegan diets and whips up seriously fast (and healthy) puddings, putting ingredients such as chia seeds, bananas, almond milk, cashew butter, honey and vanilla powder all together, letting it sit overnight then offering it to her boys as a lunchtime treat with fruit on top.

Erin McKool 

Erin McKool, founder of Start restaurants in Dallas, keeps it fun, fast and healthy, of course, when she makes lunch for her 9-year-old son, Michael Finn.

HER SCHOOL LUNCH PHILOSOPHY: “I always make sure he has enough energy for the day,” McKool says. In order to avoid the after-lunch crash, she packs lots of protein in a variety of ways.

A STRATEGY TO STEAL: Take simple cookie cutters to sandwiches and thread grapes or berries on to Popsicle sticks. “It’s all in the packaging,” she says.

WHAT SHE PACKS: Extra protein in the form of hard-boiled eggs fashioned to look like chickens (don’t worry, Sur La Table makes a mold for that — complete with chicken feet!) add a touch of whimsy without a lot of effort.

HER MOST INVENTIVE ADDITION: Try substituting pesto for mayonnaise on a turkey sandwich.

Grady Spears 

Fort Worth chef, cookbook author and Horseshoe Hill Cowboy Cafe coowner Grady Spears keeps school lunches simple for his 13-year-old son, Gage.

HIS SCHOOL LUNCH PHILOSOPHY: Let the kids do it. “Get them involved as early as possible,” he advises. Spears says you can use the task of making lunch together as a learning experience to talk about where food comes from and what makes a balanced meal.

A STRATEGY TO STEAL: Kids are also more likely to eat something they helped create. Enlist even the littlest ones to make turkeyand- cheese roll-ups or to help peel the orange, for instance.

WHAT HE PACKS: Spears thinks casseroles and lasagnas only get better when they have a few days to sit in the fridge and let all the flavors marry one another.

HIS MOST INVENTIVE ADDITION: Individual biscuit pizzas. Spears rolls out the store-bought biscuit dough, Gage layers on his favorite toppings, they pop it in the oven for several minutes and take the hot lunch to go.

John Coleman 

Chef John Coleman, owner and managing partner of Savor at Klyde Warren Park in Dallas, has three daughters — Carter, 11, Chloe, 12, and Caitlyn, 17, and he still makes lunch for his youngest two.

HIS SCHOOL LUNCH PHILOSOPHY: Let the kids help come up with something they like. Make meal planning a family affair.

A STRATEGY TO STEAL: Carter is Coleman’s chef in training. The fatherdaughter pair often cooks together. Carter comes into the kitchen on certain days to work with her dad and the other chefs. This experience is where she learned to make Monte Cristo sandwiches. “It’s her favorite thing to cook, so we make them together and send them to school with the girls,” he says.

WHAT HE PACKS: His turkey meatloaf made with Quaker Oats instead of breadcrumbs makes a killer gourmet sandwich.

HIS MOST INVENTIVE ADDITION: “We never do anything too outrageous,” he admits. “You can’t stray too far from the ranch.” Or your kid is likely to throw it away or trade it for a bag of chips, he says.

Norman Grimm 

Norman Grimm, the chef de tournant at Omni Dallas Hotel, manages lunchtime meals at home for his five kids — Ecgwyn, 8, Ava Layne, 11, Cross, 12, Miles, 14, and Lilly Anne, 16.

HIS SCHOOL LUNCH PHILOSOPHY: Do it quickly using clean, rather than processed, ingredients.

A STRATEGY TO STEAL: Because he aims to create as little waste as possible, Grimm repurposes meals all the time. Barbecue and brisket make awesome sandwiches the next day.

WHAT HE PACKS: “All my kids kind of lose their minds when I make my chicken salad,” he says. That’s likely because he starts with Chik-fil-A nuggets, adds grapes, nuts and Hellmann’s organic mayo, and spreads it on slices of bread.

HIS MOST INVENTIVE ADDITION: He’s made pork belly into Slim Jim-like strips. The verdict? His sons loved it.