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Tips On Packing School Lunch From 4 James Beard-Winning Chefs

The James Beard awards may be the Oscars of cooking, but there is one critic who’ll dismiss even those accolades with an eye roll and a sneer: your kid. We spoke to Beard winners Ryan Prewitt of New Orleans’ Peche; Hugh Acheson of Athens, GA’s Five And Ten; Bruce Sherman of Chicago’s North Pond and Michael Anthony of Gramercy Tavern about how to ace the trickiest dish of all: school lunches. The chefs have 9 kids between them, so listen and learn. When you’re done, we found 3 cool lunch boxes to contain your new culinary genius (or just a hippo-shaped peanut butter sandwich).

What are the staples of your kids’ school lunches – stuff they get more than anything else, or their favorites?

Have the kids participate in the menu planning, plan ahead, pack the night before and don’t forget it when you’re running out the door.

Hugh Acheson: It depends on the day; it could be anything. A piece of cheese with ham and crackers and a simple salad is a classic. Noodle salads are big. In the winter, soups. They’re prone to loving their own salads. When Beatrice was 6, I heard a racket in the kitchen and found her making a vinaigrette to take to school, all by herself. She knew the 3-1 ratio.

Bruce Sherman: We just tried to give them the food groups. There’d be some sort of animal protein, a fruit, a vegetable, maybe some chips or a confection if it was a special day. Did they want something in particular every day? Probably a Nutella sandwich.

Michael Anthony: Ham, mortadella sandwiches, tomatoes, dried fruits, raw veggies are all staples.

What is your prep technique: do you make a big batch and dole it out through the week, do it the night before, or scramble in the mornings?

Prewitt: I usually cook on Sunday, and make enough food for weeknight meals through Wednesday. My wife has a number of dishes she makes to finish out the week. Recently, she has been making a cornbread that is loaded with grated squash and zucchini. That’s her way of sneaking vegetables into our kids.

Acheson: We do it pretty much daily. Sometimes we use leftovers from the night before, but we try to make sure it’s fresh, so usually it’s mornings.

Sherman: We were definitely in the third group. Every morning it was, “What do we have today?”

Anthony: Always the night before.

What about presentation – any animal-shaped sandwiches or that sort of thing, or do you keep it simple?

“I am not above a hippo-shaped peanut butter sandwich.”

Prewitt: I am not above a hippo-shaped peanut butter sandwich. We currently have hippos, stars, circles and a few other random shapes. Style counts.

Acheson: My kids don’t require that, which is good. I like to present food as food to the younger generation, not as animals.

Sherman: I might have done something creative with it, but not for presentation purposes – just to make it more appetizing instead of just throwing it in a bag. I wasn’t expecting anyone to Instagram it.

Anthony: Keep it simple! The last time I served an animal shape was in the dining room of the restaurant at which I worked, and the kids screamed because it looked like a mouse.

Is there anything about your kids’ school lunches that you can only pull off because of your chef background and, if so, what?

“They’ve taken mangos and star fruit, but that’s not so eccentric. I’m not packing durian.”

Prewitt: Not really at this point, since they are so young. I try to keep Sunday dinner pretty straightforward, so my wife can easily reheat it or make something simple with it. Smoked or grilled chicken is a staple. Occasionally, we get fancy and make Vietnamese food.

Acheson: No, I mean, it’s lunch. It’s a simple sandwich – a good sandwich, but I don’t think chefs should prepare food for kid’s lunches like they prepare foods in their restaurants. I’ll send my kids with some brie or prosciutto, but they do that in France and Italy, too. They’ve taken mangos and star fruit, but that’s not so eccentric. I’m not packing durian.

Sherman: Maybe leftovers from the night before, but we don’t cook that intricately at home. Maybe some proscuitto or cheese that someone else wouldn’t have access to, but I wasn’t making canapés. Kids won’t eat that shit.

Anthony: Homemade mortadella and ham – other than that, I keep it fairly straightforward.

What advice would you give a father who’s about to begin packing school lunches for the first time?

Prewitt: Keep it simple and modular. A roast chicken can easily become a nice pasta or a casserole. Hamburgers can easily become a nice meat sauce.

Acheson: Realize that it’s going to take time out of your day, but to make them good humans you have to feed them well. I don’t think we can trust our school cafeterias to do that just yet. We’re making strides in that direction, but it’s an inconvenience to make them healthier. We have the means and the skills to pack a healthy lunch – everyone can do it.

Sherman: Think about what the kid is going to eat, not what you want them to eat. Don’t get fancy because you think it’s cool or creative, because they couldn’t care less. They want something familiar.

Anthony: Have the kids participate in the menu planning, plan ahead, pack the night before and don’t forget it when you’re running out the door.

And A Lunch Box To Put It In

These 3 lunch boxes will ensure everyone’s looking at your kids when they discover the amazing meal you prepared for them.

Oots Lunchbox ($49.50)

You could get your kid a Transformers lunchbox, or a lunchbox that actually transforms. The Omie has a removable heat/cold-retaining middle unit and dividers so you can configure it based on the meal, without needing multiple tupperware containers to separate things.


Block Bento, $30.80

Looks like a LEGO, stacks like a LEGO and holds lunch like a 2-tiered bento box, with leak-resistant lids for each level. Get one now, before LEGO notices and slaps them with a cease-and-desist for trademark infringement.


Oots Lunchbox, $35

A modernized, kid-ified lunch pail with 1 sandwich-sized container and 4 smaller, stackable containers, plus a strap that doubles as a water bottle holder. Get your kid a tiny hard hat and smear some coal dust on their cheeks to complete the look.