Getting out the door on a busy morning is hard enough, and making a lunch your kids will like can be near impossible. But if you’re a professional chef, the bar is set a bit higher for your kids’ lunches. After all, your job is to feed people good food… your kids included.
When it comes to kid lunches, it can be hard for chef-parents to curb their fine-tuned culinary skills to satisfy picky palates, not to mention fitting it all into themed lunch boxes and thermoses.
We asked real chefs across the country what they pack their kids for lunch. Step away from the Pinterest boards, and get ready to be inspired.
Chef Leonard Delgado, of Lawry’s The Prime Rib in Chicago, keeps things a bit old school and even packs lunch the night before to save time in the morning. “My go-to packed lunch is a sandwich on multigrain bread with a lean protein – typically chicken or turkey,” he says. “I cut up fresh vegetables and fresh fruit as sides, and an organic juice box to wash it all down. It’s easy to prepare the night before, too as mornings can be chaotic.”
We bet Federico Fernandez, executive pastry chef of Vinoteca inside the Four Seasons Hotel Los Angeles, gets requests to pack dessert for lunch. However, he likes to keep it savory and turns to one of Argentina’s lunchtime staples: empanadas. “In Argentina, there are empanada shops almost on every corner; you can also find empanada dough in markets, ready to be filled,” he says. “Los Angeles does not have very many choices for empanadas, though, so my wife, my son and I pick a day of the week and we make empanadas from scratch. This is my son's favorite lunch for school.”
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Guy Fieri, Food Network star and author of the new Guy Fieri Family Food, likes to make it kid’s choice: “We just started a new system at our house where Ryder has to pack his own lunch (along with his other chores to earn rewards). His favorite lunch to pack is salami and Ritz crackers, strawberries, a yogurt and some sort of treat like a Rice Krispy treat,” he says. “Now that he is in fifth grade, he also has to make his own breakfast, today it was French toast: cinnamon bread, egg, milk, cinnamon, vanilla extract and a touch of nutmeg. He crushed it!”
Chef Todd Kelly, of Orchids at Palm Court in Cincinnati, knows his kids love to snack, so he creates a lunchbox filled with easy-to-eat foods such as homemade corn chips with smoked paprika and salt; crisp seaweed snacks; saag paneer with yogurt and crisp naan to dip; and cold noodle dishes like pad Thai and lo mein. “Megan, my youngest, eats simple vegetarian sushi and Madeline, my oldest, likes anything— but spicy tuna in particular,” he says. “Soybeans are popular as well, and we eat a lot of ethnic foods, too.”
Top Chef alumna and James Beard nominated Kelly Liken, who helmed Harvest by Kelly Liken in Edwards, Colorado, has a 2-year-old daughter, Lucy, who just started school. Liken likes to pack lunches for Lucy that are simple but also filled with healthy items that don’t contain too much sugar (in an effort to avoid an afterschool crash). She usually packs “half a turkey sandwich on seedy bread accompanied by homemade trail mix (packed with lots of seeds, nuts, and raisins), berries, apples and peanut butter, string cheese, and cold edamame,” she says.
Chef Aaron McKay, of Mercat a la Planxa in Chicago, packs his 7-year-old daughter, Vera, her favorite foods in her lunchbox. “One of my daughter’s favorite lunches to have at school is fried rice,” he says. “Because everything is cooked so quickly, the vegetables have to be cut very small, and this actually makes it really easy to sneak lots of veggies into her lunch. … It’s an easy, one-dish lunch that incorporates grain, protein, and vegetables; and I usually send a piece of fruit to complete the meal.”
James Beard Award-winning chef Tory Miller, of L’Etoile, Graze, Sujeo, and Estrellón in Madison, Wisconsin, packs two lunches in the mornings for both his young sons. His goal, he says, is to “get a balance of deliciousness and nutrition with a few different things we know they will like.” Some of his go-to meals include meatball sliders on pretzel buns; couscous with dried fruit; pasta salad; and ham and cheese sandwiches with pickles.
Mike Monzon, head chef at the upscale teppanyaki restaurant ROKU in West Hollywood, plans on keeping family traditions alive when it comes to packing lunch: “My son, Ezra, doesn’t start school until next year, but I plan to do for him what my dad did for me. He had the calendar for what they would serve in the cafeteria at school every day of the week, and he would make me the same thing at home, but a better version,” he says. “For example, if it was tacos on Tuesday and hamburgers on Thursday, my dad would make his own version of tacos and hamburgers. Friday was always pizza day and everyone would get these greasy slices, but my dad made me these awesome pizza pockets! I can’t wait to do the same thing for my son.”
Chef Marco Niccoli, executive chef for Traeger Grills, wants to make sure he keeps it fun with a variety of foods for his kids. “A typical day consists of a turkey sandwich with a mayo-mustard spread, cheese, roasted sliced turkey, and lettuce. In a mini compartment, we typically do raw vegetables; the kids' favorites being bell peppers, cucumbers, cherry tomatoes, snap peas or carrots; and sometimes we’ll add dips like guacamole or hummus,” he says. “For our second grader a container of brie cheese, baguette or pretzels is her favorite. Our first grader likes something crunchy like veggie straws, snaps, or crackers. We always incorporate a fruit, whatever is seasonal, and they love all varieties so that's easy. And lastly, we always pack a napkin with a note written on it from Mom and sometimes a special treat.”
Jason Paskewitz, chef/owner of The Blanchard in Chicago, looks to last night’s dinner for the next day’s lunch inspiration. “Whenever I make homemade meatballs, I pack my son, Jack, a huge meatball hero for lunch the next day with the leftovers. I’m from Queens, so classic Italian-American dishes like meatballs and hero sandwiches are especially close to my—and now my kids’—hearts,” he says.
Things are slightly more complicated for chef Cardel Reid of The Signature Room in Chicago:
“My son actually goes to a school that is vegan,” he says. “While he doesn’t follow a vegan diet outside of school, it serves as a great motivator for our whole family to make healthier choices. I’ll typically make him a quinoa or lentil ragout with fresh, seasonal vegetables.”
Adam Schop, executive chef at Miss Lily's — the Caribbean hotspot with two locations in downtown Manhattan, has two little boys at home. The biggest lunchbox hit: last night's pizza! Otherwise, Schop packs up homemade ham sandwiches on Martin's Potato Bread along with a pint of cherry tomatoes, applesauce, and a granola bar.
Elise Strachan, social media mogul and author of the coming cookbook Sweet! Celebrations, wants her son Oliver’s lunches to be fun. “As a rule, I pack a fairly healthy lunch with a sandwich or wrap, juice box, two pieces of fruit, a yogurt and occasionally some pretzels or crisps,” she says. “On Fridays, though I add 'something special' but he's never allowed to see it beforehand—it's always a surprise and I aim to never double up, even if that just means changing the packaging a little. “
Christy Vega, of Casa Vega in Sherman Oaks, California, likes to fill her kid’s Bento Box to the brim for lunch. She packs organic seedless watermelon wedges, whole-wheat bread with nitrate-free turkey slices and muenster cheese sandwich triangles, Trader Joe's brand chocolate cookies, and cheese puffs, she says. Also making a frequent appearance are “black bean and cheese burritos with homemade organic corn chips, fresh pico de gallo, and sour cream.”
Danielle Walker is the author of the new cookbook, Against All Grain Celebrations, created from her blog, Against All Grain. She makes sure not to waste a thing when it comes to packing lunch and is sure to document it all, too. “[My son] helps me decide what goes in his lunch so he is more excited about eating it,” she says. “I always pack him a protein, such as leftover roasted chicken or leftover meatballs, and then give him a variety of fruits and veggies. You can see his lunches on my Instagram using #AAGLunches.”
Top Chef alumna Brooke Williamson, of Playa del Rey’s Playa Provisions, has a few go-to lunches for her 9-year-old son, Hudson: “Soba cold noodle salad with chicken, edamame, and soy vinaigrette; he loves Asian flavors (he takes after his mom!) and this gives him a well-balanced lunch filled with protein and whole grains,” she says. When Asian is not on the menu, Williamson likes to make prosciutto, cream cheese, and cucumber sandwiches, as “these are some of his favorite snacking foods.”