How the pros feed their kids: 27 genius tips

Stress less in the kitchen, pack lunches like a boss and pull off dinner like it ain’t no thing.

Photo: iStockphoto

We assembled a bunch of food brains—cookbook authors and recipe developers, a food journalist and a chef—who also happen to be regular parents who pack lunches and do the dinner hustle every damn day. We’ll totally have what they’re having.

illustrated versions of people

Illustrations: Justine Wong

1. Embrace the bento
“I love bento boxes,” Marsh says. “Visually, they help you hit those food groups and give you a bit of a template to follow. Plus, they protect the lunch, so things don’t get squished or mixed together too much—seriously, how did we used to do it with paper bags? If the containers or dividers swap in and out, you can adjust to different eaters—use the bigger compartment if you have one kid that wants a sandwich or a bunch of smaller ones if you have a grazer.” They’re also easy to wash and make most schools’ litterless lunch standards easy to follow.

2. Or…think outside the bento
“Bento boxes are Instagram propaganda at its worst! Sometimes we sleep in, and I put two lunches together in two minutes: a package of seaweed, an organic fruit pouch and a granola bar.” —Bowers

3. Never peel just one carrot
Always prep a handful of carrot sticks at once, then store in a container of water in the fridge—instant snack. Same goes when you’re roasting a tray of vegetables. “If I have cauliflower, I cook the whole head, because then I can use the pieces of cooked cauliflower to assemble other things tomorrow and the next day,” says Elton. “And then you don’t end up with bits of uncooked produce going bad in your fridge.”

4. Find something you can let go of
“I would prefer not to buy cookies in a box. But we buy cookies in a box,” Elton says. “I would rather they not take a dessert in their lunch every day, but they do. That’s me trying to just go with the flow.”

5. Keep your chill with frozen vegetables
“My No. 1 goal is that my kids take vegetables in their lunch. I’ve tried dips and all sorts of things, but they don’t like them raw and cut up. I know other kids love them,” Elton says. “So I keep different frozen vegetables on hand, and I will often send the kids off with a hot meal in a Thermos, like rice and tofu, or leftover chicken and mashed potatoes, and I’ll add some frozen vegetables in there.”

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90 adorable lunch bags and accessories

6. Learn to deal with an untouched lunch
“You want to look at why it happens. You don’t want to be accusatory, threatening or angry about it—which is hard to do at the end of a long day,” Saxena says. Here’s her strategy.

  • Pick your moment Try to avoid having the conversation after school, when you and your kid are tired.
  • Be curious Try asking: “Hey, I notice you’re not taking too many bites of your lunch. Do you want to tell me why?” It could be that the lunchroom is too overwhelming for littles—sensory overload can shut down a kid’s appetite—or even because of peer pressure, which kicks in around six years old, when kids start noticing what everyone else gets in their lunch.
  • Plan together Use this opportunity to ask your child what they would like in their lunch, and then shop and assemble it together.
  • Level up “If it’s a consistent pattern, it’s not improving and you can’t get answers from your child, I would speak to the teacher or lunchroom supervisor to find out if there’s anything else going on. It may not be because they don’t like what’s been packed—it could be any number of things. Many parents assume it’s about the food.”

7. Let them help
We get it—bringing the kids into the kitchen often means tasks take longer and make a bigger mess. But there are advantages, too. Giving them simple jobs builds their confidence and independence, increases their food knowledge, and makes them more likely to try new things and eat what you dish out. Instead of buying miniature versions of the kitchen tools you may already own, teach them to use the easiest gadgets in the drawer (with your supervision, of course).

Mash

8. Your kid wants the same lunch every day: OK or not?
Yes: “Every fall I hear people talk about how to keep lunch interesting and see images of intricately organized bento boxes and other fancy lunches, but in my experience, kids don’t want that. There’s some comfort in having the same thing—and if they’re happy with a pea butter sandwich and a banana every day, there’s nothing wrong with that. Bonus: It makes things easier for the lunch packer!” —Van Rosendaal

No: “We all go through phases like this—and it’s actually a pretty normal part of feeding a child. You get into these little grooves where you love a certain food and it’s all you want. You can certainly offer the foods they love regularly, but the key is providing variety. If your kid wants a cheese sandwich every day, schedule it three times a week and then alternate with other foods—even if they don’t touch them at first. It will be frustrating, but it doesn’t mean you should start sending only things that get eaten, because then you get into a bad pattern.” —Saxena

9. Don’t be a martyr—have someone else make dinner
“Don’t allow yourself to be the person who does it all. What would reduce your stress the most? For me, if I’m batch-cooking on Sunday, I’m not making dinner that night.” —Marsh

10. Stop the packaged food shame (but make good choices!)
“There’s no way you’re going to be parenting and not using processed foods,” Saxena says. “It’s not all or nothing. You don’t want to teach your kid that there are good and bad foods. Whole-grain crackers don’t grow on trees, but they’re an essential part of a lunch. Are you a cheesemaker? Cheese is processed, too, and you want to be able to include that in your kid’s lunch. We don’t want to vilify foods that haven’t been plucked from the earth. But be mindful of the processed foods you do choose, and go for high quality: those that have little or no added sugar or salt, are low in additives and colours, and rich in whole grains.” —Saxena

11. Three out of four, get them out the door
For a complete kid’s lunch, Marsh makes sure to hit at least three of the four food groups. “Some kind of fruit or veg, a dairy or alternative, a protein and some kind of grain. It can be challenging, but I think that covers the bases and pushes you to offer variety.”

12. Nutrition can be magical
“I call hemp seeds ‘fairy seeds.’ My daughter is obsessed. They’re a very neutral food: nutty, not off-putting. I sprinkle them on oatmeal and hummus.” —Bowers

13. Get on top of your gear
Take a few minutes before the school year starts to pull open your container drawer and make sure you have everything you need. “If you don’t have the right containers, it can really hold you back from packing something,” Marsh says. And get your JK-bound kid to practise, practise, practise opening and closing and zipping and unzipping. The worst is leftovers exploded in a lunch bag (bonus points if yours is washable, though).

14. Size matters—keep containers small
“Some kids won’t respond well to opening a large container with a large portion of food—that can be very anxiety-producing and turn their appetite right off,” says Saxena. “Look for small cube, rectangle and oval shaped containers. They’re less intimidating, and the portions you’ll offer will be more appropriate.” Bento boxes aren’t the only game in town, though—Van Rosendaal suggests looking at craft or dollar stores for small fishing tackle or craft boxes with a bunch of small compartments, which also work well for snacky lunches.

15. Stock your flavour pantry
Keep full-fat plain yogurt, different oils, lemons and plenty of sauces—pesto, tomato sauce, soy sauce, salsa—on hand to allow you to add flavour quickly, Saxena says. That way you can easily boost a rotisserie chicken, or a pot of rice or pasta with just a handful of ingredients.

16. Got leftover veg? Make a cake
Bowers is a master at remaking leftovers for lunch. “Grilled sweet potatoes for dinner become veggie cakes. I mash the potatoes into a paste, sometimes add in more veg (like chopped broccoli), and then I bread it and pan-fry it. It keeps well, and kids love it.”

17. Know that meal planning will change your life
Why, at around the same time in the afternoon every damn day, does it always kind of come as a shock that food needs to be made so the kids can be fed? The answer to this relentless slog isn’t sexy, but it’s super simple: Make a weekly meal plan. Need more reasons beyond eliminating the 4 p.m. panic? Read more about how to meal plan like a pro here.

18. Think of food prep as a life skill
“Many parents are adamant about swimming lessons; I’m not sure why we wouldn’t be as adamant about ensuring kids know where food comes from and how to put it into their bodies,” Saxena says. “Pull up a stool—even the young kids can join you. They can take the carrots you’ve cut and put them into containers and snap the lids on. Maybe they can portion out food from a large container into smaller ones. It’s a crucial part of eating as a family, and it’s absolutely a parental responsibility to have your children involved in preparing food, because when they leave you, they need to know how to do it for themselves.”

Tip: Rolling dough, sprinkling (and sampling) cheese, placing pepperoni—all jobs kids can do happily. Put them to work on Calzones with Turkey Kielbasa.

19. Don’t get hung up on protein
“There’s a bit of an over-focus on protein with young kids. We don’t have any evidence that children are not getting their protein needs met, vegetarian kids included. In fact, they don’t need a lot,” Saxena says. “The beauty is that there’s protein in almost all foods (except fruits and vegetables, and pure fat)—not just the obvious ones. In a day, when you total it up, they’re actually getting it from many difference sources.”

Protein foods we like:
* whole grains (spelt, rye, oats, whole wheat, quinoa, etc.)
* fish
* dairy products
* eggs
* legumes and beans
* tofu
* nuts and seeds

20. If you have eggs, you have options
“When I don’t want to cook much, it’s always eggs. They’re so flexible; they’re easy, healthy and cheap. If you have a dozen eggs in the fridge, you have a meal. Some nights, it’s scrambled eggs and toast, and that’s OK.” —Marsh

21. Don’t be an ass(umer)
“The biggest mistake a parent can make is assuming their kid won’t eat something and then not including it in the lunch box. Continue offering foods—even in very small amounts. We know this technique is one of the major factors that, over time, will impact how well and how much a child will eat.” —Saxena

22. Never wash another lunch container
A good first step in lunch responsibility: “My kids take their lunch containers out of their bags and wash them at the end of the day. I really don’t want to do it. It’s so good when it works, but they sometimes forget—and I forget to nag them!” —Elton

23. Find your Bible
It’s like cookbook authors know we’ve become hack-obsessed Pinterest prophets, and they’ve stepped up their game in a major way. Here are some of our favourites:

Food52 A New Way to Dinner: A Playbook of Recipes and Strategies for the Week Ahead

24. Take shortcuts
For Marsh, it’s a rotisserie chicken: “You can chop it up into a quick salad or throw it into pasta, a frittata or a sandwich. And you’ll almost certainly have leftovers for lunch the next day.” Since one of Elton’s daughters has celiac disease, pre-roasted chicken isn’t a safe go-to, as the spice mix might contain gluten. For her, tomato paste is where it’s at. “If you have tomato paste in a tube, you can make a pizza with any kind of bread and a grating of cheese. I also consider tofu a fast food—I slice a big block of firm tofu into three steaks and fry it up.”

25. Bake on the weekend
“One good way kids can help: Making snacks and treats that will go into their lunches. I make cookies and chocolate chip banana bread, and then wrap and freeze individual cookies or slices to toss into lunches. It’s pretty simple—and since a batch makes a dozen or so, the stash lasts awhile.” —Van Rosendaal

26. Redefine dinner
“Who says dinner has to be something so complete?” The other day, I sautéed frozen beans in a pan with tomato paste and spices, and had it with leftover boiled potatoes. It was ready in five minutes. And tonight, we’re having a bunch of different vegetables from the farmers’ market, with nice bread and a piece of cheese. Why can’t that be dinner? Take it down a notch. You don’t have to produce every night.” —Elton

27. Don’t be a newb
“Parents work themselves up too much about offering six different items for lunch. I’m not going to fret over sending a million things. That’s a totally rookie mistake. I get it: When lunch comes back untouched, it’s a big learning curve—what the eff is this? What is happening? So, I started cutting down. Sometimes I just send three things in my kid’s lunch: hummus, crackers and an apple.” —Bowers

Read more:
31 days of school lunch recipes
14 peanut-free snacks

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