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.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.”
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.
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).
Kids are stronger than they look sometimes. Harness that power for your potatoes.
OXO Good Grips masher, $15, bedbathandbeyond.caPhoto: Erik Putz
A deep plastic mixing bowl with a handle and non-slip silicone bottom is key for ensuring ingredients stay contained.
Kids’ Cookie Baking Set (also includes stackable measuring cups, scraper, spatula, cookie cutters and recipe cards), $80, pamperedchef.caPhoto: Erik Putz
This curvy citrus zester fits in the palm of a small hand and captures the goods inside the clip-on chamber. While your kid grates, talk about the colours and smells of lemons, limes and oranges, and how zest adds flavour to foods.
Flexi Zesti citrus grater, $13, kitchenschoice.comPhoto: Erik Putz
Because vegetables need cleaning (and kids will probably do a better job than they do on their own feet).
Joie Mushroom Brush and Vegetable Scrubber, $3, amazon.caPhoto: Erik Putz
Reinforce fractions and talk through the difference between baking soda and baking powder with this colourful five-piece set.
Joie measuring spoons, $3, well.caPhoto: Erik Putz
Whether you’re making salad dressing, pancake batter or scrambled eggs—a whisk is better than a spoon or spatula for moving ingredients around and keeps them from flying everywhere.
Red 8-in. silicone whisk, $12, crateandbarrel.comPhoto: Erik Putz
Place a silicone trivet under the bowl or plate your kid is working with to keep it from slipping and sliding.
Joie rainbow trivet, $9, well.caPhoto: Erik Putz
With a little help, kids can slice vegetables and even hard-boiled eggs into six segments with this clever gadget. It’s the perfect tool to speed lunch prep along.
Veggie Wedgie, $19, bedbathandbeyond.caPhoto: Erik Putz
French kids eat everything—and maybe they cook everything, too. Trust a classic French knife maker to put a blade in every child’s hand. Stainless steel and round-tipped, the 10-inch blade is perfect for teaching cutting and slicing, while the red plastic finger guard protects the hand holding the food to be cut, at the same time teaching kids the proper “claw” position.
opinel le petit chef knife, finger guard and peeler (next slide) set, $74, amazon.caPhoto: Erik Putz
The learning ring (your kid slips their finger in there) ensures the proper holding and pulling technique crucial for perfectly peeled carrot sticks.Photo: Erik Putz
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:
Written by Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs, Ten Speed Press. “The biggest obstacle to eating well isn’t the cooking, it’s the organizing.” The book is segmented by seasons, with four weekly meal plans per season (two from each author). That’s five dinners a week, plus brown bag ideas for the leftovers, game plans (what to tackle when) and grocery lists. People who have read this book claim it’s changed the way they cook. $41, indigo.ca
Written by Deb Perelman, Penguin Random House. The recipes are destined to become standards: kale Caesar with broken eggs and crushed croutons, dal-style red lentil soup, tomato and gigante bean bake (a cheesy, family-style pasta dish without actual pasta—Perelman swears the beans make like noodles), sheet pan chicken with cauliflower, and “bake sale winning-est” gooey oat bars. $40, indigo.ca
Written by Melissa Clark, Clarkson Potter. All 200 recipes in this book are for dinner—one pot or one pan, a single main dish with a creative twist. Though Clark develops recipes for the New York Times and is a veteran cookbook author, she’s kept it doable—minimal ingredients go for big flavour, and every category is covered off, including meat, eggs, pasta and noodles, tofu, beans, legumes and vegetables, grains, pizzas, soups and salads, plus all the sides, too, if you’re feeling ambitious. $47, indigo.ca
Written by Samin Nosrat, Simon + Schuster. “Anyone can cook anything and make it delicious.” There’s no way this joyful book won’t help you feel excited about getting in the kitchen. The gorgeous illustrations plot things out so simply: matching the right dressing to salad; 10 simple, smooth soups; a chart of perfect grain-to-water ratios; the cooking stages of a boiled egg up to 15 minutes; and a sauce for literally everything. $47, indigo.ca
Written by Ceri Marsh + Laura Keogh, Appetite by Random House. The chapter on “transformers”—three large-portion proteins, with three ways to use each one. Because cooking once for multiple meals? We’re into it. Plus, all dinner recipes in the book are designed to make six servings instead of the usual four—so leftovers are almost guaranteed. $30, indigo.ca
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
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