Cooking instructors dish up advice for school lunches

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      With high school resuming this fall, whether it’s in person or online or some combination of both, teens everywhere are wondering: what am I going to do for lunches? Actually, they’re probably not.

      But it’s a question worth contemplating before the bell first rings. You want to be ready with ideas for meals that fuel and please, don’t take much time to prepare, travel well in backpacks, and are more creative than peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches.

      Vancouver chef David Robertson, cofounder of the Dirty Apron Cooking School, notes that step one is having teens make their own lunches.

      “I’ve always been a big believer that kids will eat exactly what adults do if they’re part of the process,” Robertson says by phone. “If your kid is 15 and isn’t making their own lunch, there’s something wrong. You’re teaching them no life skills whatsoever.”

      In a casual poll he took recently of teenagers in his family’s bubble, he found that most popular lunch request, hands-down, is a time-tested one: mac and cheese.

      His two daughters take hot food for lunch three days a week. Dinner leftovers always make for a tasty, wholesome meal; butter chicken is a family favourite.

      “My wife and I have always stayed away from processed foods, things like the bologna-and-cheese sandwich,” says Robertson, who’s also a cookbook author. “I’ll do braised meat in a crock pot, or stews, with a piece of bread. I’m happy with that, and they’re eating something they like.”

      An option that works well for picky eaters is anything “deconstructed”: think of hard and soft tortillas with ground beef, sliced tomatoes, and lettuce on the side that kids can put together themselves when it’s time to eat.

      You could think along the lines of a restaurant buffet or continental breakfast: pack a hard-boiled egg, sliced cheddar, and a scone or English muffin.

      Or make it a teen’s version of a cheese and charcuterie board. “DIY ‘lunchables’ are a popular with teens,” says Ben Kiely, lead culinary chef-instructor at Pacific Institute of Culinary Arts.

      “In my household we like to make pickled vegetables; buy local cheeses whenever possible and sliced meats from a good deli like salami, cured hams, and roasted meats; and add sliced fruits or small bunches of grapes along with some crackers. It’s not too heavy and the kids get to enjoy a nice selection of flavours.

      “Being a dad of two, I know the frustration of kids coming home with not having eaten their lunches,” Kiely says. “I also know kids and teens love to trade their lunches, especially when they have delicious snacks.”

      Photo by Kevin Clark

      With plant-based foods becoming more popular among many teens, Kiely says it’s common to see items like pasta made with cashew or macadamia cheese. Cold pasta salads are another easy idea.

      “I like to use a pasta like penne or rotini or even orzo ,as it holds the sauce well when cold,” Kiely says. I find mixing in pesto—homemade or store-bought—is simple and delicious. I like to add feta cheese and lots of tomatoes, peppers, and arugula or basil. If your child is picky, you can just use the cold pasta as a base and add flavours they like.

      “Stuffed peppers with quinoa, cashew-based cheese, and caramelized onions are also treat that’s popular and different,” he adds. “You can also try zucchini boats and mix up the grains and veggies combination.”

      Other ideas? Stuffed pizza buns are a good way to go since regular slices can be messy and tricky to transport. Mini foods like croissants or bagels that you can make sweet (with jam or fruit) or savoury (with tomato sauce, cheese, and favourite toppings) are easy-peasy.

      “Teenagers love to snack,” Kiely adds. “Homemade granola is healthy and easy to make. You can add lots of interesting flavours like coconut and dried mango to add variety and keep it interesting for your teens.”

      Pack it with some Greek yogurt for protein and fresh fruit.