The sound of a school bell ringing evokes a slew of emotions - eagerness, nervousness, despair or pure, unadulterated joy for parents eager to evict children from the Chateau Homestead summertime resort. That same sound brings students great happiness when signaling the arrival of most kids' favorite subject … lunch.
All parents want to provide lunches that are tasty and nourishing, yet that seemingly simple goal is often quite challenging. Elementary school students have very limited palettes and fear the unknown. Middle schoolers think it's uncool to bring lunch from home. And all teenagers want is to leave campus (preferably in their own car) in search of sacrilegious junk food. Appeasing this diverse demographic is no easy task.
Fortunately, three local chefs are dishing up advice on doing the right thing when packing school lunches. Get those pencils and notebooks ready. It's time to dive into their lunchtime lesson plans.
'Weird' won't work
As with anything involving kids, it's good to begin by remembering what it was like to walk a mile in their shoes (uphill both ways in the snow). Such reminiscing conjures memories of how important others' opinions are to the young.
"Kids want to fit in with everyone else," said Michele Coulon of Michele Coulon Dessertier. This rule applies as much with food as it does fashion, slang and musical tastes. Instead of giving in to the latest fad, Coulon advises, "If kids ask for something in their lunch that 'everybody else' has and you know is bad for them, try to make it in a healthier but similar way."
Coulon also advises parents to explain why certain foods are good or bad for them, a practice Augie Saucedo, chef de cuisine at The Shores Restaurant, agrees with whole-heartedly.
Saucedo has had "the talk" with all of his kids, a ritual where he discusses the importance of quality, freshness and healthfulness in the foods we consume. They have all developed an affinity for fruits, vegetables and other wholesome staples, but it took a great deal of effort on both his and his wife's parts.
"You have to be consistent," Saucedo said. "You have to make an effort to make kids good lunches every day instead of just opting to give them money, because as kids get older, bringing lunch isn't cool anymore and you want them to have that foundation."
Coulon agrees, but sees the need for some leniency. "Let them have some sugar. My parents didn't let us have any sugar, and look what I do for a living!" Even this devout pastry chef concedes that dessert doesn't always have to be sugary and suggests fruits and yogurt in place of cookies, cakes and the other usual suspects.
Mix it up a bit
Variety is important for all facets of lunch. Jason Knibb, executive chef at NINE-TEN, warns parents not to get in a rut. "Don't give them the same thing every day. Find out what they like and figure out creative and different ways of using that ingredient."
When asked for good places to get the finest ingredients, Knibb names Whole Foods, Trader Joe's, Chino Farms and local farmers markets. "My son loves going with me to farmers markets around town. They provide great opportunities for introducing children to fun, new and healthy foods. There are a lot of colors and new, interesting things to see."
Saucedo cites buying produce that's in season as a way to ensure maximum flavor and notes that salads made utilizing items at the peak of freshness are the best thing a parent can give their children.
"We got a lunch box with an ice pack on the bottom, so it keeps the lettuce and vegetables cool and crisp. Then I put the salad dressing in a separate container so it doesn't wilt the salad," said Saucedo, who opts for vinaigrettes that hold up to the elements.
Ask kids to help
The chefs' final tip is having kids help get their lunch together. "Make children a part of the cooking process - grating, chopping, filling cake pans with batter," suggests Coulon, who employed this method with her son, Nathan, who grew up to become executive chef at The Ivy Hotel's Quarter Kitchen. "Just be aware that you might end up with a professional chef in the family."
Mealtime bliss and a head start at a prosperous career - never underestimate the power of a good lunch!
Brandon Hernández has been featured numerous times on The Food Network program "Emeril Live" and is author of the cookbook "The Restaurant At Home." He can be followed at twitter.com/offdutyfoodie, friended at facebook.com/offdutyfoodie or reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. © 2009 Brandon Hernández