The secret to making homemade lunches for your kids day in and day out? Stop trying to be perfect and just strive to have something fresh, says Holly Smith, chef at Kirkland's Cafe Juanita and mom to Oliver, almost 10.
She rallies each morning after a long night of cooking to cobble together four to six different options in different containers: maybe kale salad with apples, tuna salad with rice crackers, a thermos of soup, pickles, a sandwich, pasta, all in the time it takes for her tea water to boil.
She's not Supermom, she says, just determined to encourage Oliver's adventurous palate and nourish his mind and body. And she's willing to improvise on the menu.
"There's been times over the years when he's had off-the-chart lunches (leftover king crab comes to mind). There's been times when he's had random bits around the house," Smith says. "But they're always healthy and they're always diverse."
Bobby Moore, executive chef at Willows Lodge in Woodinville, and his wife Michelle prep the night before, keeping lunch for sons Mason, 12, and Lucas, 10, nutrient-rich to help fuel their studies. Greatest hits include meatball sandwiches, homemade chili, steak and veggie burritos, and Nutella-banana sandwiches on special occasions. They'll tuck in veggies with hummus or ranch dip, swap roasted seaweed for chips, or add the boys' beloved wasabi almonds, which turn out to be a hot commodity for lunchroom trading.
"Kids are more adventurous than you might think," says Michelle Moore. "Browse the Whole Foods aisles and Trader Joe's aisles for inspiration and don't be afraid to make mistakes. They'll let you know if they don't like something!"
Buy fruit and other produce in season when it's ripe and at its best, she says. Make sure the protein dish shines, since that's what will keep them going and learning all day long. And remember: Amazon Fresh delivers in the wee hours if you realized the night before that your fridge and pantry are empty.
Smith suggests introducing a new item (say, salad) by including elements your child already enjoys (she packed crisp hearts of romaine, crumbly bacon, juicy tomatoes, and blue cheese). Above all, try not to let your own hang-ups dissuade your kids from trying foods that are new to them. Picky eaters exist, she says, but many kids simply mimic their parents' dislikes and fears.
"I didn't eat anchovies out of the tin at 9 years old. But mine does," Smith said.