What do chefs put in their children's lunchboxes?

What do chefs put in their kids' lunchbox?
What do chefs put in their kids' lunchbox? Photo: Lisa Guy

If you want to feed your children like chefs do, here's the good news. 

1. It's relatively easy to cook like a hatted chef. (Honest! No sous-vide machine or Pacojet needed). 

2. You can just get away with giving them leftovers.  

3. There are ways to feed your kids vegetables that they'll actually enjoy.  

Brent Savage, twice named Chef of the Year in The Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide, may run acclaimed restaurants such as Bentley, Cirrus and Yellow, but he keeps things simple – and healthy – when packing lunchboxes for daughters Amika, 3, and Orielle, 5, who are in pre-school. He includes wholefoods (such as raw carrot, celery, cucumber), along with basic sandwiches or salads. "Normally, we add a treat like sweet biscuits," he says. "I think it's important to give a variety of foods as kids get bored quickly."

Chef Brent Savage at home.

Chef Brent Savage at home. Photo: Sahlan Hayes

Mixing it up means that healthy food isn't seen as a punishment that children try to avoid. In fact, salad is a lunchbox favourite in the Savage family.

"The girls really love chickpea salad, which I make with fresh baby tomatoes, avocado, red peppers and dressed with olive oil and a simple vinaigrette," he says.

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Variety and nutrition – plus flavour, of course – rule the approach taken by Mike McEnearney (of Sydney's Kitchen By Mike, No. 1 Bent St) and his wife Joss when organising meals for their children: William, 7; Alfie, 12, and George, 14. 

"We always include different fruit each day as well as some cut-up vegetable crudites and some sort of homemade cookie or brownie for their recess," he says. "For their lunch, we quite often make sushi rolls, or a grain or pasta salad."

Chef Mike McEnearney.

Chef Mike McEnearney. Photo: Christopher Pearce

Like the Savages, salad is surprisingly a hit with the children. 

"The boys really like quinoa salad; it works very well as the grain holds any dressing or juice from vegetables. We find it best to always cook the quinoa the evening before and cut all of the vegetables and fold through on the day." They mix chopped cucumber, fennel and cherry tomato quarters through the grains, plus lots of fresh herbs (parsley, dill, coriander and basil) and vegetable crudite – choosing raw, crunchy carrots, celery and capsicum, which hold up well in the lunchbox. 

Feel like stepping away from the salad? Don't worry, McEnearney has other ideas, too. With the barbecue at full-crank use during summer, he usually throws zucchini, capsicum, fennel, leek and corn on the grill – as well as sausages and skewers – and lets it all cool down, before packing the ingredients into the next day's lunchbox. 

Hamish Ingham and Rebecca Lines run Bar H and Banksii restaurants – and while they do prep lunches for their children (Harper, 8, and Hendrix, 5), sometimes their children take over. In fact, Harper (who often engineers her own sandwich combinations) recently created a mild cheddar, jalapeno  and honey sambo that was so good that it now features on the Banksii bar snack menu. 

Hamish Ingham and Rebecca Lines at the site of their new bistro.

Hamish Ingham and Rebecca Lines at the site of their new bistro. Photo: Daniel Munoz

During school breaks she enjoys whole baby cucumbers packed with home-made hummus – as well as literally cool snacks.

"We like to freeze the organic squeeze yoghurt, so by the time it's lunch they are super cold and still frozen," says Ingham. "Also, frozen grapes go down a treat."

Keeping things interactive also helps children look forward to their meals. 

"Harper loves sushi, so we buy organic brown rice and make our own sushi rolls," says Ingham. "Step one is to steam the rice, lay out your bamboo mat, place a sheet of seaweed down, half-cover with cooked rice about half a centimetre thick, place cooked or raw fish and some grated carrot, avocado and herbs, roll and slice." 

To make sure the sushi is still in a safe state once the children eat it, it's important to season the rice with sushi vinegar and also keep a small ice-block in the lunchbox.  

"My kids are utterly spoilt, they want a hot lunch every day!" says Palisa Anderson, co-director of Sydney's Boon Cafe and Chat Thai restaurants. 

And while Soraya, 8, and Arthur, 6, eat incredibly well, Anderson admits that "often they'll get last night's leftovers: broth with vegetables and rice, fried rice, vegetable stir fries, etc. If I'm feeling particularly inspired or if there's a glut of tomatoes in the garden, I'll make a couple of different sauces on the weekend, like a ragu, which I'll freeze. Over the course of the week and months, they'll have that with sprouted grains, pasta or noodles."

Here's the recipe she'll often use. 

"I confit tomatoes in olive oil with Celtic sea salt and thyme in the oven at 100C overnight, the next day make a sofrito with carrots, onions, celery – add a nice coarse, fatty pork mince, or not – then cook down with the confit tomatoes and season. Stick that in the oven for two hours at 180C in a cast-iron pot, then when you take it out, finish it with a crazy amount of finely chopped parsley and stir it. When it cools, portion it out, so that you've got lunches sorted and no more freezer space." 

Lunchbox packing tricks

Packaging is a key part of a good lunchbox strategy. 

"We use ice bricks to keep things cold and pack their sauces and accompaniments in the little thimbles with lids that we buy from the grocery store, so they don't run everywhere," says McEnearney. He and Joss use smaller Tupperware and glass boxes inside lunchboxes to house different compartments to a meal – they even include plastic soy sauce fish (saved from Japanese takeaway orders) when serving sushi.

Home-made juices and smoothies are strategically frozen in a drink bottle the night before: a spill-proof move that means they can double as a handy ice-brick for the lunchbox; this also allows children to enjoy still-cool drinks during their breaks. (During winter, soups are kept in thermos flasks, to keep them hot until lunchtime.) Instead of Glad Wrap, they opt for eco-friendly cotton beeswax wraps, which are reusable and "have a natural anti-bacteria from the beeswax", says McEnearney. 

Anderson has key items that she swears by.

"My favourite lunch pack is the Tiger Magic Bottle Soup Cup – keeps everything hot long after school is finished. They're best for making sure their school bag doesn't come home with spilt soup," she says.  She also recommends Takeya glass water bottles ("we've yet to have one break"), reusable containers for storing fruit, plus the Light My Fire camping titanium spork as all-purpose cutlery. "It's an art which we've got down to an exact science."