I treat my child’s lunchbox like it’s a restaurant for one. On the drive home after school, I feign interest in all the things a parent is supposed to care about — homework, volleyball, science projects, blah blah blah — until I can ask the question I really want the answer to: How was your lunch?
Usually, the answer is, “It was good. Thanks.” But like self-absorbed restaurant owners everywhere, I push for more, hungry for feedback about the roll I selected for the brisket sandwich or the artful saucing of the pasta in her Thermos.
I thought I was largely alone until I met another parent for whom school lunch is a singular focus. We’ll call her Allison because that is her actual name.
We entered a whirlwind romance of the mutually obsessed. Container styles were compared. Cooling methods analyzed. Menus gushed over.
She appreciated that I cook dinner with an eye on the next day’s lunch, making more than enough pasta or an extra piece of chicken or two. She nodded approvingly when I described my taco kits, with their slivers of crunchy vegetables tucked in alongside a couple of tortillas and shredded chicken I pulled off the bone before I did the dinner dishes.
I bragged about how I turned the flank steak I’d thrown on the grill into a chopped romaine steak salad, packed off to school with a little container of homemade vinaigrette and a slice of buttered bread on the side. A piece of fruit and maybe a scoop of leftover cobbler or a short stack of Oreos, and I’m a lunchbox hero. At least I thought I was.
“My daughter loves my ramen,” I casually threw out one day, explaining that I heat the vacuum bottle with boiling water before adding the hot broth. She did that, too, of course, delighted at the way the piping-hot broth warmed the noodles she packed in a separate container.
Wait, I’m supposed to pack the noodles separately? This explained why I was getting complaints about mushy ramen. Then it dawned on me. I was playing school-lunch checkers. She was playing 3-D chess.
Allison, who began making her own lunches when she was 5, is such a master that her children have developed their own version of Yelp ratings. Great recipes are declared 100 percent lunchbox-worthy. “I always want to get that lunchbox award,” she said. “The worst day is when they say, ‘It wasn’t my favorite.’ Goes right to the heart.”
Don’t misunderstand: I hate parental competition. I happily defer to the sports dad who screams helpful tips at my child from the sidelines. I embrace the Girl Scouts mom who carries pinking shears in her purse. I’m an outlier here in the suburbs, a stranger in a strange land. I just watch and learn.
I decided to make Allison my school-lunch sensei.
“Looking at recipes is my hobby, my one little creative outlet from my crazy job,” she said when I told her I was going to tell the world of her prowess. “You have to say that I am a failure in every other area of my life.”
She said this as she headed out from her very big job at a major university to drop off some library books.
Planning is the engine that makes Allison’s operation hum. It begins on Sunday morning, when she sits down in front of two computers. Her work calendar is open on one, so she can balance menus with obligations. The other is primed to search her favorite cooking sites, newsletters and saved recipes.
She pulls out a legal pad and gets to work. Dinners go in one column, the lunches that will spin off them in the next. At the bottom is her shopping list. She does this every week, rotating in family favorites and noting holidays or nights when the family might not eat dinner at home.
On a recent week, it looked like this:
Fish tacos and grilled zucchini for Sunday dinner. Because her kids won’t eat leftover fish, lunch was chicken teriyaki over warm rice from a simple recipe in which skinless, boneless chicken thighs are coated in a mixture of soy sauce, mirin and sake that has been thickened slightly in the pan. It is easy enough for one of her young daughters to make, which of course had already happened that weekend because Allison is #organized.
Dinner on Monday was her Cuban friend’s 30-minute picadillo recipe with rice and beans, after which she stirred together a soft dough and turned the leftover picadillo into empanadas. She baked them before she went to bed so they were ready for the lunchbox.
Tuesday was chicken Parmesan, the leftover cutlets starring as Wednesday’s chicken Parm sandwiches on baguette. A supper of cauliflower strata, stewed lentils and salad became warm lentils with salami for lunch. And so on and so forth, week after week.
She makes laffa for a roast-chicken dinner that becomes the bread for chicken-salad sandwiches the next day. Leftover black beans morph into bean dip with raw vegetables and pita. She parboils thick slices of sweet potato, roasts them with garlic butter, then smashes them with a fork and sprinkles on some Parmesan cheese. Crisped in the oven, they make a good side dish. Wrapped in a school lunch, they turn into savory sweet-potato cookies.
And then there was her chicken ragù, which she adapted from a popular recipe by Andy Baraghani, a food editor at Bon Appétit, that made the rounds a couple of years ago. She turned it into lunch over egg noodles the next day.
I decided to use it to show the teacher what the student had learned. I simplified her version a bit to save a little time in the kitchen. Then I pulled out her empanada recipe and made the dough while the chicken simmered.
After dinner, I spooned leftover ragù into rounds of dough, then added some Parmesan. I baked my little hand pies before I went to bed, knowing full well I was going to get my own lunchbox award. Allison would be the first one I told.