The back to work and school routines are already underway, and chances are you’re already stumped for lunch ideas. Enter the self-proclaimed lunch ninjas, Ceri Marsh and Laura Keogh, who’ve penned the coil-bound School Year Survival Cookbook that is more sanity-saving strategies than recipes (though there’s over 100 of those too).
How do you make lunches less crazed? asks Marsh, who juggles work and school lunches for her own young family. There’s only so many ways to reinvent the sandwich, and if those keep coming back home at the end of the day, it’s time to do something different. “A big part of school year survival is strategy. Invest in a good thermos, and turn today’s supper into tomorrow’s lunches,” she says. “Always use other meal times to get school and work lunches ready – you’re already working in the kitchen, so plan ahead and save time. No more hectic morning preparations.”
A key idea at the start of the season (and updated regularly through the school year) is to look at everyone’s school year schedule to determine the craziest days of the week, when you know you’ll be driving from work to school pick-up to lessons, etc. with absolutely no time to prepare a healthy supper meal. “Decide which days are the most brutal, and make those meals in advance on a weekend. Have them ready to go in fridge or freezer. Help yourself wherever you can,” Marsh says.
“Meal-planning is the least sexy thing to talk about, but it works. It keeps you on top of grocery costs and saves your sanity. Otherwise, if you don’t, you’re wasting a lot of time and money.”
Marsh recommends a weekly sit-down with the family to map out who goes where, when. Everyone in the family should suggest one meal too, and then build the grocery list from there. It makes it more likely that picky eaters will eat if they’ve chosen the meal, she explains. Kids may become more involved in meal preparation (cutting, cooking) if they’re keen on the entrée.
“I recommend making produce-heavy recipes at the start of the week; pantry-heavy recipes at week’s end, and a meal-prep time on Sundays. But whatever works for your family is best,” she adds. “Now that I have kids, I live for leftovers too – I’m big on the make it once, dinner twice philosophy, that I’m sure most parents appreciate too.”
School year survival cooking means thinking about what Marsh calls ‘super yielders’ that serve about eight, which will guarantee leftovers that can be reheated or transformed for a second supper. “The goal is to use one effort in the kitchen to get further ahead for another meal, with just an easy tweak. Last night’s roast chicken can become a pizza or frittata today. Do the same with proteins, and make a large roast to use for two different dishes – savory bread pudding, pulled pork sandwiches (that’s a great school lunch) or quesadillas. When you start thinking that way, you’ll shop differently at the grocery store too,” she says.
Chef and author Michael Smith understands the need to get kids on board for healthy, home-cooked meals, even on rushed weekdays between homework time and piano lessons. “Nothing is more challenging. The successful parent path is littered with good intentions and sustained effort. You need strategies so you don’t overwhelm your schedule or your kitchen,” he says.
Don’t forget the double-duty baking, that Marsh says can be a dessert after today’s supper, but part of breakfast or a lunch box snack the next day. Overnight oats, usually layered with yogurt and fruit, can be a dessert, or packed into the fridge for tomorrow’s breakfast, she says, pointing to slow-cooker or refrigerator versions that the whole family will love. And what about something like a carrot cake breakfast cookie? Marsh suggests a low sugar, high fibre offering that can be a snack or breakfast.
“Protein pancakes with cottage cheese, or peanut butter and banana slow cooker oats are great for sport-loving students, while leftover breakfast waffles can be turned into lunch sandwiches too. Think outside the cookie box,” she says.