Alex Guarnaschelli is an Iron Chef, Food Network celebrity chef, author of Old-School Comfort Food and the executive chef at New York City’s Butter restaurants. Read her PEOPLE.com blog every Tuesday to get her professional cooking tips, family-favorite recipes and personal stories of working in front of the camera and behind the kitchen doors. Follow her on Twitter at @guarnaschelli.
When my daughter was in preschool, she and the kids played “What food am I?” When I came to pick her up, the teacher gave me an odd look. “What happened?” I asked. “All of the kids had to describe what kind of food they were today,” she began, “most kids said apples, celery, oranges, hamburgers, tomatoes, etc…but your daughter told us she was a mix of quinoa and gooseberries…”
That was the first sign I’d become “that mom” — the one who dares to be different when it comes to things like packing a school lunch. And “that mom” was originally my mom. I learned from the best.
My mother lovingly packed soggy, lopsided and sometimes grease-stained paper bags that carried oddball sandwiches or various leftovers from dinner.
An example? Soggy tinfoil containing meatballs and sauce, 4 slices of bread and a sandwich bag filled with broccoli in lemon vinaigrette. I looked over at my friend’s perfect peanut butter sandwich and my other friend’s Thermos of soup and wondered what my lunch was trying to be. Was it a sandwich of some sort? “You’re supposed to put the meatballs and the broccoli on the slices of bread to make a sandwich,” my mom explained later on, “I packed it this way so the sandwich doesn’t get soggy.”
A few weeks later my mother packed me a fruit salad with a little bag of ice attached.
“The fruit needs to stay really cold until you eat it so it has that refreshing factor,” she told me. My bag, covered in fruit juices and melted ice, didn’t bother me. I appreciated (and devoured) that still cold fruit.
I’m sure that all those lunches — and watching my mother prepare them — fueled my desire to cook. Does that mean that your child will become a chef if you make them lunch? No. But, it can definitely help cultivate your child’s culinary curiosity.
The other day I watched my friend Amy pack her three kids lunch, and I realized how different it is for each family. She uses reusable metal containers (fancy!) and spends about 15-20 minutes each morning cutting vegetables, packing dinner leftovers and adding in other lunchtime staples. “Lunch takes a long time to figure out,” she confessed as she sliced carrots.
For me, I wake up and immediately fry an egg for my daughter while I rummage through the fridge and figure out the day’s meal plan. It can be hit or miss as to whether or not she’ll actually eat everything (or anything) I prepare. I’ve come to regard breakfast and dinner as the more important meals of the day where I can watch her and make sure she is eating right. I’ll always be “that mom” because to me, lunch can be a place to introduce your children to new things. It can also be a place of bonding and experimentation. But then again, it can also be just lunch.