Lunch Box Life

Seven Austin chefs dish on school lunch lessons

John Antonelli (l) and Kendall Antonelli with their children, Elia and Everett (Photos by John Anderson)

Ask any parent and they'll confirm: Packing a successful school lunch is a carefully honed craft. The meal must be healthy, yet appealing to the pint-sized food critic. It must keep sans refrigeration and be ready for whatever means of transportation leaves it crammed in a backpack or hung in a coat closet. And, naturally, convenience is key, so this incredibly tasty, sustainable meal must also be easy to assemble in the bleary pre-dawn hours before bus pickup. In other words, the quintessential school lunch is crafted from unicorn tears.

Ever wonder if parents in the food industry have it any easier?

Kendall Antonelli, one half of Antonelli's Cheese, remembers being featured on the cover of the Houston Chronicle's Life & Style section for an article on picky child eaters. "As the child of a single, working mom for a bit, I had some interesting lunches," she says. "I remember getting in trouble in elementary school because I had a serrated knife in my lunch. My mom packed me a whole tomato, a knife, and salt and pepper. I loved tomatoes and avocados and would eat them straight."

Unfortunately, the preference for raw veggies didn't seem to pass on to her own kids genetically. "I'd like to say, 'Oh, my kids have no problem eating greens,' but that'd be a lie," she says. "I always put some on their plate so they'll get used to seeing it, but the truth is, broccoli is the only green they'll eat. Sometimes peas."

Tyson Cole, executive chef of the Uchi restaurant group, faces similarly picky eaters. "I remember 30 years ago in middle school, I got $1 for lunch and would eat four Blue Bell ice cream sandwiches for 25 cents each almost every day," he admits. "And I wonder why I can't get my girls to eat vegetables!"

Brian Malarkey, chef/partner of Sear­suck­er in Austin, shares, "I recently learned of the highly unusual underground lunch box item trading circle – chocolate milk is like gold. Carrots are like pennies – cute but no one wants them." He's discovered that the best way to deal with picky eaters is to get them as involved as possible in the harvesting and preparation of their food. "Take them to the garden or farm and let them pull the carrot out of the ground – it becomes magical. Eat blackberries off the bush, grow herbs at home," he says. "My daughter, Sailor, loves to cook and bake. She has the cutest apron with little anchors on it. The boys will shuck some corn, stir a sauce, or flip a burger, but they have about a three-minute focus range."

Casey Wilcox, executive chef at Justine's Brasserie, recently let his older stepson, Dash, try his hand at expediting one night at the restaurant. "He was picking up things no one could've predicted," says Wilcox. "The kitchen was alternating between amazement and laughter."

As for school lunches, the biggest challenge Wilcox faces is making sure each day's lunch makes it out of the car and that the remnants return home. "We could send them with a Thermos or something, but they lose something at school what seems like almost every day," he says.

Heidi Garbo, owner of Garbo's lobster restaurant and trucks, says she finds herself in the kitchen less and less these days, so she takes pleasure in cooking more involved meals for her son Connor. "I do miss it, so I go above and beyond on his lunch," she says. "That may mean clam chowder, a cantaloupe gazpacho, shrimp cocktail, or brussels sprouts. The best was when he came home and said his friend had something incredible for lunch. I asked him what it was and he said it was this jam made out of strawberries and peanut butter on bread. I was actually a bit jealous."

Shawn Cirkiel, chef/owner of parkside, the backspace, Olive & June, and Bullfight

Children: Noah (12 years old) and Dylan (8 years old)

Favorite foods: I'm really lucky in that my kids are pretty good eaters. Dylan is on a jamón kick right now. Followed by salted tomatoes. But her favorite is either a good steak or pizza at the backspace. My son Noah eats everything.

Least favorite foods: Noah refuses to eat rabbit. Dylan is morally opposed to lettuce or peas.

Typical school lunch: Dylan will eat in the cafeteria or bring simple lunches of jamón/salami, grapes or fresh fruit, nuts, cheese, or, for a treat, a Nutella sandwich, which is the only time she brings bread to school. Noah likes to pack his lunch and will make different kinds of sandwiches. Always with Duke's mayo though.

Casey Wilcox, executive chef, Justine's Brasserie

Children: Dashiell (12 years old) and Jasper (9 years old)

Favorite foods: They are totally into Japanese food, and anything raw. Sometimes Dash has to get an In-N-Out burger on the way to Komé, just to give the rest of us a chance to try everything. Ramen. Cheeseburgers, of course. They're really good about eating vegetables, and trying new things. Jasper is into pickles. And Buffalo wings. Dash has a major sweet tooth.

Least favorite foods: Mashed potatoes, things with a similar texture. Risotto, polenta.

Typical school lunch: Pretty simple. If we try and push the envelope too far, it comes back. Raw veg and fruit. PB and honey. I try to hit all the food groups and keep it interesting. Jasper has been on a no-sandwich kick, so it's been a bit of a scramble to get him something that he's gonna be down to eat room temp. That's the most challenging part. Soft boiled or deviled eggs, hummus and pita. Whole carrots with the greens are a thing for him too.

Janina O'Leary, noted pastry chef

Child: Declan (5 years old)

Favorite foods: Meatballs, salmon, vegetables. He loves cheeses. Anything from Cheddar to Gouda to fresh mozzarella. He also has a serious sweet tooth.

Least favorite foods: It is hard to find food Declan doesn't like. I guess he doesn't care too much for scrambled eggs.

Typical school lunch: Always different. I try and make sure there is a protein, vegetable, and two fruits with his school lunch – and lots of water. I often pack a baked good we prepare together from the night before, like banana bread.

Tyson Cole, executive chef, Uchi restaurant group

Children: Aubrie (11 years old), Larkin (8 years old), and Amelia (5 years old)

Favorite foods: Aubrie loves popcorn, steak, pasta, and bread. Larkin's favorites are berries, yogurt, apples, nuts, and ice cream. Amelia's top picks are Nutella sandwiches, chicken nuggets, pizza, and pasta.

Least favorite foods: Funnily enough, their least favorite thing to eat is fish, along with anything green.

Typical school lunch: All three lunches look very different. Sometimes they buy lunch, and sometimes they bring it. Figuring out what each of them will eat every day is a real moving target.

Heidi Garbo (r) and her son, Connor

Heidi Garbo, chef/owner of Garbo's lobster restaurant and Garbo's food trucks

Child: Connor (9 years old)

Favorite foods: He loves sushi, hamburgers, and whole lobster.

Least favorite foods: He could do without tomatoes.

Typical school lunch: We usually make a "salad" and the protein from the night before. He loves chicken and then carrots, lettuce, and cucumber with dressing on the side. He also loves turkey sandwiches with avocado, arugula, and I make an artichoke tapenade. On rare occasions, he will have a lobster roll thrown in there.

Brian Malarkey, executive chef/partner, Searsucker

Children: Huntington O'Neil (7 years old), Miles James (5 years old), and Sailor Elizabeth (5 years old)

Favorite foods: They love the typical stuff like hamburgers, fruit, eggs and bacon, pizza and candy – as much as they can sneak! They also love clams, crabs, and fish!

Least favorite foods: Their least favorite food is anything that touches something else on the plate – kills me as a chef. We're taking little steps!

Typical school lunch: Hunter has to have the Hunter Sandwich (he actually makes it best), which is a Hawaiian roll with mustard, mayonnaise, ham, cheese and – if we are lucky – spinach. Other regular items for a typical lunch include fruit, vegetables, drink box (with low sugar), yogurt, cheese, salami, crackers, and something small and sweet.

Kendall Antonelli, co-owner of Antonelli's Cheese

Children: Everett (3 years old) and Elia (20 months)

Favorite foods: Everett loves any meat, broccoli, and pasta. Also shrimp and bread. (Everett recently told me, "No, mama. That's speck. I like prosciutto.") Elia loves cheese, chips, and fruit; she doesn't like most meat. They're both huge fans of bananas and smoothies, where I hide greens like kale or spinach.

Least favorite foods: Greens and leftovers. It's so annoying – I can't give them the same meal twice in a row. They'll love it the first time and won't touch it again without a three-day hiatus.

Typical school lunch: A sandwich (either deli meat and cheese or almond butter and honey), cheese, fruit, and veg (like carrots, pickles, or broccoli). Everett has had a "French" lunch, if you will. That is, we packed a piece of baguette, cured meats, cheese, and cornichon pickles. It wasn't to be fancy; it's just often all that we have in the house.

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Austin chefs, Shawn Cirkiel, Janina O'Leary, Tyson Cole, Brian Malarkey, Heidi Garbo, Kendall Antonelli, Casey Wilcox

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