Read: The Echo | Return of the school lunch (and breakfast, and dinner…)
Are you ready? Ready to relinquish your sandy, summertime darlings into the suited and booted world of school once again? These holidays haven’t been the easiest, with plenty of rain at a time when you’ve been trying to occupy smallies so the answer may indeed be a resounding yes. The return to an autumn routine, however, means that we’re back to the fun of school lunches.
Along with the simultaneous dread and delight at the onset of the new school year, there’s also the cost. This year, for the first time ever, students in primary and special schools will benefit from the Free Primary Schoolbooks Scheme. Not having to buy schoolbooks, workbooks and copybooks means that there’s one less job to be done before that first day back, along with having a chunk of money still in your pocket. While it’s not so easy to outsource school lunches, there are definitely ways of making it easier.
Galway-based, GMIT-trained chef Lou Robbie worked at several well known Galway restaurants, including Cava, Ard Bia and The Kitchen before starting to teach cooking in 2015. She set up Little Lou Cooks in 2021 to offer online cooking classes to adults and children. As a mother of two, she is passionate about getting kids into the kitchen, teaching them about food and showing them how to cook. Her instagram feed @littleloucooks has more than 11 thousand followers – not at all surprising when you see the simple and accessible recipes for homemade family food that she shares.
Robbie also has years of lunch box experience under her belt, with one child who loves to try everything while the other is not very adventurous. She understands that back-to-school feeling that adults get, their hearts sinking in August at the thought of it: “we as parents have so much to do in the general day-to-day running of the house that making lunches is just another annoying job on the list,” she says. “It’s a continuous job that only lets up in the holidays.”
Robbie has ways to make it less challenging – and cheaper – for everyone. “All it involves is a little bit of planning at the beginning of the school year. Make a list of all the foods your child will eat for lunch. Break it down into three categories:
1. Carbs with protein – eg cheese sandwich / chicken and pasta
2. Fresh – eg fruit/veg sticks
3. Snacks – here I like to add homemade snacks that my kids enjoy.”
Once you have your plan in hand, stick it up on a noticeboard or the fridge door and don’t let it disappear into the sea of printouts that come home with kids. “Keep this list in the kitchen for reference when you do your food shop for the week. The homemade snacks will save money on expensive plastic-wrapped supermarket alternatives.”
Robbie is a fan of batch cooking and freezing the results for the future. “I like to make homemade snacks for the lunchbox, including batches of mini scones, muffins, oat bars and nut free energy balls.” This doesn’t have to be something that parents tackle alone. At weekends, it can be a good idea to make baking into a family activity that everyone can enjoy, eating some and stashing the rest away in the freezer while making sure that you can find them at the crucial time: “I advise parents and their young cooks to make big batches, then to cool and freeze them in labelled bags so they are at hand during the week to pop into the lunch box.”
Having a system for making lunches helps to avoid running out of steam half way through the year, especially during those dark, grim February mornings. “When I make the lunches for my kids I do it in the evening at 9pm,” says Robbie. “I usually make a sandwich each, add a piece of fruit or two each, and take one or two snacks from the freezer for each of them. Pop everything into the lunchbox and keep it in the fridge until morning. If I defrost scones I add my homemade chia berry jam and butter in the morning. Job done.” It’s also important to realise that this is not a solo job: “My husband and I take it in turns to make the lunches in the evening, packing the lunches is a shared job. And when the kids are old enough they will do their own.”
Five ideas for school morning breakfasts
1. You can’t beat porridge, particularly as the weather gets colder. Ring the changes by adding different add ins every day. “During school time we love creamy warm porridge with a choice of toppings like yoghurt, nut butter, fruit and granola for crunch,” says Robbie.
2. Too warm for porridge? Try bircher muesli. It’s as simple as soaking oats in a little apple juice overnight, adding some milk to bring it to your preferred consistency and eating it with a grated apple, and / or some chopped fruit and a big spoonful of yogurt.
3. Bring on the eggs. My 14-year-old secondary school student gears up for her day by frying an egg in butter, adding lots of black pepper and devouring it between two hefty slices of toast.
4. Smoothie central. Smoothies are a great addition at breakfast time, bringing more fruit and calcium to the morning. Peel, chop and freeze any overripe bananas or soft fruit then blend them – an immersion blender works brilliantly here, less washing up too – with yogurt and milk. Serve with a straw for slurping. Add a spoonful of smooth nut butter before blending to make it more filling.
5. We love waffles. After discovering our waffle recipe of dreams on the BBC Food website (search for it there under Belgian Waffles), we’ve been cranking these out all year. Any leftovers, kept in the fridge overnight, can be popped into the toaster for an extra special, and still speedy, breakfast.
Five days of lunch boxes – with snack ideas from @littleloucooks
Monday: Leftover roast chicken in wholemeal pita pockets, raw broccoli florets with French dressing for dipping, mini lunchbox scones.
Tuesday: Sweetcorn fritters, a handful of strawberries, carrot and courgette veggie muffins.
Wednesday: Salami pasta salad, carrot sticks with hummus, wholemeal apple and banana muffins (using up ripe fruit).
Thursday: Cheese sandwich, a kiwifruit, halved (don’t forget a spoon), energy balls.
Friday: chickpea salad with tomato pesto, their favourite yogurt, chopped fruit to add to the yogurt or eat separately, puffed quinoa cakes.
A school week’s worth of easy dinners
1. Baked potatoes and beans: wash one – or more – large floury potatoes per person, prick with a fork (to avoid explosions), place on a large baking sheet and sprinkle with crunchy sea salt (not essential, but makes the skins taste great). Bake at 220C for approximately an hour or until they’re cooked through. Serve with a choose-your-own adventure selection of butter, grated cheese and baked beans. Good with a green salad on the side as well. Got leftover potatoes? Scoop from their skins, mash and save for tomorrow night.
2. Gnocchi: Conor Spacey, in his just-published recipe book Wasted (Blasta Books) has a recipe for gnocchi with homemade ricotta that will turn those leftover potatoes into a family-friendly weeknight dinner. The book is well worth reading for suggestions around repurposing all your food waste.
3. Stir fry: a fast option for hump night. Kwanghi Chan has some great ideas using Irish beef that are great for serving with noodles or rice. Google Kwanghi Chan + beef stir fry for recipes.
4. Fish pie: smoked fish often goes down well with small people and Donal Skehan has a Smoked Fish, Cheese & Potato Bake on his website that takes the idea of fish pie to another level.
5. Macaroni cheese: this comfort food classic can be prepared early in the day or even the night beforehand and kept in the fridge and baked when needed. Get as much veg in there as possible by cooking a head of broccoli or cauliflower with the pasta before tossing it with cheese sauce. Crispy bacon is also a fabulous add-in.
School lunch tips
Rediscovery: go looking for lunch boxes and water bottles in plenty of time. That way you won’t have unpleasant surprises on the evening before the first school day and you can see if anything needs replacing. There’s nothing worse than starting the new school year with a lunchbox that has been festering all summer long.
Lunch boxes: I always recommend Sistema lunch boxes. They’re readily available, not too expensive, come in a range of sizes, colours and have plenty of compartments so that you can bento it up if you feel like being that kind of parent. There’s a great selection of Sistema and other options at thekitchenwhisk.ie
Pick a colour: always buy different coloured lunch boxes. If you have more than one child, it’s pretty much guaranteed that they will all have their own particular likes and dislikes. Sending someone to school with a lunchbox intended for another of the children is a guaranteed fail.
Make it easy: be sure that your child can open their lunchbox. My youngest daughter’s first preschool lunchbox was a very cute apple-shaped one that turned out to be impossible for her to open, causing all manner of food explosions until we upgraded her to, yes, a Sistema.
Take before-school promises with a pinch of salt: my pair swore – cross my heart, hope to die – that they would take hot meals to school on alternating winter days if I bought them an insulated food flask. I wasn’t taken in, but their father was. That flask is still sitting on the worktop.
Don’t panic: you cannot control what your kids eat or do not eat out of their lunch boxes. Once they’re outside the house, it’s up to them. Make gentle enquiries about what may or may not have happened. Sometimes they didn’t eat that particular sandwich because they ran out of time – or because last week’s favourite is this week’s bête noire. And always remember: lunch is just one meal over the course of the day. Take pressure away from the lunch box by focusing on the the meals when the children are with you, giving them a nutritious breakfast, afterschool snack and dinner.