Stories / Guides and Tips

Top Chefs Share Their Lunchbox Secrets

Maggie Borden

September 05, 2017


When it comes to lunch, chefs' kids have it made: no soggy PB&J or ultra-processed Lunchables for them. But does that mean they're all munching on foie gras and yellowfin crudo? We asked top toques from across the country to crack open their kids' lunchboxes and spill the milk on the go-to dishes and strategies they employ to make sure their progeny are well-fed when they hit the cafeteria.

For lunches we do a lot of seared chicken or pork chops for my son (oddly, his lunch is often my daughter's Japanese-style breakfast). Both of our kids like toasted nori and a sweet treat like a piece of chocolate.
—Alex Raij, El Quinto Pino and Txikito, NYC; and La Vara and Tekoá, Brooklyn, NY


My son, Noah, is too old for packed lunches now, but when he was younger, we bought one of those compartment lunchboxes that slides into a container lined with a freezer pack. Best thing we ever did. And you have to have a 12-ounce thermos for hot or cold soups. We always made a fully rounded meal with lots of choices and NEVER gave a dessert. (Noah had a friend at day camp once whose mother gave her Skittles, Fritos, and a Coke for her lunch—he came home pretty angry at me that day!) Anyway, we always packed a cold or hot soup depending on the weather. Noah loved my cucumber soup and gazpacho and we always had one of those in the fridge all summer long. We would add a sandwich, some vegetables and dip, and some fruit. Easy peasy.
—JBF Award Winner Andrew Zimmern, Bizarre Foods


We are lucky because at our daughter's school, they will heat up the food that I pack for her and serve it if I ask them to; it's great because then I can give her healthy leftovers from dinners during the week. So if we have salmon and rice and broccoli ‪on Monday for dinner, it will probably show up in her ‪lunch on Wednesday. Sometimes I will change the format of the leftovers so it isn't redundant, and I will cook off a little bit of pasta and turn leftovers into a pasta salad, adding avocado, tuna, or olives to it. Then I always put a little fruit in the lunchbox for dessert. I try to make sure her lunches have some type of protein, a vegetable, a fruit, and a starch, as much as I can.
—Katie Button, Cúrate and Nightbell, Asheville, NC


Lunch is always something different but one of the favorites in my house is grilled cheese. It is so simple but my daughter loves it. I mean, who doesn’t love a grilled cheese?
—JBF Award Winner Michael White, Altamarea Group, NYC


My daughter packs her own lunch now, but I make sure the refrigerator is stocked for her. I always have a batch of pasta salad ready to go: I make it with beans or lentils, perlini (tiny mozzarella balls), and vegetables that hold up well in a lunchbox, like red bell peppers and cucumbers. Then I dress it in a simple extra virgin olive oil–red wine vinaigrette with dried and/or hearty fresh herbs.
—JBF Award–Winning Author Ellie Krieger


I like to put one “cool” thing in my daughter’s lunch to balance things out: something that she and I both love. I think it lets your kids know that you are thinking about them, and can be encouraging at a critical moment in the day. I also like to add visual variety to a meal—it sparks kids’ interests and makes them less likely to notice that they are eating something healthy, since they are having such a great time eating it! For example, instead of a fruit cup covered in syrup, I will make skewers of strawberries, pineapple, and grapes.
—JBF Award Winner Alex Guarnaschelli, Butter, NYC, and The Home Cook: Recipes to Know by Heart (Clarkson Potter, September 2017)


I love to pack their lunches for them, and I always do it the night before. Every lunch will include vegetables—whatever is in season and we’ve picked up at the farmers’ market, like lettuce with garlicky aïoli, an asparagus salad, or a spinach tortilla. They need healthy proteins, too, so sometimes I will poach some fish or chicken. A good lunch at school is so important for learning, and is something that every student deserves!
—JBF Award Winner José Andrés, ThinkFoodGroup, Washington, D.C.