For many local families, the next few weeks will bring the overwhelming rush of true fall back-to-school everything energy for the first time since the pandemic hit.
The lists of clothes and school supplies to round up are long enough, but have you thought about lunches yet? Portland-based cookbook authors Marnie Hanel and Jen Stevenson have been through more than a few nerve-racking first days of school: Hanel as a mother of three young kids, and Stevenson as a former kindergarten teacher. The duo has put out a range of dreamy, situation-specific cookbooks together, including 2015’s The Picnic and 2018’s The Campout Cookbook. In their fifth collaborative work, Hanel and Stevenson take a shot at oft-prosaic school lunches (albeit a surprisingly competitive and elaborate topic in certain corners of the Internet).
Lunchbox, released July 19 via Artisan Books, is full of approachable recipes. Versatile staples like the zucchini and chicken meatballs recipe we’ve included below can find their way into countless lunchbox combinations, but the book also lays out a sort of lunch-packing philosophy. “You cook dinner, but you make lunch,” Hanel says. “It’s more about assembling, so we wanted to give parents and grownups—whoever’s making lunch—the building blocks to do that.”
That assembling approach leaves plenty of room for pragmatism—Hanel and Stevenson are fully on board with swapping in store-bought versions of their recipes. The book is packed with pro tips like remembering to unwrap packaged granola bars and cheese sticks for little ones, and steers you towards their favorite essentials like the right kind of ice packs (they aren’t the same ones you treat scraped knees with) and easily washable lunchbox inserts and reusable utensils.
At the same time, for the more ambitious lunch-packers, they dole out some tips that just might get you famous on TikTok for your lunchbox art, if that’s your thing. “You can cut a kiwi into a flower, but you could also think that's ridiculous. And you don't have to do that,” says Stevenson.
“At its best, the lunchbox is the love note you unobtrusively pass to your child in the middle of the school day,” Hanel and Stevenson write in Lunchbox. The storybook version of a brown bag with your kid’s name encircled by a heart is a classic, but Hanel says, in her experience, there’s a bit more subtext: “We’re both people who show love through food, so when it came to making lunch the first time I sent my kids to daycare, there was an emotional component.”
There’s also a slew of recipes that use food as a tool for teaching kids about colors and letters and of course, new foods. There are unfussy monochromatic lunches, like a yellow box of quesadillas with corn chips, corn salsa, corn on the cob, banana chips, and pineapple wedges; a shape-themed section of boxes where everything is either cut into, or selected for its shape; and a letter-centered section, made up of ingredients all starting with your child’s first initial, which seems like an especially heartfelt school lunch-as-a-love-note, and educational to boot.
Chicken and Zucchini Mini Meatballs Makes 40 (yes, 40; they’re teeny)
By Marnie Hanel and Jen Stevenson
Excerpted from Lunchbox, (Artisan Books) Copyright @ 2022
Turns out, “kids really love meatballs,” says Hanel. Stevenson adds that these meatballs are great to make a giant batch of and divide up for different dishes throughout the week; you can throw some in a red sauce for dinner, load them into a sandwich for lunch, or pop them into a pita with hummus, cucumbers, and lettuce for a quick but satisfying meal. All of which sounds pretty “adult-friendly,” too.
1 zucchini, grated (about 1 cup)
½ pound ground chicken or turkey
1 large egg, lightly beaten
½ cup breadcrumbs
¼ cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
¾ tsp kosher salt
½ tsp garlic powder
½ tsp onion powder
2 tbsp finely chopped fresh parsley
Extra-virgin olive oil
- Preheat the oven to 425 °F. Line a sheet pan with parchment paper.
- Wrap the grated zucchini in a clean kitchen towel and gently squeeze to remove excess moisture, then place in a large bowl. Add the chicken, egg, breadcrumbs, cheese, salt, garlic powder, onion powder, and parsley and mix together with clean hands. Chill in the refrigerator for 15 minutes.
- Use a melon baller or a rounded teaspoon to scoop the meatball mixture into clean, wet hands. Form into meatballs and place 1 inch apart on the prepared pan. Brush tops with olive oil. Bake for 10 to 12 minutes, until cooked through and beginning to brown. Let cool, then transfer the meatballs to the lunchbox or an airtight container. Store in the refrigerator for up to 3 days or the freezer for up to a month.