Back To School Lunch

Without fail, a muted silver sky and a light sprinkling of rain graces every first day of school for us, appropriately enough.  The kids stand at the bus stop leaning against their moms and dads, holding brightly colored cartoon-covered umbrellas.  Fatigued from late summer hours and days of carefree play, they wait in anticipation of the squealing brakes and unmistakable color of the bus as it rises above the horizon of the hill.   While not quite fully back to their old familiar fall schedule, they yawn and chatter.   Last year, Trey was electrified with excitement as we waited for the bus in his blue, crab-covered rain coat.  It was his very first day of kindergarten and the possibilities were endless.   In a few days he’s headed onto first grade and his wide-eyed optimism only shows in sporadic, thoughtful, moments.

He asks, “Why can’t I have the same class every year?  I like my class.   I want to be with my friends.   Maybe my teacher will be the best teacher ever and really fun!”.    He waits and thinks again, before continuing his thought, loudly, with a smirk and a giggle, “Or, maybe she’ll be a zombie!”.

As I sip my coffee, we discuss what he will learn and do in first grade and my mind meanders onto box tops and supply lists and permission slips.  I realize I haven’t done any school lunch posts yet.   How is that possible?  Well, “anything is possible”, as Trey reminds me.  He requests “meatballs and a cookie and some other stuff too”.   Sounds simple enough.

I like to pan fry the meatballs for a crisp crust, as Thomas Keller suggests for a tapas plate in his book, “Ad Hoc At Home”.  I keep them in the freezer, defrost them overnight in the refrigerator and cook them in the morning before we leave.  I used these sword toothpicks this time, but have used lollipop sticks cut in half as well.  Both work fine, I just snip off the sharp tip of the toothpicks, since the kids will usually sword fight with them while waiting to go outside after lunch.  The cookies are adapted from a bon appetit recipe I found originally “Almond Cranberry Quinoa Cookies”.   They’re packed with dried fruit, quinoa, oats, almonds and a base of whole wheat flour.   The rest of the lunch is just what Trey likes that we happen to have that day.   He eats lunch early in the day and has a snack before school gets out, so I try to keep it to a minimum.  I once put “too much food” in his lunchbox and, boy, did I ever hear some seriously unhappy ranting about that!    I use foil lined baking cups and small tupperware containers for each of the items to give it a bento box sort of style.  It’s nothing spectacular, but he’s six and generally unimpressed by food, so it works for us.



  • 2 tablespoons canola oil
  • 1 cup chopped onion
  • 2 teaspoons minced garlic
  • Kosher salt and black pepper
  • 12 ounces boneless beef sirloin
  • 12 ounces boneless beef chuck
  • 8 ounces boneless beef shoulder or top round
  • 1/4 cup dried bread crumbs
  • 2 tablespoons chopped flat-leaf parsley
  • 1 large egg
  • 4 ounces fresh mozzarella cheese


Have the butcher grind the meats for you, alternating quantities of each meat as they go through the grinder so they are well mixed.  Heat canola oil in a large saute pan over medium heat.   Add the onion and garlic into the pan and season with salt and pepper.  Reduce heat to low and cook for about twenty minutes, or until they are soft but not browned. Remove from heat and set aside.

In a large bowl, combine ground meat, bread crumbs, parsley, egg and season lightly with salt and pepper.  To check the seasoning level, make a very small patty and microwave  it and taste (or have someone taste for you, as I do), then add more salt if desired. Divide mixture into 24 equal parts for mini meatballs using a scant 1/4 cup measure for each meatball.  Cut mozzarella into 24 cubes  and stuff each cube into each meatball, while shaping meat around the cheese cube, as necessary into a ball (see note).

Add a shallow coating of canola oil to a large skillet over medium-high heat.  Once oil is hot, add meatballs in small batches to brown on all sides.  Once browned, remove batch from pan and cool on a cooling rack over paper towels. Serve with tomato sauce for dipping, if desired.

NOTE:   Once the meatballs are stuffed, they can be placed on a baking sheet and frozen uncovered then stored in a sealed plastic bag.  Spread the meatballs on a tray and defrost in the refrigerator before cooking.  For regular sized meatballs, double the size of each ball to make 12 meatballs using a scant 1/2 cup measure and divide cheese into 12 cubes instead of 24.

TO STORE UNTIL LUNCH:   Place meatballs in an insulated thermos container with hot broth or sauce until ready to eat.   Alternately to serve cold, you may cool the meatballs to room temperature after cooking and store in a chilled air tight container over an ice pack until ready to eat.

Oatmeal Raisin Quinoa Cookies

  • 1 1/2 cups white whole wheat flour
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 1/4 cup (packed) light brown sugar
  • 1/4 cup honey
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1/2 teaspoon almond extract
  • 1 cup cooked quinoa, cooled
  • 1 cup old-fashioned oats
  • 1 cup mixed baking raisins
  • 1/2 cup slivered unsalted almonds

Preheat oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit. Prepare 2 baking sheets by lining with parchment paper. Whisk together flour, salt, baking powder, and baking soda in a medium bowl. Using an electric mixer, beat butter, both sugars, and honey in a large bowl until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes.  Beat in eggs and extracts until pale and fluffy, about 2 minutes. Beat in flour mixture, 1/2 cup at a time. Stir in quinoa, oats, raisins, and almonds. Spoon dough in 2-tablespoon portions onto prepared sheets, spacing 1” apart.
Bake cookies until golden, 12–15 minutes. Transfer cookies to a wire rack and let cool.
DO AHEAD: Store cooled cookies airtight at room temperature for 1 day, or freeze for up to 1 month.
Source for meatballs: “Ad Hoc At Home,” Thomas Keller.
Source for cookies: Bon Appetit Test Kitchen,  January 2012.
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6 Responses to Back To School Lunch

  1. Hi Kate! What a wonderful post! This is my first year of making lunch for my 1st grade son and I have to say it’s quite an adjustment to wake up early to make lunch! But I’m working on it. Great advice on freezing the meatballs and cooking in the morning. I hope you will share more school lunch posts! :)

  2. Baker Street says:

    I haven’t baked cookies with quinoa but I do think its a lovely idea! Thanks for sharing this lovely recipe.

  3. cakewhiz says:

    i can’t wait till my little one starts going to school and i can start preparing his lunches…hehe. your lunchbox looks awesome… there is a little bit of everything and those tiny sword toothpicks are super cute 😉

  4. Karen Harris says:

    I love the sound of these meatballs and even though you are cooking for a younger lunch set, I’m hoping my 17 year old will love them too. Oh, how I would have loved a lunch box like this when I was in 1st grade, especially if my teacher did indeed turn out to be a zombie.

  5. My friend seems like you are all set for back to school :)
    What a delicious lunch!

    Choc Chip Uru

  6. Mei-I @ gastronomic nomad says:

    Your description of waiting for the school bus makes me remember the days of the yellow bus and hanging out with my friends on the bus. So fun! Ad Hoc is one of my favorite cookbooks! Haven’t tried his meatball recipe yet but obsessed with his chocolate chip cookies. Been meaning to try that quinoa cookie recipe. Happy 1st day of school!!

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