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School Lunch Demystified

This week my children went back to school, and while they girded themselves for another year of homework and gym class, I got ready to pack lunch boxes again.

Because of my particular lunchroom history, I always approach the task with conflicted feelings. Every morning when I was a kid, my mom put together a feast for me to carry to school: a sandwich, a piece of fruit, a box of pretzels and a snack cake. Every day, for years, I ate the snack cake and tossed the rest right into the garbage. No one was looking. Why not skip right to the Devil Dog?

Maybe this was an early sign that I would become a pastry chef. But it also foreshadows the resistance I now feel to the pressure from our school’s wellness committee (which has debated canceling the long-standing tradition of a weekly ice cream day), certain vocal yoga moms (who have lobbied to allow only whole wheat vegan pizza at school functions) and various other members of our community’s food police to pack nutritionally superior lunches day after day. Has joy gone the way of the Ring Ding?

My mother felt no such pressure in the 1970s. Her choices reflected the idea of a balanced meal at the time. She provided plenty of midday calories and left the rest of it up to me. When I revealed to her recently that I never ate the sandwiches, fruit and pretzels that she packed, she wasn’t that surprised or upset. “Well, you survived,” she shrugged.

Today, things are different. For one thing, there are so many more lunchbox choices, good and bad. And the culture at large is interested as never before in what kinds of foods should be allowed in school. Every September, parents are bombarded with books and newspaper articles on packing the perfect lunch. While there’s some helpful advice to be gleaned, most authors put nutrition before pleasure and ease. As someone who has spent the last 15 years developing simple recipes for cakes and cookies, I’m inclined to do the opposite. I pack lunches the way I prepare breakfast, dinner and dessert, letting the following questions guide me:

Did I make it myself? I don’t prepare elaborate, time-consuming dishes for my family on school nights, but I don’t serve them prepared or processed food either. The same goes for the lunch box. I don’t give my kids ravioli from a can, microwavable burritos or pre-packaged snacks (even if they are made with sprouted wheat or labeled “organic”). Lunch may be a sandwich, a salad with a separate container of homemade dressing or leftovers (the kids’ favorite), but it’s always something I’ve made myself.

Have I exercised portion control? When people find out what I do for a living, they inevitably are shocked that my entire family isn’t morbidly obese. There is no secret to our weight control. We just eat everything in moderation. If I’m packing several items in a lunch box, every one of them will be small: A half a bagel with cream cheese, a half dozen baby carrots or cherry tomatoes, and a small treat to end the meal: Enough food to give my kids energy for the second half of the school day but not enough to slow them down.

Have I taught my children something about food and cooking? I strongly believe that learning how to cook is integral to becoming a healthy adult. While my children eat breakfast, I pack their lunches and we talk about the best way to slice a hard roll (don’t hold it in one hand and cut towards that palm with the other hand unless you want to start the day at the emergency room), why it’s better to pack a whole apple than apple slices (slices will turn brown by second period) and why sandwiches with mayonnaise should be kept in the classroom cooler.

Does the meal end with a treat? I guess I’m sentimental, but I can’t bear the idea of sending them off without something sweet to end their midday meal. I have bags of cookie dough in the freezer, so I can bake them each a cookie before school. I also have frozen brownies and blondies (1½-inch squares, not big enough to tempt them to ditch their sandwiches). And every couple of weeks I’ll bake a batch of mini coffee cakes, wrap them individually, and freeze them for future lunch box use.

My priorities might be different from those of a nutritionist, but the end result is a relatively healthy midday meal, nutritionally balanced but easy to prepare and with plenty to enjoy. My own children haven’t inherited my deceptive nature. When they don’t care for something that I’ve packed for them, they leave it in the lunchbox and bring it home. If there’s a half a sandwich or a container of celery sticks, what can I do? When there’s a leftover cake, I pour myself a cup of coffee and enjoy an afternoon snack.

Mini Whole Wheat Coffee Cakes

Makes 12 little cakes

I loved Devil Dogs and Ring Dings as a kid, but my all-time favorite was Drake’s Coffee Cakes. This recipe is an homage to that lunchbox treat. My version is less rich and buttery than the coffee cake I make for brunch and dessert, but will satisfy a child’s sweet tooth nonetheless. I actually chose the “healthy” ingredients not for their fiber or vitamin content, but because they lend great flavor and texture to the cakes. Whole wheat pastry flour makes them tender but slightly chewy. Sunflower seeds in the streusel topping gives them some crunch (I use seeds because my children eat in a nut-free lunch room; chopped walnuts or pecans may be substituted if you’d like). Once the cakes are cooled, you can wrap them in plastic, place them in a zipper-lock bag, and freeze them. Then pop a frozen one your child’s lunchbox in the morning. Even if his or her lunch period is at 10:30 (that’s when the sixth graders in our school eat), the cake should defrost in time.


For the topping:

3 tablespoons dark brown sugar
pinch salt
¼ teaspoon cinnamon
5½ tablespoons whole wheat pastry flour
¼ cup sunflower seeds
2½ tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled

For the cakes:

2 cups minus 2 tablespoons whole wheat pastry flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
¼ cup dark brown sugar
1 cup milk (lowfat is OK)
2 eggs, lightly beaten
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract


  1. Make the topping: Combine dark brown sugar, salt, cinnamon, whole wheat pastry flour and sunflower seeds in a medium bowl. Drizzle with butter and pinch mixture with your fingers to form crumbs. Freeze while making cake batter.
  2. Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Grease a 12-cup muffin tin with nonstick cooking spray. Whisk together the flour, baking soda, salt and brown sugar in a large mixing bowl. Stir in milk , eggs, butter and vanilla. Divide batter between muffin cups. Sprinkle with crumb topping and press lightly so it adheres to the batter.
  3. Bake until toothpick inserted into the center of a cake comes out dry, 15 to 18 minutes. Invert onto a wire rack, re-invert, and let cool completely.

Zester Daily contributor Lauren Chattman is a cookbook author, freelance writer and former professional pastry chef. Her recipes have appeared in Food & Wine, Bon Appetit, Cook’s Illustrated and The New York Times. She is the author of 14 books, most recently “Cake Keeper Cakes” (Taunton, 2009) and “Cookie Swap!” (Workman, 2010).

Photo: Mini whole wheat coffee cakes. Credit: Lauren Chattman

Zester Daily contributor Lauren Chattman is a cookbook author, freelance writer and former professional pastry chef. Her recipes have appeared in Food & Wine, Bon Appetit, Cook's Illustrated and The New York Times. She is the author of 14 books, most recently "Cake Keeper Cakes" (Taunton, 2009) and "Cookie Swap!" (Workman, 2010).

  • Amanda 9·8·12

    Thanks for the article! I liked how it keeps things simple and reasonable- I too want my children to eat healthy, but a little sugar won’t hurt them!