3 ideas for make-ahead school lunches, with recipes | Food + Living

In this kinda sorta back-to-school season, a hodgepodge of virtual and in-person learning, one constant remains: We still need to eat. Lunch, whether taken at school or at the kitchen table, is arguably more important than ever with the emotional toll of cumulative uncertainty and change to our routines.

In the spirit of nourishing body and mind (and turning frowns upside down), we are serving up three ways to get your lunch (or snack) on and refuel those active brains. Everything on the menu can be made in batches for the week ahead and does not require one piece of cutlery when eating. That’s right; we are cutting loose and eating with our hands.

P.S. These recipes are fun for students of all ages.

Pulverized dates transform into a malleable paste that can be blended with seeds, nuts or spices. They keep well for weeks in the refrigerator.

Energizing bites

Pulverized dates transform into a malleable paste that makes shaping these sweet yet nutrient-dense balls a breeze. Rich in fiber and potassium, the date feels like a treat that gives you energy but without the candy bar-style sugar crash. Blending date paste with seeds or nuts adds protein and good fats and increases satiety. I love the fudgy results from the addition of cocoa powder, but if chocolate is not your thing, maybe flaked coconut is. Use this recipe as a guideline and come up with your own creation.

Date Balls

Makes about 20 pieces.


  • 10 to 12 large Medjool dates, pitted (about 11 ounces)
  • 1/3 cup unsalted sunflower seeds or unsalted walnuts
  • 1/4 cup cocoa powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • Pinch salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract (optional)


Place the dates, seeds (or nuts), cocoa powder, cinnamon, salt (and vanilla, if using) in the bowl of a food processor. Using the pulse function, pulverize until the mixture clumps together and is very finely chopped. If mixture seems dry, feel free to gradually add up to 2 tablespoons of water to moisten.

Using a heaping teaspoon as a measure, portion the mixture and roll into balls. Arrange in a single layer in a tin or plastic container and store in the refrigerator. Keeps for several weeks.

Rice balls

Short-grained rice is key to forming onigiri, a popular street food snack of Japan. 

Rice balls

“Forming rice balls is easier than you’d think: your hands will show you how,” my longtime colleague and friend John Kessler told me in a recent email. A Chicago-based food writer, Kessler shared the story of making rice balls (also known as onigiri in Japan) for his daughters, now all in their 20s. “When my girls were growing up, I was the rice ball dad,” Kessler writes. “When it was my turn to bring snack after a soccer or ultimate game, I would eschew the tubs of supermarket hummus and baby carrots and instead pull out a container of onigiri — triangular Japanese rice balls flecked with furikake — the prepared rice seasoning that often contains sesame seeds and flakes of nori seaweed. Some kids were dubious at first, but few didn’t learn to love them.” You can find more of Kessler’s work at jdkess.com.

John Kessler’s Rice Balls (Onigiri)

To mix rice balls, Kessler writes, “you need to have room temperature short-grain japonica rice. No other variety will get the right pleasingly sticky texture.”

You can find furikake in Asian markets and in some conventional grocery stores. Kessler and his family are fans of umejiso, the “variety of furikake with tangy bits of sour plum and shiso leaf.”

Makes 18 pieces.


  • 6 cups cooked short-grain Japanese or Korean rice, at room temperature (from 2 cups rice cooked in 4 cups water for about 18 minutes)
  • 2 to 3 tablespoons furikake seasoning


Put the rice in a large bowl and sprinkle the furikake evenly over the top. Mix the furikake into the rice by with a rice paddle or plastic spatula.

Wash your hands very well and leave them wet. Scoop up just enough rice to fit into your cupped palm (about 1/3 cup) and cup your other palm perpendicularly over the top, like you’re protecting a baby chick. Press lightly, rotating one hand above the other, until an equilateral triangle of rice forms. When it looks ready, it is. Rinse your hands well to remove any stickiness and start the next.

Place the rice balls, unstacked, in the bottom of a large, flat airtight container. When finished, gently press plastic film over the top and snap the lid on. If you need to refrigerate the rice balls, make sure to do so in the container and let them come to room temperature for an hour before serving.

Hand, meet pie

Empanada, patty, pasty, samosa —they all are global variations on the beloved hand pie, a flaky pastry filled with fruity or savory goodness that fit in the palm of your hand. Savory hand pies travel exceptionally well for commuting students and do not need to be reheated. The dough and fillings that follow are herb, spice and chile pepper-forward (but not necessarily spicy), hallmarks of the sumptuous patties from Jamaica.

A few notes:

  • The fillings and the dough can be a day in advance if you want to do assembly and baking on a separate day.
  • For a same-day project, make the fillings first so that they can cool while you make the dough.
  • You will end up with leftover filling, but this is a wonderful problem. Each filling is righteous on its own and make wonderful partners for rice or other grains.
  • The hand pies freeze well. Cool completely before storing in freezer-safe bags. Reheat in a toaster oven or in a microwave.

Jamaican-Style Savory Hand Pies

Inspired by “Lucinda’s Jamaican Kitchen” by Lucinda Scala Quinn.

Ingredients: Turkey or beef filling

  • 1/4 cup neutral oil
  • 1 pound ground turkey or beef
  • 1 cup finely chopped onion (not quite a medium onion)
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 to 2 Scotch bonnet chile peppers, seeded and minced (Plan B: habanero or cayenne peppers)
  • 3 scallions, root removed, white and light green parts finely chopped
  • 2 teaspoons Madras or garam masala curry powder
  • 1 teaspoon ground allspice
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 1/2 cup plain breadcrumbs


Heat 2 tablespoons of the oil in a large skillet over medium-high, tilting the pan until the surface is coated. Add the ground meat and cook until browned through, about 8 minutes. With a slotted spoon, transfer the meat to a bowl and set aside.

Add the remaining 2 tablespoons of oil and add the onion, cooking until softened, 5 to 7 minutes. Stir in the garlic and chile peppers, cooking for about 1 minute, followed by the scallions for 1 minute. Return the meat to the pan and add the curry powder, allspice, salt and pepper, stirring until evenly distributed. Cook until you see the spices forming a crust, about 3 minutes. Add the water and stir, scraping the bottom to loosen any stuck-on bits. Stir in the breadcrumbs and bring the mixture to a gentle boil. Reduce the heat to low, cover and cook to let water evaporate and for flavors to deepen, about 15 minutes. Remove from heat and transfer to a sheet pan to completely cool.

Filling can be made in advance. Do not reheat to assemble hand pies.

Ingredients: Curried sweet potato and chickpea filling

  • 2 tablespoons neutral oil
  • 1 cup chopped onion (not quite a medium onion)
  • 2 cloves garlic, very finely chopped
  • 1 to 2 red chile peppers of choice, seeded and minced (Scotch Bonnet, habanero or cayenne are all good choices)
  • 2 teaspoons Madras or garam masala curry powder
  • 1 teaspoon ground allspice
  • 3/4 to 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
  • 2 to 2 1/2 cups peeled and chopped sweet potato or butternut squash (from about 1 pound)
  • 1 15-ounce can chickpeas, drained


Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium, tilting the pan until the surface is coated. Add the onion and cook until softened, about 5 minutes. Stir in the garlic and chile pepper and cook for about 1 minute. Add the spices, stirring until coated. The mixture may get pasty and that’s ok. Add the sweet potato and the chickpeas, stirring until well coated. Add 3/4 cup water and bring the mixture to a gentle boil. Reduce the heat to low and cover. Cook until the sweet potato is soft enough to mash, 20 to 25 minutes. The water should be completely evaporated.

Remove from the heat and mash the mixture. Transfer to a sheet pan to completely cool. Filling can be made in advance. Do not reheat when ready to assemble hand pies.

Ingredients: Dough

Makes 16 to 18 pieces

  • 2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 tablespoon Madras or garam masala curry powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 cup unsalted cold butter (1 stick), diced
  • 3/4 cup ice-cold water


In a large bowl, stir together the flour, curry powder, salt and baking powder. Add the butter and “cut” into the flour mixture with a fork or fingertips, until it resembles coarse meal. The butter should not be visible. (You can also do this in a food processor.)

Gradually add the water and toss gently with your hands until the dough just forms a ball. Do not overmix, as the dough will become tough.

Lightly dust your work surface and dump the dough on top. With both hands, surround the edges to tidy the dough and molding into a cohesive lump. Cut into two pieces and flatten each into a disk. Wrap each disk in plastic and refrigerate for 20 minutes. (If stored for longer, let it warm before rolling.)

Working with one dough disk at a time, cut into 8 or 9 pieces. Dust the work surface with flour as needed. Roll one piece at a time, keeping the remaining pieces covered. Roll into a circle or rectangle between 4 1/2 and 5 inches across.

Have a small dish with water at the ready. Place 1 tablespoon of the filling in the center of the circle. Dip your index finger into the water and trace it around the border. Fold the dough so that top and bottom edges meet. With a fork, crimp the edges until sealed.

Preheat the oven to 400 F and line a sheet pan with parchment paper.

Bake until golden, about 20 minutes.¶

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