Few meals intimidate my husband Danny. He has been a chef for over 25 years, so dinner is nothing but grace to him. He can wrap trout in prosciutto, pan roast it with artichokes and baby green beans, and top it with garlic scape pesto for the 80 people who will order it that night. For him, preparing a meal is grounding, a chance to stand in front of the stove and start again.
But there was one meal that flipped him out and made him fuss, anxiously: our daughter’s first brown-bag lunch for preschool.
Before that lunch, Lucy ate every meal with us at home, and she ate everything with great gusto. She ate local produce in season, very little food out of a package, and dishes flavored with spices we toasted ourselves. We got lucky with this kid.
But on the day we visited the school, we saw how Lucy loved splashing at the water table, chasing the other kids, and eating the animal crackers that came out of a giant box from Costco. Danny and I looked at each other. Pretty quickly, we realized, she’s not always going to be eating at our table.
Danny committed to packing her lunch. He wanted to fill her brown paper sacks with food wrapped in wax paper, a treat, and a little love note. (Never mind that Lucy couldn’t read yet. He just wanted it in there.) He wanted—needed, really—her lunch to be good: deeply flavored, full of good vegetables, just like a meal he would serve at the restaurant.
And so, for what seemed to be the first time, Danny felt the pressure of cooking. What meal could he make that would distill his passion for good food and good ingredients into a lunch sack for a two-year-old? Should he wake up before dawn and smoke a salmon?
It didn’t help that everyone where we live knows that he’s a chef and I write about food. We’re stopped on the street, often, to give our opinion about a local restaurant or what’s good to eat this season. We love this connection. It’s part of why we live here.
But Danny froze in the face of all the small-town recognition. What lunch would show he cared for his daughter? And, to be frank, what lunch would show that she is a chef’s daughter?
I tried to remind him that it really didn’t matter. That she would be happy with whatever he made. But he couldn’t hear it. I saw him hunched at the counter, brow furrowed, a chef on the line. And I stepped away.
The morning he was to finally bring her to school, he bustled about in the kitchen, chopping vegetables. The food processor hummed along as he poured in oil slowly for an aioli. There was a roasted chicken resting on the stove. Yes, he had already roasted a chicken and starting making aioli. For our two-year-old. To bring to preschool.
After another half-hour, he packed up her lunch: roasted chicken salad with celery, Walla Walla onions, and smoked paprika aioli. There was a crisp green salad on the side with poached baby artichokes and champagne vinaigrette. And some rhubarb crisp. They were packed in matching purple plastic containers we had purchased for her lunch sack. He carried the lunch, along with Lucy, to the car and drove off.
When I went to pick up Lucy a few hours later, she threw her arms around me. “Mama!” Her teacher handed me her backpack, her shoes, and her lunch sack. It was empty. I wasn’t surprised that she liked it, but that was a lot of food for a 2-year-old. Amanda leaned in and whispered, “I hope you don’t mind, but when Lucy didn’t finish her lunch, I went for the leftovers. That was good!”
I tease Danny about this now. Lucy’s just past four, and the pressure is off. Danny left the restaurant business to be at home with his daughter more often. Watching her eat, he sees that she can love pasta for dinner every night. She loves to share carrots and hummus with us. And Danny loves buying her string cheese at the store, because she loves that too, even if we don’t.
We still pack her good food but we lost the lids to those matching lunch containers long ago. And Danny’s more relaxed now. The other day, in a hurry, he packed her lunch fast: a handful of whole-grain crackers, some slices of sharp cheddar, and a peach. I’d like to say it was still beautifully presented, but we shoved each of them into plastic bags. Our lunches are no longer Pinterest worthy. But Lucy’s happy. I’m hoping that, in the end, that’s what she’ll remember best. And him, too.