Lunch Lady

by Cindy Lazarenko

LunchLadyBack to school, back to the routine of homework, going to bed early and planning for school lunches.

In the summer, the kids get up late and often don’t eat immediately — breakfast and lunch meld together like everyday is Sunday and everyday they have brunch. Sadly, without the usual bells and whistles.

It might be eggs and toast or simply just time for a second helping of oatmeal. If we’re hanging out at the cabin it’s more likely to be pancakes or waffles. Whatever it is, it’s enough to get them through to an early dinner with a few satisfying afternoon snacks in between.

In September, we go back to being a three-meal-a-day family which means constantly having to dream up lunch ideas that are easy to eat, easy to pack and not embarrassing.
I admit, it’s taken me a few years to understand why some lunches come back uneaten. It’s the reverse of what is sometimes called “snack shaming”. What kind of mother sends their kids to school transporting tuna salad with black beans and corn in a sesame lime dressing? Imagine the horror when your child unscrews the lid from the stainless steel thermos to expose the smell of stinky fish and sesame so that their entire circle of friends can scream ‘ewwww’ and proceed to plug their noses.

My offspring have been exposed to some of the best food that Edmonton has to offer. Five years of their lives were spent hanging out in my own restaurant where they were introduced to many delicious, locally sourced and sometimes uncommon food items. They’ve been to every farmer’s market and nearly every specialty food store in Edmonton. They dine at restaurants like Corso32 where recently they devoured whole plates of freshly made pasta and munched on arugula salad. They love the cheese selection at Cavern and will always beg for a chocolate bar from Jacek, their favourite being The Jackie, caramelized milk chocolate accessorized with fleur de sel. They regularly get to feast on food from Culina, aka Uncle Brad, and they’ve eaten more charcuterie and condiment selections then most adults.

So why then, I ask, will they not eat half of the lunches I pack for them for school? Often lunches are leftovers, which puzzles me because our dinnertime is generally a positive experience, enjoyable and void of complaints. Yet, pack it up for lunch and suddenly it becomes weird.

So the food is great for dinner in the privacy of our own home but it’s weird at school. I get it. Peer pressure. No normal, self-respecting kid eats spinach at lunch time. Understood.

When I was in junior high I remember walking home for lunch. Some days, with both my parents at work and with a few Home Ec cooking classes under my belt, I loved to make myself a scrambled egg sandwich. I would take two slices of soft, fresh, white bread, which my mother stocked up on each week from the Co-op and stored in the freezer. We were never without white bread. I would spread both sides with just the right amount of butter. I’d grab our best Teflon pan and crack a few eggs into it and proceed to watch the eggs set a little, then I would poke into the yolk and slowly scramble the eggs together with a fork (sorry mom – I probably never used the right utensil on your Teflon pans) until they firmed up just enough. Crispy, brown edges were not accepted. I placed them onto one of the buttered slices, the eggs melting the squishy bread. I would pour a bit of salt in my hand and ever so lightly season the eggs. Top with the other slice of bread, slice in half and sit down to eat the most enjoyable lunch of my childhood.

I just spent a year making lunches for the Highlands Junior High students. With a fairly well-stocked kitchen and donated food items I was able to create all kinds of healthy, comforting, yet interesting dishes for the students. I happily made soups, stews and curries many times accompanied by fresh vegetable platters and wonderful salads, which they would, for the most part, gobble up. I introduced them to fresh fennel, coconut rice and homemade iced tea. I got to know the kids who were allergic to zucchini, the one who detested beans of any kind and the girl who simply adored punkin pie.

I served sliced apples sprinkled with a bit of brown sugar and cinnamon – like apple pie without the crust. I never put out whole oranges, always quartered, because it seems to be the only way to get kids to eat an orange. Any leftover oranges would often go into banana orange smoothies the next day made by some of the student volunteers.

I prepared a potato salad with yogurt dressing using organic potatoes I received from Sparrow’s Nest Organics. I used millet (donated by Culina) to replace rice on many occasions and eventually the students grew to like it, especially if it was doused with a flavourful sauce. On special days they were treated to mini- cupcakes from Whimsical Cakes, Belgian chocolate ice cream from Pinnochio and the happiest day of all was when they got to sample Eva Sweet Waffles, all donations from generous friends in the food business.

What dish garnered the most requests both at school and at home? My mom’s beef barley soup. My 10 year old pleaded, ‘Please mom, can you make it exactly the way Nana makes it. Don’t add anything else to it.’

Here is my mom’s recipe for beef barley soup, untouched.

Beef barley soup

OnOurTable chef Cindy Lazarenko spent a year managing the hot lunch program at Highlands Junior High School.This year you will find her volunteering for the same program, presenting corporate Lunch & Learns discussing easy, healthy lunches to take to work and ollaborating with her brother at Culina Catering.