What 'Top Chef' Tom Colicchio Packs His Kids for Lunch

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Celebrity chef Tom Colicchio’s sons — Luka, 6, and Mateo, 5 — don’t do chicken fingers. “They’re good eaters. They don’t like ‘kid food,’” Colicchio says. In fact, the grade-school boys, if they are to eat hog dogs, prefer franks that are all-natural, and they like them pierced and stuffed with steamed peas. Veggie-and-pasta combinations are the biggest lunchtime hits with the boys.

Colicchio is the lead judge for Bravo’s Top Chef series, and his famous restaurant ventures include Gramercy Tavern, Craft, and Colicchio & Sons. But it doesn’t take five James Beard awards to convince your children to eat like adults and to enjoy healthy foods. With tips from Colicchio, you can break from the toilsome task of making separate meals for the kids. The lunchtime prep routine will be much more seamless when everybody in the household — whether they tote a superhero lunch box or practical Tupperware that slips into a messenger bag — is eating the same meal. When you get this down, that mid-day meal has less to do with packaged snack crackers, and is more about sides like leftover avocado-mandarin salad (a dish served alongside salmon in the Colicchio household during a recent dinner).

Make sandwiches like this so your kids will eat veggies:

The formula for a sandwich — two pieces of bread, some lunch meat, lettuce, and spread — tires before school even breaks for Columbus Day. Get creative with your sandwich artistry and sneak in some more veggies. Colicchio recently sent his sons to school with a re-imagined veggie sandwich: Raisin bread, smeared with cream cheese, and layered with thin slices of cucumbers and carrots. (Try it for yourself as a second breakfast).

Set up a red light, green light system:

Make eating healthy a game. The Colicchio boys can eat anything in the agreed-upon “green light” category, which is comprised of fruits and veggies. “They eat three apples a day sometimes,” Colicchio says. Foods in the yellow category, like crackers, require a little more “proceed with caution” in the form of seeking parental permission before indulging. Candy and sugary drinks get the red light, as they’re completely off-limits.

Make an in-class cameo appearance (this works for non-celeb chefs, too):

You can do better than sending in store-bought cupcakes or signing up to bring “utensils” the next time there’s a class party. We’re betting you’ve got at least one recipe that’s a crowd pleaser at the kid’s table. Colicchio has hauled in his pressure cooker to his son’s classroom and made a batch of his popular (albeit simple) chicken soup, using chicken, carrots, celery, leeks, parsnips, and fresh thyme. He added in shell pasta (because kids love it). You can also top with freshly grated parmigiano-reggiano cheese.

Ditch the lunchbox and try a Thermos:

A Thermos opens up the opportunity for more homemade lunch options and is a great way to send your kid to school with leftovers. Colicchio’s sons love his one-pot pasta that he makes with finely chopped broccoli, prosciutto, grated parmigiano-reggiano cheese, and garlic. A couple pro tips: Add in the broccoli three-to-four minutes before the pasta is done. Also, set aside a cup of pasta water so when the pasta is cooked, you can add olive oil and cheese to make a creamy sauce. Top with salt and freshly cracked pepper. 

If they don’t like something, try again. And again. But be cool about it:

So your kid turned his nose to beans. Don’t be quick to relegate it to the “they’ll never eat that” list. “You have to introduce flavors to kids 10 to 12 times before they might like it,” Colicchio says. That doesn’t mean forcing the food on them, though. Just keep those foods in the rotation and re-presenting them. Asparagus is falling into this shuffle at Colicchio’s house.

Grow a garden — even if it's just a few herb plants indoors:

Colicchio has been tending to a backyard garden for the past two years, and it’s piqued his boys’ interests in healthy, fresh foods. “They eat cherry tomatoes like it’s popcorn,” he says. Think of your kids as shareholders in their meals. They’re more likely to finish their lunches away from your watchful eyes and at school when they’ve been a part of the process of making it — whether that’s accompanying you on trips to the grocery store, helping with meal prep, or lending a hand in the garden, Colicchio says.