Lunch lessons: Easy ideas for back to school meals

George Georgievski with his daughters Kiki and Anela. Picture: Nikole Ramsay
George Georgievski with his daughters Kiki and Anela. Picture: Nikole Ramsay

George Georgievski has been dubbed the most inspiring lunchbox creator in the world. With more than 149,000 followers on Instagram and 80,000 on Facebook, his book Lunchbox Express is considered a bible amongst the bento crowd.

By day he's a father of two daughters, Anela and Kiki, responsible for preparing their school lunches.

I'd love to say he's just like the rest of us, but Georgievski takes the humble lunch box to a whole new level.

It all started about five years ago when he was home sick one day and saw what his wife Marina had to do to get the girls out the door.

"She asked me to help out by making the lunches, I did it that day but I realised I had no idea what it took to get it done every day," he says.

He started looking online for inspiration but found things were either too complicated - "like panda bear sandwiches with tropical seaweed for eyes" - or too caught up in meeting nutritional guidelines.

Air Fryer Express: 60 delicious recipes for dinners, snacks and school lunches, by George Georgievski. Plum, $26.99.

Air Fryer Express: 60 delicious recipes for dinners, snacks and school lunches, by George Georgievski. Plum, $26.99.

"I just wanted to find a way to make it taste good, look good and for there to be a bit of fun about it," he said.

For as much as his lunchbox creations look complicated and detailed Georgievski is like the rest of us in that he realises we don't have too much time to be faffing about of a morning.

He suggests getting a bit done the night before, perhaps even prep for the week on a weekend.

But his latest trick is using an air fryer. These appliances are like a small benchtop convection oven with powerful fans. They can bake, roast and fry, without the need for a whole lot of oil.

"It was a revelation when I discovered how much time I could save in the morning using the air fryer," he says.

"When you're a busy parent or carer, time is of the essence. The air fryer gave me the opportunity to recreate some classics dishes that would usually take hours in a regular oven."

His latest cookbook is Air Fryer Express full of recipes for dinners, snacks and school lunches.

"While this book is largely focused on the air fryer, I also wanted to include some tips on packing delicious, healthy and colourful lunches," he says.

"I am asked so many questions on social media and at events, so I thought I'd share my answers to some of the most common ones. I hope they help to make creating school lunches easy and fun."

  • Air Fryer Express: 60 delicious recipes for dinners, snacks and school lunches, by George Georgievski. Plum, $26.99.
A lunchbox full of colourful goodness. Picture: Nikole Ramsay

A lunchbox full of colourful goodness. Picture: Nikole Ramsay

Lunchbox tips

I'm nervous about putting cold meat, eggs and dairy into my child's lunchbox. How can I make sure these foods will stay at a safe temperature?

This is one of the most common questions I'm asked and it really is super simple. Just get yourself a cooler bag and an ice pack. You can use any type of cooler bag as long as it seals properly and fits the lunchbox and an ice pack. You can find both of these in most supermarkets.

Won't yoghurts, sauces and dips leak into my child's school bag?

Not if you use a really good-quality bento-style lunchbox. These are designed to be air- and liquid-tight, to keep food fresh and bags clean!

I bought a bento-style lunchbox and I'm struggling to find things to fit in the small compartments.

Use your mad knife skills and get creative with your cutting. You can make anything fit if you really want it to. Also, you can make your own bite-sized versions of your kids' favourite foods.

How do you find the time to pack such interesting and colourful lunches every single morning?

I know mornings can be hectic, so I give myself a head start on the day and get up an hour before my girls do to make a coffee and get myself ready. Then I'm free to make my girls' lunches while they have breakfast and get ready for school. Being organised is key to an easy morning. I really enjoy getting creative and deciding each morning what to put in their lunchboxes, but I still do some prep in advance to make life easier. I make sure that the lunchboxes are clean and dry, and that all my fruit and veggies are washed. Then it's just a quick chop and assemble and we're good to go.

How do I create a balanced and healthy lunchbox?

Don't get too caught up thinking you have to pack all sorts of fancy things. In each lunchbox, I make sure there is a portion of protein, some veggies, dairy, fruit and a healthy treat. Keep it simple and packet free, and you can't go wrong.

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Do you have any tips on how to get the kids excited to try new things?

Getting the kids involved can boost enthusiasm levels. Try taking them shopping with you to choose the fresh ingredients and get them to help with preparing or assembling their own lunches - even if it's just one day a week to start with. My girls love coming up with fun names for my different lunchbox creations, too. Anything that makes the process fun can help!

When I pack veggies in my child's lunchbox, they inevitably come home uneaten. How do I get my kids to eat their veggies?

Both of my kids are picky in different ways, and sometimes one of the six bento box compartments will come home untouched. I call the uneaten item - which is usually a new veggie - the 'risk taker'. I'll try the risk taker again the following week and then again the week after. Getting kids used to new foods is a gradual process. The key is to keep trying!

Picky eaters are more likely to try something new if it looks cool. And if you change up the presentation they never get bored. Rainbows make my girls happy, so I put a rainbow of veggies in their lunchboxes every day. Making their lunches look appealing is a great way to encourage your kids to actually eat them!

Recipes

Try to resist oozing cheese and garlic sticks. Picture: Nikole Ramsay

Try to resist oozing cheese and garlic sticks. Picture: Nikole Ramsay

Oozing cheese and garlic sticks

When I think of cooked cheese I imagine it stretching for miles and miles! This simple and fun recipe is a definite favourite - it has texture and crunch, and is also perfect for the lunchbox.

Ingredients

1 egg

2 garlic cloves, peeled

bread crusts from 4 slices of bread

pinch of salt flakes

8-10 batons of cheddar (about 10cm long and 2cm thick)

Method

1. Beat the egg in a bowl or, if you are like me, use a protein shaker to shake the egg to create an egg wash. Line the base of your air fryer with baking paper.

2. Grab your garlic and bread crusts, pop them in the air fryer and cook on 200C for three minutes. What we are doing here is removing the moisture from the bread and slightly toasting it.

3. Using a blender, blitz the toasted bread, garlic and salt until you've made your very own breadcrumbs. Well done, legend! Pop the garlicky breadcrumbs on a plate.

4. Now for the cheese. Dip the cheese batons in the egg wash until they're fully coated, then roll them in the breadcrumbs. Reduce the air fryer to 180C, add the breaded cheese sticks and cook for eight minutes or until golden brown. If you can eat just one, you deserve a medal. Otherwise, if you're like me, you'll eat the whole lot and then need to make more.

Extra fancy stuff: Try using a fancy French blue cheese or even haloumi to impress your friends. Feel free to add green stuff, such as chopped parsley or oregano, to the breadcrumb mixture. To make this recipe even easier and quicker, use store-bought breadcrumbs.

Makes 8-10.

Pizza scrolls are a lunchbox classic. Picture: Nikole Ramsay

Pizza scrolls are a lunchbox classic. Picture: Nikole Ramsay

Pizza scrolls for the lunchbox

I've been making these scrolls for the past few years. They're super popular with my girls and they fit really snugly in their school lunchboxes. You can't go wrong with pizza! What kid doesn't like pizza?

Ingredients

2 sheets of frozen puff pastry, just thawed

3 tbsp tomato paste

small handful of basil leaves (optional)

75g grated mozzarella

Method

1. Using a knife or a pizza cutter, cut each pastry sheet into five even strips. Grab a teaspoon and put a dollop of tomato paste in the centre of each pastry strip. Use the back of the spoon to evenly spread the paste over the strips, but avoid getting too close to the edges. At this point you can add the basil leaves or skip them and go straight for the mozzarella. Sprinkle the mozzarella along the centre of each pastry strip, again avoiding the edges.

2. Now for the folding and rolling. Don't stress, it's easier than it sounds. Fold the pastry strips in half lengthways, to enclose the ingredients. Don't worry if some of the grated mozzarella falls out - it's all good as we're not on MasterChef. Roll up the strips until you have created ten of the best ever pizza scrolls. Line the base of your air fryer with baking paper and pop the scrolls in. Cook on 180C for eight minutes or until golden brown. Allow the pizza scrolls to cool, then pack into lunchboxes or put them in an airtight container in the freezer where they will keep for up to two months.

Extra: You can make vegan pizza scrolls by using non-dairy cheese. I've made them a few times and they're pretty dang good, so for any lactose-intolerant little peeps this is a genuinely awesome lunchbox addition, after-school snack or even dinner.

Makes 10.

Hot jam muffins for a sometime treat. Picture: Nikole Ramsay

Hot jam muffins for a sometime treat. Picture: Nikole Ramsay

Hot jam muffins

I think this recipe is borderline genius (or crazy). When I first made these jam muffins my wife stood there watching me saying, "How the hell does your mind come up with this stuff?".

When I posted the video on Instagram it went ballistic - 3.5 million hits in less than a week. So dig out what you need and let's get cracking.

Ingredients

1 egg

250ml milk

3 tbsp melted butter

3 tbsp maple syrup

150g self-raising flour

olive oil spray or butter

1 kids' medicine syringe (trust me)

1 1/2 tbsp raspberry jam

1 tbsp icing sugar, sifted

raspberries, to serve (optional)

mint leaves, to serve (optional)

Method

1. First up, grab your protein shaker or use a mixing bowl and whisk. Add the egg, milk, melted butter, maple syrup and flour. Either shake the ingredients like there's no tomorrow or whisk them really well.

2. Grab a six-hole muffin tin that will fit in your air fryer or use six 8cm diameter ramekins. If your muffin tin is non-stick, bonus; otherwise, grease the holes with olive oil spray or butter.

3. Divide the muffin mixture evenly among the muffin holes or ramekins but only fill them two-thirds of the way up, as the mixture will rise.

4. Pop the tin or ramekins in your air fryer and cook on 170C for seven minutes. They will rise up and may even overflow, but that's okay as you'll have more to eat.

5. While the muffins are cooling down, grab the syringe and, using kitchen scissors, snip the top off so you have a bigger hole. Put the syringe in the jam and suck it up - you should have about 5ml of jam. This next bit is the best: insert the syringe into the centre of a muffin and push in the jam (I know, genius, right?). Once you have filled all the muffins, dust the icing sugar over the top.

6. You can serve these as is, or scatter over some fresh raspberries and mint leaves if you want to impress people. Enjoy moderately (just kidding, these are not deep-fried, so eat them all if you want).

Extra fun stuff: I have made these with strawberry jam, too, and they were delicious, so use any flavour you like. Or for a complete game changer, you could use chocolate-hazelnut spread.

Makes 6.

This story Lunch lessons: All the tips and tricks for easy school lunches first appeared on The Canberra Times.

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