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August 21. 2013 12:36AM

Concord food writer helps parents picture appealing school lunches


“Beating the Lunch Box Blues” is in large part a photographic guide to imaginative and appetizing school lunches. 8MATTHEW MEAD 

CONCORD - It's 7 in the morning. Your hair is dripping while you finish dressing after your shower. Your 13-year-old son, grousing about today's math test, is tying his laces while your 9-year-old daughter makes sure her pigtails are the same length. The dogs still haven't been fed or walked and you have a morning meeting you need to get to.

It's a rush-rush morning, and you're hurrying to get the kids on the bus, which will be at the corner in about 10 minutes. And you've just realized: neither one has a lunch ready.

Panic can set in here, but J.M. Hirsch of Concord has authored a new book — you can't really call it a cookbook (more on that later) — that will hopefully make those last-minute lunches easy, healthy and, yes, something tasty that the kids will want to gobble up.

See it and do it

"Beating The Lunch Box Blues" will be released in stores and Amazon.com on Sept. 3. The book, which is the first being offered on celebrity chef Rachael Ray's new publishing imprint, is designed to give parents ideas to put together a quick and fun lunch for their kids. The book is light on recipes and heavy on pictures.

The idea, Hirsch said, is to avoid having parents feel like they have to follow a recipe to the letter, like they would in a traditional cookbook.

"I just don't think people work that way in the morning while they're packing lunches," he said. "You have five, maybe 10 minutes, tops to do it."

Hence the tons of photos that don't necessarily give you a recipe. An example is "Leftover Pasta Salad." Its page has a picture of a delicious-looking helping of pasta salad with these words: "Got leftover pasta? You got pasta salad. Toss leftover cold pasta with bottled vinaigrette and whatever veggies you have on hand."

Notice the lack of measurements or extensive list of ingredients?

"To me, it was very important that the book be 100 percent visual," he said. "I just want people to be able to flip through it, look at the ideas and say, 'Oh, I get it. Ok, I can do that.'"

How lunch became a book

While he is the national food editor for the Associated Press, Hirsch said he had no special culinary training. What he had, he said, was a desire to make sure his son, Parker, ate as healthy as possible.

"I'm a dad who has to feed his kid good food that he'll eat and that I'll feel good about," he said.

The book began as a blog, lunchboxblues.com, that Hirsch started a few years ago. He takes pictures of and describes the lunch he packed for Parker that day. He said that, when a magazine editor urged him to start the blog, he took to it like "a petulant child," believing it would go nowhere and nobody would read it.

To his surprise, it took off and became so popular it was featured on NPR and in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and culminated with him appearing on Martha Stewart's television program showing her how to make a quick and easy pulled-pork sandwich and a chicken and peanut pasta lunch.

"I underestimated how — and I'm glad I was wrong — but I underestimated how overwhelmed the average parent feels about packing lunch," he said. "Suddenly there's this surreal moment where I'm standing there on TV next to Martha teaching her how to pack my son's lunch box and you realize that something crazy happened along the way. Wonderfully crazy, but crazy all the same."

He'd known Ray for years and heard she'd switched publishers and was receiving her own imprint, Rachael Ray Books. He knew she was an advocate for childhood nutrition and school lunch reform.

"I knew that if I was ever going to write a book based on blog ... she was the person to do that book for me," he said. He showed her his proposal and she "loved it," he said.

"It's been a fun project," Hirsch said. "I'm thrilled to have this opportunity."

OK, there are some recipes

The book does have about 30 recipes, including vegetarian options, but there's a catch. Each is designed to be a dinner recipe that results in leftovers that, you may have guessed by now, turn into future lunches.

"I will use these leftovers as the building block for the next day," he said.

For example, Wednesday night's rosemary-port braised beef short ribs becomes Thursday's beef sliders and Friday's short ribs and pasta.

And the book has some tricks to share to make lunch tastier, more enjoyable and several steps up on the healthy ladder from a bologna and cheese sandwich.Here's an example for a meatball hero: pack hot meatballs in a thermos and pack the bun separately. There are several benefits to this approach, he said. First, when your daughter opens her lunch, she gets to put the sandwich together herself, making it fun for her. She also has a nice, hot sandwich to enjoy without a soggy bun.

The family effect

The star of Hirsch's blog is 8-year-old Parker, who has shared screen time with his dad on Food Network shows and is in the September issue of Every Day with Rachael Ray magazine, in which Hirsch's book is featured.

"He's a bit taken with his own fame," Hirsch said with a laugh.

Parker has met numerous celebrity chefs, though he is rarely awed because Hirsch said his home has no television. Hirsch shared a story in which several chefs, including Ray and Alton Brown, submitted recipes a few years ago to help encourage Parker to eat vegetables. Brown's parsnip muffins won.

"It's not every 5-year-old who gets a whole crew of Food Network celebrities catering and trying to get him to eat something," he said. "So he has a bit of a warped perspective on life."

Hirsch's full-time job with the Associated Press is technically based in New York City, though he said he refuses to live there. When taking the job, he insisted on staying in Concord, where he lives with his wife, Holly Ramer, who is a reporter with the Associated Press, and his 8-year-old who "is prone to acting 18," as Hirsch writes on his blog.

While the book won't be released until next month, it is available for pre-order on Amazon.com.

tbuckland@unionleader.com


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