Chef Fabio Trabocchi runs one of Washington’s most-buzzed-about restaurants. But on weekday mornings, a different Trabocchi’s food gets most of the scrutiny. Maria Trabocchi, who works as the special events director for the couple’s Fiola restaurant in Penn Quarter, broadcasts the contents of her children’s school lunchboxes via Twitter (@mtrabocchi) to her waiting followers.
Why? These are school lunches with a twist. The meals are sophisticated, and there’s rarely a sugary dessert. Acting recipe editor Jane Touzalin sat down with Maria Trabocchi at Fiola last week to talk about how she packs healthful lunches for daughter Aliche, 11, and son Luca, 8. Here are edited excerpts from their conversation.
What would a typical lunchbox contain?
Today I made skate, prosciutto with grilled bread, with tomatoes, stracchino cheese, which is very low in fat — probably one of the lowest ones in fat — and fresh figs, sliced. And I put some Swiss chard in it, too, which they don’t mind in a sandwich. They see green, they think it’s lettuce. They eat it, the mix is good, it tastes good, they don’t fuss about it. I think if I told them they were just having celery for lunch, they’d be, “Why? I want something more fun.”
You make their lunch every day?
I do. Our family time is the morning; we can’t do family time in the evening, because we are here [at Fiola]. So we have breakfast together, and while we’re having breakfast I prepare their lunch, their famous lunchbox.
I’ve always been very much against all the processed food. My freezer is empty, for example. . . . I want them to grow up eating everything. When they were babies, I would make their baby food, or Fabio would make it, and it was all kinds of food. We expose them to everything, since we can, and we should: This is a global country right now; you can get food from anywhere in the world. I wanted them to be exposed to that and not to be ignorant about food. Just to make them more like us. And I’d take them everywhere with us, for dinner or for lunch. I’ve never ordered from the kids menu. We don’t have a kids menu here for that reason. I think the kids should be able to eat what we eat.
How long does it take you to make two lunches?
Fifteen minutes. I already have all the stuff in the fridge. It’s all already planned. I prepare it on a plate first, and then I cut it and put it all together in a box.
Sometimes I forget, and that is when an omelet comes in very handy, because we always have eggs. So then I make an omelet with whatever fresh vegetables I have, and maybe I make a sandwich with that omelet. There’s always tomato, there’s always something to add to it. There’s always fruit.
You said you plate the food first?
Sometimes yes, so they see it. I think the visual is so important. Visual sells. They help me in the morning . . . . They help me put it all together. So they see it, and they might ask, “Can I please have some more corn? Can I have some more grapes?” Then I put it in the container. So when they see it cut and all mixed together in the lunchbox, when they open the box, they don’t think, “What is this?” They know exactly what it is.
You’ve mentioned that not every kid is going to like every food the first time they try it. It takes many times of being exposed to actually enjoy it. Until that happens, is it sort of a struggle? How do you present the food?
How do I make it happen? I try to make them go shopping with me, grocery shopping. If I’m in the vegetable department or the market, I ask them to get things for me. So if I ask for eggplant, they know what the eggplant looks like. They already know what to look for when I say, “Not too mushy,” or something like that. My son immediately smells even the potatoes. It’s become a habit.
If you make the kids part of it, they enjoy it much more than if they don’t know what they’re getting. If you just present something green or yellow that’s not in their usual safe zone, kids don’t like it. That’s normal. They’re afraid of it. You need to make them comfortable around the food.
Once we’re home, I make them wash everything, and that’s always a good game. I have a stool for both of them to be able to get on to wash the food. One would wash and the other would dry and put it in containers or bowls or whatever.
With the fruit, I already have Ziploc packages ready for snacks, so I don’t have to do that in the morning. The kids would sit there, I would cut the melon, they would say, “I want this one.” They would feel like a part of it.
The same thing with fish. They look at fish and they get extremely scared when they see a whole fish, with a head and everything. They say, “Ew, that’s ugly.” And I say, “Yeah, but that ugly one is really good.” And then we clean it together, we cook it together. And they feel special by helping. So then eating is not as bad.
My daughter used to hate chickpeas. She would look at a chickpea and be like, “I don’t like that.” But then I discovered she liked hummus. So I would make chickpeas in different variations, until she would get the taste for it. Now when she sees chickpeas, she still has the “ugh,” and then she remembers, “Ah, I like them.” So that’s how I made her change, is through different looks. It’s like trying shoes with different outfits.
You’ve said that you make sure that the kids have fish three times a week.
Fish is lean, with no fat. Obviously salmon, arctic char, some of the red fish can have more fat to it. But it’s very good protein. I’ve always thought that fish, with all the omegas [polyunsaturated fatty acids thought to have a number of health benefits], is really good for brain development. So fish is my priority. And here, we’re so lucky. We find amazing fish, so much better than in other places. Obviously, I have the best buyer here [at the restaurant]. . . . Arctic char, skate, Dover sole, all those. And they’re soft to eat, so they can eat it fast. And if you mix it with fruit, it’s kind of interesting and it’s not heavy. So when they go back to class, they don’t feel like they ate a hamburger and they have to take a nap.
How well does fish hold up in a lunchbox?
It holds up well, because here people eat very early. If we were in Europe, I think I would have to change my method. Kids here eat lunch at, like, 11 at school. So if they start at 8:30, 9, it’s just been made. It’s still hot in the container, and it’s a thermal that can last — mine says seven hours. They don’t eat it cold, and it’s still flavorful. I always add a little olive oil on top, or lemon, things like that, to make it a little more moist. And they eat it. They like it. I even make croquettes sometimes, like with cod or something like that, and they eat those, too. They are big fish aficionados now. It’s important for me that they eat fish. But not fish sticks. I’ve never bought those in my life. They just don’t look like fish; I don’t know if they taste like fish or not.
Do they get a dessert for lun ch?
Lots of fruit. To me, fruit and dessert are equivalent. I grew up always getting a piece of fruit after my meal, every single time. Fruit has sugar, so it satisfies the craving a little bit.
About tweeting your lunchbox. Do you have a lot of followers?
Not really. I find it funny, in a way, my lunchbox. . . . Moms follow me, I think, and they find it interesting. Maybe they get ideas, maybe not, maybe they think I’m sort of snobby. I don’t know.
Is there a cafeteria at your children’s school?
There is a cafeteria. They had the option to do the school lunch, or you can bring your own. A key ingredient to make a good, successful lunch is to have the right items to pack it in. There are so many rules in schools now: It’s like an airplane. You can’t bring knives to cut, so everything has to be already cut. You have to find a really nice thermal kind of box to be able to keep the food hot. I mean, everybody loves a sandwich, but I think there’s more than sandwiches in life. So I try to give them as much fish as I can, as much vegetables, and they need to be warm. You can eat it cold, but in the winter you don’t want to eat a cold fish; you want to eat it hot. So I make it in the morning, and it’s very simple. It’s not fancy at all. I’m not a chef. I’m just a mom who is concerned about their health and their habits. And I’m also concerned about my time. So I think it’s important that whatever I make, it can be done in 15 minutes or less. So while I’m having my coffee, I’m putting things here and there. It’s time management, really.
Have they ever come home and said, the other kids have different lunches? Why can’t we have lunches like theirs?
Yes, all the time. There was a time last year when I gave them octopus for lunch. That didn’t go very well. All the other kids went, “Eeew.” And my son is like, “All the other kids have sandwiches; why can’t I have a sandwich?” He was so annoyed, because then apparently the teacher asked them to spell “octopus,” and nobody got it right. He was 7 years old, and at that age, all the kids kind of follow the same pattern, so when you’re not doing the same thing. . . . But my son, especially, enjoys food so much that now I think some of the other kids, their moms, are starting to ask me, “What is your son having for lunch, because now my son is asking me, ‘Why can’t I have what he’s having?’ ” So I think it’s a good influence for the other kids. And even the teacher asked me once, “Hey, do you ever have an extra lunchbox? Just send it over my way.” So I think people want to do what I do; I think they’re afraid of it.
Do you try to tell them about nutrition and vitamins and protein or do you figure that they’ll just get it by osmosis?
I don’t think they get anything like that by osmosis. When I pick them up from school, they always want a snack, because all the other kids have snacks. If we go to a store or stop anywhere, it’s “Mom, can I have this? Can I have some chips?” They always want something. That’s a very common thing in this day. So I say, “No, that’s too fattening.” Or they’ll ask me directly: “Mom, is this too fattening?” So they know already what my answer’s going to be. So I say, “Find something healthy.”
What would be an acceptable after-school snack?
I let them have maybe some almonds, maybe bananas. Fruit is always welcome, any kind of fruit, and they love fruit. Sometimes nuts are good. Chips and all that — it’s not like I’ve never bought them, like my poor kids have never tried anything. But they know I prefer not to buy it. But definitely no sweets. Like no chocolate. And I love sweets, but I just don’t eat them.
I think it’s all about habits. As parents, we should be able to control a lot of their dietary nutrition every day. Why not? We’re building them. We do everything else: We’re paying for their education, we send them to camp, we buy them nice clothes or whatever. Why shouldn’t we also feed their brain the right way? I just wish more people would do that.
Do you have any advice for parents?
I would tell them not to be scared, It’s okay to try to include the children in your lunchbox creations. And fish is not the enemy. Fish is easier and faster to make than a steak or a hamburger, and it’s definitely less fatty. If they try it deboned it’s really good. At the beginning maybe you can mix it with butter, just to make it more indulgent for them. And a taste that they recognize, maybe cheese on top, something like that. And then get the right lunchbox. Get the right container that doesn’t spill, that’s easy to open, that when you put the food inside, it doesn’t look like, “What happened here?” Those things are important for my kids.
Do they ever thank you for lunch?
Yes. “Mommy, lunch was yummy, thank you.” And they tell me, “Can I have that yummy fish that I had the other day?” Especially my son; he’s extremely thankful for food. My daughter is more picky. But I’m surprised: We go to restaurants now and she chooses a salad over any other appetizer. And she’s 11. Obviously, throw french fries on the table they probably will kill each other for them. But if I have oysters, they will have oysters. If I have risotto they will have that too. Of course, many times I bring food from [Fiola], already made. So I have that advantage that other people don’t have. It’s probably one of the only advantages I have for being here so many hours. I can take home some of the sauces already made. Like lasagna. I don’t have time to make lasagna at home, so I take it from here.
I wish more parents would put more thought into the lunch.
Do your kids ever come home with stories about strange or terrible lunches that their friends bring to school?
They have told me, “Tommy, every day he has the same lunch, exactly the same thing every day, and he doesn’t eat it.” That’s their biggest shock. Why would a mom make only that? To them, that’s very weird. “Mom, every day they have this peanut butter and jelly, or ham and cheese, or whatever it is, and two crackers.” . . . It’s really boring. I would be bored, no matter how much I liked the sandwich. You have to keep them active and entertained. That, to them, is a shocking story, when they see kids bringing food from home . . . . Or those Lunchables, the things that are already made? They see it and they say, “Oh, I wouldn’t want that for lunch.” My daughter told me, “Don’t you ever buy that for lunch.”
And then if they don’t eat their lunch, for whatever reason — sometimes they didn’t have time, or there was a birthday — I’m like, “You know what? This cost a lot of money.” So I also make them aware of the cost involved. I’m like, “You know, I made this this morning, you saw me making it. It takes time, it takes money. I bought this. It’s not fair.” So sometimes they have to eat it for dinner. You have to educate them to be responsible with their food, too.