Chapel Hill Chef Offers Back-to-School Lunchbox Tips and Recipes

Chef Diggs and his daughters enjoy getting ready for school.

What’s in your child’s lunchbox? If you’re using recipes from last year and noticing that food is returning home uneaten, check out these tips from Chef Teddy Diggs, executive chef at Il Palio restaurant in Chapel Hill. Although he has formal training from the Culinary Institute of America, he still pulls parent duty packing school lunches for his two daughters. Here are this top chef’s top picks for getting creative with lunchbox fare so your child will look forward to opening that lunchbox. Plus, check out two recipes he uses for his girls.

1. Plan. Chefs and home cooks alike spend a lot of time each week planning what they are going to cook. School lunches should not be any different. While planning the weekly menu, asks your child to identify some of his or her favorite foods that he or she would like to eat for lunch. Encouraging your child to participate in the planning (and perhaps preparing) improves the chances that the lunch will actually get eaten.


2. Think outside of the (lunch) box. As good as a sandwich can be, it is only the beginning of possibilities for a school lunch “main course.” Pack hot lunches—such as dinner leftovers—to add variety and create a delicious school experience. Here’s a trick: In the morning, pour boiling water into a thermos and let it warm the container for a few minutes. Discard the water and add the food for an instant “hot pack” that keeps food warm all day! Left-over chicken meatballs are a favorite with my girls! Other fun recipe ideas? Try noodle soup, beans and rice and pastas or even a late breakfast with brown sugar and raisin oatmeal.

3. Plate It Pretty. The way that food is presented can affect a diner’s appetite—even with our kids. Take effort to keep the school lunches clean and organized. Securely wrap food and choose a lunchbox that reflects the personality of your child. And don’t forget to pack a personalized napkin note! (Below, Chef Diggs and his daughters ready lunchboxes.)



Diggs Family Oatmeal From Chef Teddy Diggs, executive chef at Il Palio

Serves 4-5


Water, 3 cups
Old-fashioned oats, 2 cups
Salt, 1 teaspoon
Unsweetened apple or pear juice, 1 cup
Walnuts, coarsely chopped, ¼ cup
Banana, mashed with a fork, 1 each
light brown sugar, ¼ cup
Golden raisins, ¼ cup
Ground cinnamon, 1/2 teaspoon


Bring 3 cups water to boil in heavy medium saucepan. Add oats and salt. Lower the heat to medium and stir until oats are softened and thick, about 5 minutes. Stir in the apple or pear juice, brown sugar, raisins and cinnamon. Reduce heat to low and stir in the bananas and nuts. Continue to cook for 2-3 minutes.

The oatmeal will stiffen a bit in the thermos, so it should be slightly looser than serving it straight off. Adjust the consistency with water as needed.

Chef Teddy Diggs’ Braised Chicken Meatballs Executive chef at Il Palio, Chapel Hill

Serves 5-6


Ground chicken; 3 pounds
Ground pork (optional); 1 pound (or 1 pound more of ground chicken)
Eggs, whole; 4 each
Milk, whole; ¾ cup
Breadcrumb, panko; 3 cups
Salt; 2 Tablespoons
Black Pepper, fresh course ground; 2 teaspoons
Extra Virgin Olive oil, ¼ cup plus ¼ cup to finish the plate
Crushed red chilies; 1 Tablespoon
Onion, Spanish, small diced; 2 each
Celery, small diced; 4 ribs
Carrot, large, small diced; 2
Garlic, minced; 2 cloves
Rosemary, fresh; 1 whole sprig
Thyme, Fresh; 2 whole sprigs
Tomato Sauce; as needed


Place ¼ cup of extra virgin olive oil in a large sauté pan over medium high heat. Once the oil has come to temperature, add the onions, celery, carrots, garlic, thyme, rosemary and 1 tablespoon of the salt. Sauté the ingredients, stirring frequently so that the vegetables do not brown. After about 10 minutes, the vegetables will have become soft and will smell delicious. Add chili flakes and black pepper to toast. Cook for about 1 more minute. Turn off the heat and allow the vegetables to cool down in the pan.

Remove the thyme and rosemary sprig, although any of the leaves that came off during the cooking process can stay.

In a large bowl combine the milk, eggs, breadcrumbs and remaining salt. Add the ground meats and cooled vegetable mixture and combine with your hands until all ingredients are thoroughly incorporated. Cover the meatball mixture and place in the refrigerator until chilled.

Roll the meat mixture into desired ball size. This recipe yields about 36 balls for Il Palio.

Sear the meatballs in a large pot with ¼ cup extra virgin olive oil. The meatballs should achieve a rich brown crust. Add your tomato sauce and a bit of water and allow the meatballs to simmer, covered for 30 minutes.

Garnish as desired and serve! Eat! Enjoy!


Categories: New, Fun, Deals, Recipes