Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Brown-bagging it: How not to pack a school lunch

When my son was just a toddler, I realized what I was doing wrong when it came to his daycare lunches. I was packing to impress his teachers, rather than to satiate his appetite.

I couldn’t bear to pack food I wasn’t proud to be serving my child, knowing that every item from his little lunchbox passed through a teacher’s hands as they helped lay it out on a tiny tray for him. Never mind that three-quarters of the menu came back home in that same lunchbox at the end of the day; I wanted to be sure my yogurt brand and peeled apple slices were a daily reflection of my conscientious attitude toward parenting.

So I was thrilled to realize once my kids started public school that no adult was watching them eat anymore. The parent volunteers who patrol the lunchroom are way too busy to inspect any one child’s lunch box, and the professional lunchroom aides are far more interested in seeing which table can win The Quiet Game for a chance to be First Group Out to Recess to glance at what the kids are eating.

Still, I always packed with an eye toward nutrition. I don’t shop as vigilantly as some of my friends – my neighbor buys all her groceries at Whole Foods and wonders why her weekly food bills are at least $50 higher than mine every time we compare – but I’m careful with preparation. Even if I buy the mayonnaise at Market Basket rather than the organic aisle of Whole Foods, I spread it thinly, and though I let my kids have regular Oreos once in a while rather than Paul Newman Organics, it’s only one per lunch.

But recently I’ve been trying to offload more household tasks onto the kids, and school lunches seemed like an obvious place to start. I suggested to Holly that she pack her own lunch earlier this week. I knew what she’d be choosing among; it was all groceries I’d bought, so how bad could it be?

Well, it turns out that even in my fairly carefully stocked kitchen, you can make yourself one ugly lunch if your taste so dictates it. Whereas the lunch I made for myself yesterday consisted of a slice of fresh mozzarella and a slice of hydroponically ripened tomato with a thin layer of grain mustard on a ciabatta roll, Holly went through the very same kitchen and came up with this menu for herself: string cheese, squeezable yogurt, pepperoni slices and a mini-cupcake. Yes, I admit those were all items I bought, but not to be eaten together. Sometimes the kids ask for special snack items that I don’t particularly approve of but think are okay to buy now and then, like squeezable yogurt. And the cupcakes were an impulse buy to reward Holly for being such an agreeable shopper during a rush-hour trip to the supermarket earlier in the week. The pepperoni? Well, we made pizza last month. I didn’t know it was still there in the fridge.

When Holly proudly showed me the bounty of her first attempt to make her own lunch, I bit my tongue. It ranked about a C+ for nutritional value and even lower than that for gustatory appeal, in my opinion, but she’d done it herself, which was what I wanted. I’ve been packing children’s lunches for the past 11 years; the prospect of handing over the responsibility was enticing. And I was willing to take the consequences, mostly because I knew no one would notice. No one looks at what the second graders are eating.

Holly punctured that illusion five minutes after she got off the bus. “It was lunch-date day!” she crowed. “I got to have lunch with Mrs. Graham!” Once a month or so the kids have the opportunity to eat lunch with one or another of their teachers from years past. Mrs. Graham was Holly’s first grade teacher.

But with 20 second graders clamoring for her attention, it wasn’t possible that Mrs. Graham had observed the contents of Holly’s lunch box, I told myself. “Was it fun?” I asked. “Did you catch up with all your first grade classmates?”

“No,” said Holly cheerfully. “Just Mrs. Graham. I was the only one who remembered it was lunch date day. So I got to have her all to myself.”

Oh, wonderful, I thought. On pepperoni and Go-gurt day. “Was it a nice lunch?” I asked.

“It sure was!” Holly said. “I ate my cupcake first!”

So Mrs. Graham now knows the worst: not only do I let my daughter bring a cupcake (a mini-cupcake, in all fairness to me) for lunch but I haven’t even taught her the self-discipline not to eat dessert first.

“What did you talk about?” I asked, almost afraid the answer would be “The food groups.”

“Lots of things. Second grade, books, Girl Scouts. Oh, and also, Mrs. Graham told me her son is starting kindergarten at our school,” Holly answered.

I perked up. Really? He’ll be a kindergartener at our school? Great. I plan to sign up for lunchroom volunteer duty as early in the year as I can. With any luck, I’ll see Mrs. Graham’s son eat his cupcake first, and feel exonerated at last.


  1. The lunch your seven year old packed sounds pretty good to me. And good for her to prepare it all by herself! I suspect that most of the time, she devours fruit, drinks milk and chooses other foods that help keep her healthy. I'll bet her former teacher was so busy keeping up her end of the conversation, that she didn't notice the nutritional value or lack thereof of a single item.

  2. the distracted hausfrauMay 26, 2010 at 10:05 AM true about packing to impress the teacher! my daughter refuses to eat fruit. even though i know it'll be thrown out without even a nibble taken from it, i still prepare and pack it every day lest the teacher think i was a horrible mom. (and partially in the hope that one day, my daughter will change her mind about fruit!)