Okay, parents. We all know that back to school is, although bittersweet for our children, pretty good for us. Our children are again occupied in noble pursuits, they get regular exercise, they have plenty of time with their friends and the echo of “I’m bored” vanishes from the halls of our homes. Things are always good for a few weeks — at least until a new boredom sets in. School lunch burnout.
For those who regularly pack lunches for an elementary school–aged child, you may have run into a few common points of friction. Namely, boredom with content, arguments over what did not get eaten that day, and issues revolving around trading for junk food. Let’s look over the issues, one at a time.
I had always planned on being the mom who would break out the cookie cutters to make lunchtime sandwiches special, or who would creatively market sacks of carrot coins or a standup broccoli forest to my child. But the reality is, that takes time. Our family tries to put emphasis on dinner and eating (mostly) home-cooked meals together at night, so with already limited time in the evenings, packing elaborate bag lunches has fallen by the wayside.
Working under time constraints might take some of the creativity out of presentation, but it doesn’t have to mean a boring or unbalanced lunch. We adopted a baseline of this equation: 1 + 1 + 1 = 1. One fruit or vegetable (e.g., carrots, banana, cucumber, apple), one protein (turkey, peanut butter, ham, cheese), and one carbohydrate (bagel, crackers, English muffin, tortillas) = one lunch. Dividing lunch-building into predictable units makes it easy for my son to participate by choosing different, changing components. One of the best side effects of this lunch style is that it teaches my son about nutrition — which types of food have what nutritional value. Now my son knows that peanut butter is a protein, not a vegetable. He knows that a banana is not a significant source of complex carbohydrates but that a whole wheat bagel is.
There was a time, I am sure, when all kids would sit down to lunch at school with enthusiasm and dig in, focused on the task of chewing their food and getting refueled for an afternoon of learning. I believe that time was somewhere around the year 19-oh…never?
The truth is that lunch is, and has always been, an important social time for kids. This is when jokes get told, bragging gets done and where today’s hilarious sight gags are tomorrow’s doctor’s visits (raisins in the nose, anyone?). This is also when your child is supposed to focus and eat their whole lunch.
Remembering to keep portions small and the eating process efficient (think bite-size finger foods) helps ensure that more food gets eaten. This is the way toddlers eat, but I find it works great at any age (I love a “snack lunch” at the office myself). It doesn’t have to look extremely coordinated to be a good lunch — a handful of nuts, a bag of snap peas, some cheese cubes, grapes, whole wheat bagel half. All these things are easy to eat, and more important, can be safely eaten while paying attention to at least three other things at once.
Less Lunch Trading
My son reports that a lot of unsanctioned lunch trading happens. Packaged, processed foods designed for lunchboxes — fruit snacks, cookies, chips and cheese puffs — are a hot commodity. For a kid who brings a healthy lunch every day, those things help him build an argument that his mother is the meanest, most boring person alive. It’s disappointing to think that the healthy meal we spent time and money planning and purchasing could be traded for less healthy food on a whim. Though I suspect my son’s whole wheat bagel or almonds rank low in lunch table trading values.
But to alleviate the feeling that my child is going to be scarred by his health-fanatic mom who never allowed him to have fun foods, we've added “mystery” items to the lunchbox — something that doesn't fall into the main food groups: fruit leather, organic chocolate milk, natural energy bars, a single serving of chips. We shop for these mystery items, along with the rest of his lunch, at our local food co-op, where it’s easier to minimize the stuff I don’t want him to eat: high-fructose corn syrup, hydrogenated fats, artificial chemical sweeteners and dyes. My hope is that he’ll covet these treats enough that they don’t end up in trading action and it keeps him eating our home lunches, which are healthier than the alternative overall, for years to come.