Of all the back-to-school rituals–the alarm clock set 45 minutes earlier than for work and camp, the scrambling to get a solid breakfast into the children and to eat all together before the departure of the oldest, the reminders about back packs and homework sheets, the discussions about appropriate clothing and footwear–the one I most dread every year is the Packing of the Lunch Boxes.
Seven years ago, when my oldest child started daycare, I panicked at the thought of how to provide her lunches. You’d think, having managed to feed and water her for two full years while she grew and developed wonderfully, and having a keen interest in food, I wouldn’t need any pointers for how to put some in a box every morning. But. There were all kinds of constraints, some self-imposed (there must be a starch, a protein, a fruit, a vegetable; there must be a variety of colors) but mostly externally imposed:
* The containers had to be ones her little two-year old hands could open on her own. In a pinch, the teachers would help, but they were big on fostering independence, for which I am still grateful.
* There could be nothing that required refrigeration or re-heating.
* Nothing even remotely nut-ish.
* Everything had to be cut up, or in finger-food pieces, or somehow manageable with her nascent utensil-wielding skills. Please include the utensils.
* Containers needed to be spill-proof, as the lunch boxes get tossed about a fair bit.
* Everything had to fit in the box, including a drink and, if necessary, an ice pack.
Don’t look at the image below
Not anticipating the intense feeling of inadequacy and horror that would result from it, I turned to the Internet for advice. There I found a thriving and entirely intimidating community of parents (I venture to guess they are 99% mothers) who post pictures of the intricate lunch boxes they pack for their children. They must spend an hour a day preparing them. (Although some say on their sites that they spend 13-25 minutes. But still.) I mean, look at this:
(I could find no copyright-free images, so this is a screen shot of the result page on Google Images for “kids bento lunch.”)
There are a number of sites with pages and pages of such pictures. From a design, architecture, creativity and health perspective, they are works of wonder. I commend the adults behind these creations for their enthusiasm and dedication. But good grief. I don’t know a single person who has the time to do this on a regular basis. (Not to mention the whole notion of creating a “need” to make food cute for it to appeal to a child. Look! You can eat the nose first!) Carrots carved to have rabbit ears. Cookie cutters used for cold cuts, with carefully placed kernels of corn or dried berries for eyes. (How about chives for whiskers?) Star-shaped cucumber slices and edamame on toothpick skewers. Thankfully for me, Pinterest didn’t exist yet. I don’t even dare to do a search for “bento box lunches” on there now.
I can do this
I wasn’t working much at the time (well, I was writing a book, but hadn’t yet learned, for better or for worse, to consider that “work”) so I actually did dabble a bit in making cutesy lunches. I confess there was an occasional gingerbread man shaped sandwich. Without crusts. I peered into the boxes of other children when I picked up my child at 12:30 at the end of lunch time, and was relieved to see that no one else seemed to have vastly “better” lunches. There was, in fact, one child whose lunch was always an almost uniform shade of brown. Poor kid. The teachers shook their heads and couldn’t understand, either, how his mother, who was a nutritionist, could do such a thing. Whole wheat pasta, whole grain crackers, Cheerios, raisins. Never a fresh fruit or vegetable. I was pleased that my child came home with a mostly empty lunch box, and I felt generally satisfied with my lunch-packing skills.
The honeymoon is over
Then, something changed in kindergarten. She started coming home with most of her lunch uneaten.I didn’t understand how she could not starve by 2:30 eating only a few bites over the course of the morning. She kept telling me there wasn’t enough time to eat. According to the school day schedule, there was a half hour set aside for lunch. How could she not find the time to eat? I knew she was a chatterbox, and could picture her gabbing with her friends at the table, but she wasn’t the type to forget completely to eat.
For three years, I went through the same (pointless) agitation every day, asking her why I should bother spending the time and effort to pack her lunches–full of things she liked, mind you–for her to come home with almost everything intact. Invariably, some part, smushed or bruised or no longer cold, had to be discarded. My time, my creativity, my early-morning brain cells, from the box straight into the trash amid crusty yoghurt lids and chicken guts. Then my daughter would sit and grudgingly finish whatever was left. That was the deal. No other snacks until lunch was consumed.
One day of second grade, I made good on my threat to not pack a lunch. What’s the point? I asked her, when she noted the lack of lunch box. You won’t eat until you get home anyway. Feeling both childish and triumphant, I sent her off to school, assuming naively that she’d mope through lunch wishing she had one of my tasty, colorful, healthy and entirely appealing lunches with her, and return home with a new-found appreciation for them. Instead, she came home and nonchalantly mentioned that she told her teacher her mother hadn’t given her lunch, and the teacher had taken pity on her and plied her with classroom snacks–pretzels, granola bars and the like–and it had been a wonderful lunch. Phenomenal Mom Fail.
Jello is not a protein
We continued in this vein. Then it got worse, because she started not wanting certain trusty items. She said she simply didn’t like them anymore. I quickly figured out that it had to do with comments from others at her table. Children with more restricted palates and as-yet-to-be-developed social graces made faces at some of the “weird” things she brought to school. Weird being hard boiled eggs, olives, peas and other such exotic foods. (Just wait until Kindergarten gets a whiff of our Little One, whose favorite foods include capers and marinated octopus.) I tried to be understanding. The dynamics of school lunch tables can be crushing. I didn’t want her relatively broad taste in food (compared to her peers) to become a social burden. I told her we could eliminate anything from the rotation, but if it was a protein, she needed to come up with an alternative. We couldn’t simply narrow the list of options. But the alternatives she came up with were unacceptable to me: Fluff sandwiches. The kind of yoghurt that is bright pink and green. (This was when she still ate yoghurt.) Jello.
Advice from a seven year old
Lunches still came home half-eaten at best. I tried to include her in the planning, figuring she’d be less likely to ignore the lunch if she had a hand in setting the menu. I would suggest several items, and she would turn them all down. This was not working. One school night, she had a friend sleep over. The next morning, as my daughter was in the bathroom, I asked her friend, a good kid, for advice. How do your parents pack your lunch? I asked. She told me she didn’t really know. She just opened her lunch box and found whatever was there. I told her that I consult with her friend, but that it doesn’t make it any easier. “Why don’t you just not ask her?” she suggested with a shrug. Epiphany. I went back to making executive decisions.
Finally, mid-way through third grade, there was a shift. I started re-integrating some of the items that had fallen off the list, and there was no backlash. The lunch box returned almost devoid of its contents, save for the empty containers. The kid came home, opened up the box at the counter, ate whatever was left while doing her reading, and didn’t ask for a snack until after that. She started requesting things like dried seaweed. She started commenting on how limited the diets of some of her friends seemed. “I’ve never seen her eat a fruit.” “There’s NEVER a vegetable in her lunch box.” “Every day, his mom packs him a sandwich, and every day, he just drops it in the trash. It’s such a waste. I feel bad for his mom.”
Little One is three now. Just in time to start the whole rigamarole again. Because as keen as she is on marinated octopus now, I’ll bet you anything it will fall out of favor between the years of Kindergarten and fourth grade. But that’s ok, because now Big One is back to more exciting foods.
Today’s lunch box:
* A tea roll from Wilson Farms (with cherry jam for Big One, and butter for Little One)
* Rolled up strips of ham
* Semi-cooked carrots
* A cider donut for Big One (her sister gets snacks at school)
* Apple slices and plum slices
* Milk in an insulated, spill-proof bottle with straw for Little One. Water for Big One.
* Ice pack.
Yesterday’s lunch box:
* Udon noodles (cut up for Little One) with a smidge of the cooking water and soy sauce to keep them from sticking, in a small Thermos.
* Edamame (in pod for Big One, out for Little One)
* Two clementines, peeled for Little One
* Banana for Big One
* Trader Joe’s chocolate chip granola bar for Big One.
* Berry yoghurt tube for Little One, with ice pack placed away from Thermos.