Lunch, anyone?

July 30,2008
Professor Mom
Aliki McElreath( )

Aliki is a writer and college English teacher. She lives in North Carolina with her husband, two children (ages seven and ten), a dog, a cat, a rabbit, and too many fish.

It's no secret that I have had a long and tumultuous relationship with school lunches--not the kind you buy, even, but the kind you have to pack, five times/week. When L. first started preschool at age three, he had not yet developed his food aversions and the rigid eating patterns he has now. Things were still bad, but he was a "picky" eater--a  trait shared by many of the other kids at preschool. At three, L. would still eat peanut butter sandwiches, vegetarian hot dogs, and macaroni and cheese. When he started preschool, I spent lots of time preparing peanut butter sandwiches on whole grain bread, and then cutting them into heart shapes with my heart-shaped cookie cutter. I always included cut up raw veggies that were safe for preschool: cucumber wheels, carrot thins, broccoli trees (or shrubs, really, they had to be cut up pretty small).

Now when I think back, I feel a twist of regret and sadness for those careful little lunches I made. L. ate maybe three of those heart-shaped sandwiches before giving up on preschool lunchtime altogether, and things went downhill from there. But I persevere: I make him a special homemade focaccia bread, fortified with soy flour and flax seed. I don't cut the bread into heart shapes (that's one surefire way to flush your third grader's social standing down the toilet), but I feel good making it. When I punch the dough down and shape it, I feel like I'm still doing something for him--giving my boy some nutrition that comes from my heart, even if it's all he'll ever eat.

I've poured my frustrations out plenty of times here and on my personal blog, and among friends, about packing school lunches. So when my friend M. emailed me the other day, asking for advice on packing lunches for her brand-new kindergartener, I emailed her back--but then thought the topic would certainly be column-worthy. Here's what she asked me:

Our B. has decided she wants to take her lunch to school instead of buying it...I am not sure how to go about doing that in a healthy way and I know you're the expert. Any tips? Do I need to put in one of those little frozen block things? She's a kindergartener, I'm a first timer, just want to make sure I get it right! Thanks for any help you might be able to provide!

I then sat down and poured out a stream of suggestions, which I'm sure lacked coherence. What I forgot to emphasize, though, was the most important thing to remember: The average school kid is allotted only 25 minutes for lunch, and out of those 25 minutes, they actively consume food for about 6 seconds. The rest of the time is spent gazing into space (what L. does), playing with food, talking with friends, raising their hand to ask some cafeteria volunteer for water, or getting into trouble. I have logged lots and lots of hours doing cafeteria duty, and I can tell you that if you want your child to get some nutrition during lunch, make sure you pack lunch knowing full well that you need to make every bite count.

So here's my brown-bagging-it lunch advice for getting the most nutritional value for those 6 seconds:

Don't pack a dessert. I'm just going to get this one out of the way early, because I know I sound like a horrible, mean, witch-like mom. But honestly, kids will eat their dessert first, no matter how you think you've raised them. If you pack a lunch with a cupcake or cookies, they will eat the cupcake first, in about 5 seconds, then drink a few sips of their drink in the remaining second, and then lunch will be over and they've only had a cupcake to eat.

I once conducted an unofficial survey of kindergarteners at lunch and noticed that packers and kids who bought lunch ALL ate their desserts first. Instead of packing a dessert for lunch, bring a special treat for pick-up time. I make sure to always have a cookie or two, or a piece of cake in the car when I pick up L. or T. from school. Or, if you really and truly feel the need to include a dessert, pack a healthy oatmeal cookie, or a fruit leather, or a handful of chocolate or yogurt-covered raisins or nuts.

Buy one of those compartment containers. Forget about stuffing baggies of things into a lunch box. You can do that, but a) it's bad for the environment and b) things get smushed, guaranteeing they will never be eaten, and c) kids forget to open up the baggies and pull things out. Really. Spring for a Tupperware with compartments like this one--kids love having food placed into the little sections, and if you have picky eaters like mine who won't let foods touch each other, then you're all set.

Never, ever buy Lunchables. I stuck that in here because it's my own personal soapbox item. I hate those things. Not only are they wasteful from an environmental point of view (all that packaging) but why on earth pay money for something you can put together yourself with even more TLC? The main reason kids like lunchables is that they're gimmicky and the food is divided up. Buy a container, divide up your food yourself, and be in control of what your own child eats.

If your child, like T., lives on peanut butter (or soy butter, if the classroom has peanut allergies) take a loaf of bread out on Sunday and make a whole stack of peanut butter sandwiches. Then stack them into a tupperware and pop them into the freezer. When it's time to pack lunch on Monday morning you can simply take out a sandwich and put it into the container, where it will happily thaw by lunchtime.

If plain old square sandwiches get boring, try this: Take a piece of bread, cut off the crusts, and roll it out flat with a rolling pin. Then take a little spread (we like to do cream cheese with a drop or two of food coloring in for the novelty) and spread it over the bread. Roll tight, jelly-roll style and stack in one of the containers, with the colorful cream cheese swirl facing up so they can see it as soon as they open the container.

And if sandwiches get REALLY boring, forget them! Fill up a baggy with granola, or your child's favorite cereal (make sure it's high in fiber so it will be filling) and stick a soy milk box in their lunch box. They'll munch down the cereal, drink the milk, and you'll still feel like they had a nutritious, energizing lunch.

It's not difficult to pack a nutritious school lunch, but you have to be crafty and creative and persevere. Don't give in to peer pressure (from other parents, not even from the other kids) and fill up your child's lunch box with fruit snacks and roll-ups and packs of cookies. Keep portions small. I am always astounded by the amount of wasted food I see each day at L.'s school. Keep things simple: a nutritious sandwich, a low-sugar drink, and maybe some sliced up fruit or veggies. And tuck a note in there, if you have a brand-new kindergartener. She will love and appreciate seeing a friendly face when she unzips her lunchbox and finds the simple treasures you've packed inside.