I’ve been making school lunch for my boys for nearly a decade. I don’t like it much and have come up with many (thwarted) plans to get out of the business. They invariably involve having my children make their own meal. But that ideal bumps up against the time-strapped, space-strapped, coffee-deprived reality that is our weekday mornings. Frankly, at this moment in our busy lives, I’d rather make their lunch than create another make-work project for myself. We manage pretty well, all things considered (they eat most of the healthy food we offer in their bags and don’t complain—much).
I am learning to accept the fact that I will likely have children who expect their lunches made for them well into their college years and hope that the other opportunities we’ve created for independence, food appreciation and planning will compensate for this failure.
Despite having acknowledged this many times, despite the fact that What’s for Lunch? is a book about the politics of food rather than a how-to for busy, frustrated parents who must pack a meal for their darlings every day, I have been asked frequently since WFL was published about the secret to making a great lunch. I invariably say I don’t have the answers (see above).
But as I’ve reflected on my personal experience and all the amazing school lunches I learned about in my research, I have started to think I do have a few thoughts on the matter. Let’s call them observations rather than advice.
Herewith, my nod to the January list-making urge with a (reluctant) top ten observations about packing school lunch—from the obvious to the more challenging.
1. Buy reusable lunch containers with multiple compartments. They make creating a healthy lunch easier because they guide your sleep-deprived brain. Big part: main (sandwich or whatever); small part: fruit; other small part: vegetable. Bonus: find a reusable lunch container that is all in one (no lids to lose).
2. Mix it up. Anyone would get bored with the same meal everyday.
3. Advocate for longer meal times at your school. Whenever my kids have food left over they say it’s because they didn’t have enough time to eat. What are we teaching kids about the joy of food and eating together when we hustle them out the door after 10 minutes?
4. Pack a snack in a separate container (this from my 8 year old, who likes to bring something out with him at recess and is moving too quickly to unpack it from the lunch container).
5. Leftovers are your friend.
6. Try the “grazer plate.” Your kid hates sandwiches? Won’t eat leftovers? Try what we call in our family the “grazer plate”: smaller bits of this and that. Olives, pickles, crackers with hummus, pumpkin seeds, marinated tofu, pieces of cheese all make great ingredients for a grazer plate. Chose your child’s favourite nibbles: think of it as a kid-centred hors d’oeuvres tray—who doesn’t love hors d’oeuvres?
7. Don’t expect miracles. Anticipate failure. This sounds like a bit of a downer, but every time I think I’ve got the school lunch thing licked—the kids are happy, healthy, eating what we provide— it all explodes in my face. There’s a new allergy in the school and pineapple/seeds/eggs are forbidden. My kids tell me the thing I thought they loved, they now hate. In fact, they say, they never liked it in the first place. I grumble like anyone would, but since I’m giving advice here, I think the only sanity-saving thing to do is to roll with it. If your child is a picky eater and will only eat food that is white (or brown or red), take the long view, and consider it fodder for the speech you’ll give at their high school graduation/wedding/significant birthday. As my father reminds me regularly: “This, too, shall pass.”
8. Everything on a stick. I’ve long held to the belief that children will eat anything if it’s presented to them on a stick. Fruit kebobs, pickles on a toothpick, cheese cubes on a cocktail sword. It’s a slippery slope between putting things on sticks and becoming a bento box–making zombie, but depending on your level of desperation, it’s worth a try. (It goes without saying, I hope, that sticks can easily become weapons in certain small, grimy hands, so use your judgement.)
9. Soup. At this time of year, there is nothing, in my opinion, that is better than a hot bowl of soup. Invest in a great thermos for your kids and fill it with soup as much as you dare. I make soup out of any and everything in my fridge. Check out my son’s favourite recipe for sweet potato soup here or consider giving my personal soup obsession from the incredible Plenty—chickpea, tomato, bread soup—a whirl.
10. Advocate at your childrens’ schools for turning lunch into an opportunity to enjoy food and each another rather than a frantic race for recess. Consider taking a page from schools in Japan where everyone—including teachers, students and principals—eats together and children rotate through serving the meal and cleaning up. In France, lunch supervisors are trained to encourage children rather than penalize them for stepping out of line or not eating their food. In Russia, some of the supervisors and teachers are actually charged with teaching manners. In England, there are schools where lunch rooms have been made more conducive to civilized dining and enjoyment of food by having children make their own table cloths and homemade placemats. For more on how schools around the world are emphasizing food culture and food enjoyment during the noonday meal, check out What’s for Lunch?