Back to School: Lunch Is a Problem That Comes Every Day

When you have children of your own, you realize for the first time what your own parents went through, things you couldn't possibly have understood when you were a child—and really are better off not having understood, because the knowledge would have been debilitating. There's the abyssal terror at having brought a fragile, trusting life into a world of hurtfulness and destruction, for instance. Not far behind that is the problem of packing lunch.

Lunch just showed up, if you brought your lunch, in a paper bag or that lenticular-paneled lunchbox that tilted from AFC helmets on a red background to the NFC on blue. Yet that food comes from somewhere. Where it comes from is from you, the parent, at the same time you are also rustling up breakfast and finding not-too-mismatched little socks and trying to get yourself a cup of something to wake up on. Every single weekday. It is your homework. As with any homework assignment, parents are sometimes tempted to get too involved and start overachieving their way into trouble. Here is a particularly sad Metafilter thread-starter:

My son's lunch on his first day of 3rd grade was: tofu pieces that he'd cut up into parallelograms, and that he'd doused in sriracha (he loves sriracha); some cut up melon that he likes; some white rice that he asked for; and a chocolate cookie that I snuck into the lunchbox. I pack a lot of non-elementary-school-standard stuff. Little cups of red or black beans, vegetables, fruits, hummous wraps, ...

He's pretty okay with eating these things. I'll qualify that a little: He's unhappy if things look soggy. He'd prefer lunchables (which his mom often packs) and he wishes he could get meat sometimes (which his mom also packs. I'm vegetarian and prefer not to; we have separate households.) The biggest thing going on, though, is embarrassment, and that's what this question is about.

He told me he *hid* the lunch under the table, because he didn't want to be picked on.

Obviously there are some deeper troubles in this case than "lunch," per se. But lunch is dragged into the mess, because lunch is perceived as a little parcel of home, served up in the middle of the school day (or at 10 a.m., because the cafeteria can't handle the current enrollment). So this suffering person gets advice like this: "[P]ut a lot more effort and decor into his lunches so they become the coolest lunches in school."

Do not put more effort into the lunches. The trick, as with all homework, is to find the minimal way to meet the requirement and get it over with. We rely on leftovers, mostly. Run them through the microwave, shovel them into a thermos, toss that into the lunchbox with a fork and a napkin and you're all—wait, he hated what we had for dinner last night. Maybe there are some leftovers surviving from two nights ago? Even the easier way out has its complications.

It would be sane and logical to assume that if the child really needs to eat, the child will eat. This ought to be true. But some schools nowadays, in the relentless pursuit of achievement-oriented busywork, have reduced recess to whatever fraction of lunchtime remains after the eating is over. In a zero-sum game between the lunchbox and the playground, the lunchbox loses.

The easiest way out, in theory and sometimes in practice, would be cafeteria lunch. If you have the magical combination of a good school cafeteria and a child who will reliably eat there—rather than coming out of school angry-hungry every day—you have triumphed and may move on to the other problems of school, such as the actual homework, or the multiple-page parent-volunteer sign-up sheet.

If your children are unreliable eaters, though, you have remember to keep the food flowing yourself. There is no way, given their capricious yet growing appetites, to be sure whether what was an ample dinner last time will survive this time. How many ears of corn does it take to feed a family of four with two small boys? Somewhere between three and seven, usually. Figure on a pound and a half of fish, unless it's two pounds or two and a half. Two cans of chickpeas will make enough hummus, except the one who started the whole hummus thing now refuses to eat a bite of it. Eh, just get halal cart and McNuggets for dinner—nope, no leftovers that way. And if you eat leftovers for dinner, the whole supply chain gets broken.

Then comes the morning improvisation/negotiation session: How about a, um ... cheese sandwich? Salami? Bacon, lettuce, and hang on, do we have lettuce? Hey, isn't it pizza day in the cafeteria? I bet it is. Wouldn't you like to get some pizza? Pizza!

Always keep some carrots in the fridge for this moment, ready for one to be peeled and chopped into a handful of carrot sticks. No lunchbox can be truly inadequate if it has carrot sticks in it. (This is strictly a spiritual ritual, like burning sage; the carrot sticks will come home intact.)

Eventually, the children will get old enough to help with the grocery shopping and make their own lunches, or to sneak out of school and get their own McNuggets. This will correspond to the prime years of lunch arbitrage, when their food intake will consist entirely of the food that other people's parents have supplied, which they have swapped for their own. Or a new social norm will sweep through the school and everyone will want cafeteria food because everyone else does.

Till that time comes, remember that your real representative in the eyes of the school is not that little midday (or late-morning) parcel of home in the lunchbox, but the walking, talking person who carries it around. Genuine dialogue, from preschool:

Principal (at the door, making conversation): "What did you have for breakfast?"

Child (matter-of-factly): "Cookies."

They were homemade cookies, though. A year later, in kindergarten, the same child's teacher took us aside for a word about his lunches. We were, she said, packing him too much food.

[Image by Jim Cooke]