It’s the beginning of the school year, and I have just gone onto the web site that allows me to fill up my children’s coffers at three different schools with lunch money. I deeply appreciate this innovation, having spent years sending checks to the cafeteria ladies with my young children and praying that they actually got deposited in the right place.
The fact is, however, with the exception of my teenager, who now buys his lunch in high school, my kids have more or less brought their lunches from home almost every day since kindergarten.
For a few years, in desperate search for a way to reduce my lunch-making time just a tiny bit, my oldest was allowed to buy a “Lunchables” – a disgusting package of fake food topped off with a dessert – as a Friday lunch treat. I finally decided that it was just too awful, and encouraged him to try pizza day at school instead as a respite (for me) from making lunch. When he reached high school, bagged lunch went out the window and we agreed upon a certain amount of money in his lunch account for the year – if he goes over that, he pays for lunch himself.
The younger two won’t even touch the school pizza – it’s been lunch from home all the way. Given the enormous task it is to create two lunches every day, the rule in our house became starting in third grade, Mom will make the “big item” (i.e. sandwich or bagel) and you make the rest of your own lunch. We have all learned the art of one sandwich, one protein (yogurt, cheese sticks or turkey), one fruit, one juice or milk box or water bottle and one semi-healthy treat.
This is one of the areas I have given myself a little surreptitious mom-pat-on-the-back for – I feel like I conquered a parenting challenge that has explosive potential with common sense and equanimity.
In a recent Washington Post column, Petula Dvorak riffed on the new hot button issue in our schools – school lunches. She notes that there are now both environmental issues at play (schools requiring students to bring everything in re-usable containers; and some schools even insisting that parents not wash the plastic containers in the dishwasher so as to avoid leeching chemicals) as well as the issue of what is considered a healthy lunch. Schools are beginning to police students’ lunches and send notes home to parents about what constitutes an appropriate meal.
What is more, there is a whole legion of parents out there that is making lunches their life’s work, with bento box rice figurines and carved fruit faces. Apparently you can find whole websites dedicated to a daily display of such artwork. Talk about having too much time on one’s hands.
I applaud Michele Obama’s anti-childhood obesity initiative. I like the idea of school lunches being made more well-rounded and our children being given healthier choices on the cafeteria line. I will happily send reusable containers for the lunches my family packs, so long as it’s not a totally disgusting mess by the time it comes back to my kitchen.
But I am a little less sanguine when it comes to being told how to feed my own children from home.
I have spent many years and countless hours grocery shopping for my family of five, trying to figure out how to feed adults and children with the same foods, and trying not to be a short order cook at the dinner table. We have moved passed the days of chicken nuggets and strawberries for the kids and anything that didn’t move for the adults. This has been one of the biggest parenting challenges I faced – going from a shopping cart for two filled with fresh vegetables and homemade pasta to boxes of frozen waffles and macaroni and cheese.
But as my kids get older, I am able to go back to a healthier and more palatable selection. I like to feed my family in a healthy manner. I try hard to incorporate lots of fresh fruit and veggies – many now purchased locally from a number of farmers markets, which makes it fun and a family affair. But I have definitely been known to throw a ramen pack on the stovetop, or to sanction a bowl of cold cereal and breakfast for dinner.
These are my choices, in my family. And the lunches we pack are our choices as well. I really don’t want the cafeteria ladies policing my children’s (non-commercial, BPA-free) lunchboxes – their services are more desperately needed on the elementary school playground.
On a different issue, I also understand that there is a huge cost to eating the way my family does. Fresh produce is among the most expensive thing you can buy at the grocery store. Many people live in communities where there either isn’t a large enough grocery store with a fresh produce section, and where the only place to purchase food is in a convenience store, or they simply cannot afford it. Many of the students in our neighborhood schools – an extremely diverse community with a large number of lower income families – fall in this category. This is an enormous challenge when trying to promote healthier eating habits.
So how to address the question of what constitutes a healthy lunch, and how do we encourage all children to eat in this manner? I think it is incumbent upon the public schools to offer healthy cafeteria choices. And it is also the schools’ responsibility to make sure that each child has access to a healthy lunch. Perhaps it is even the schools’ responsibility to teach children about making healthy food choices.
But it is my responsibility to make these same choices for my family at our breakfast, lunch and dinner tables. Let’s let the officials focus on preparing edible and healthy food choices in the public school cafeterias and other public spheres, and I will focus on doing the same in mine.
Photo by Apreche via Flickr