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Friday, September 28, 2007

My Kids' School Lunches Are All About Me

A school lunch consists of three things: the Main Thing, The Fruit and the ever challenging Third Thing. Normal people only eat one thing for lunch, a sandwich maybe, or leftovers, perhaps a nice salad or cup of soup. At school, where lunches are judged by teachers and other students, one must also have a piece of fruit and a Third Thing. At home, I rarely reach for an apple after my lunch, nor do I request one in a restaurant. And the Third Thing? Never happens. In my world, the Third Thing is a snack, to be enjoyed hours after the meal. But if you don't want to be known as the mom who starves her kids, you must send a piece of fruit and a Third Thing, every single day. And you must check behind your husband if he makes the lunches because, in this mysogynistic world, you will still be blamed. To be honest, this bit of sexism may be merited. My husband will send the same lunch, every single time:

  1. A peanut butter and jelly sandwich. There's nothing inherently wrong with this one, but my kids don't really like it. If that's all I have to send, I make sure the Third Thing is even worse, so they'll be forced to eat the sandwich or the fruit.
  2. He does okay with the fruit. Not perfect. Sometimes, he'll send six grapes in a cup. Or an unsliced apple to a kid with a loose tooth. Or a banana. Bananas are bad because they can't be recycled. Kids often don't eat the fruit. An apple or orange, you can leave in the lunch box and send it again the next day. I once sent the same apple every day for a week. Not the banana.
  3. The Third Thing. I admit, this one is tough, even for the best of us. My husband will skip it (the horror!) or send leftover snacks from soccer. I do that too, occasionally, but you have to be careful. There are rules. One rule is that you must buy soccer snacks in line with what the other parents buy. Now is not the time to get up on your soapbox and hand out organic, high fructose corn syrup free spelt crackers and apple slices. Trust me. You can only send that leftover crap for lunch if the main thing is really impressive.
And here's how it should be done. If you don't have kids, read on anyway. You might need to pack school lunches some day or you might enjoy a quick and easy lunch yourself. Let's start with the main course, which has become a bit more challenging now that O. is a vegetarian. We used to rely on turkey sandwiches; now I have to think outside the (lunch) box. Main courses we like:
  • English muffin pizzas. By now, you should know what I'm going to say next: Buy the English muffins at the Fancy Mart so you can get them without unrecognizable ingredients. Split an English muffin in half. Spread pesto (only if you have some) and pizza sauce (Fancy Mart!) on each side. I add vegetarian "pepperoni," but you can add whatever you like. Sprinkle cheese on top and toast. I like to get the pre-shredded mozzarella because I'm lazy. One of the other moms at school stopped me in the carpool line the other day to ask where I got the pizzas because her kids wanted them and wanted them bad. Made my day.
  • Make your kid a dang Quesa-dillah! Take a (sprouted wheat, if you dare) tortilla. On one side, put whatever you have that seems quesadilla-ish. We like black beans (or refried), green onions, salsa, frozen spinach, a little taco seasoning and shredded cheese. Fold it in half and toast it so the cheese melts, which will glue the whole thing together. A slight alteration will turn this into a burrito, which is a great use of leftover rice.
  • Tuna salad. For some reason, my kids are loving this. You can make the Gingered Tuna Salad or the Classic: canned tuna, chopped celery or apples and a bit of mayo. If you're concerned about the mayo going bad (I'm not), use veganaise. Serve the tuna salad on English muffins or miniature bagels. Kids will eat anything on a miniature bagel. Tip: Thomas' whole wheat mini-bagels have high fructose corn syrup, Pepperidge Farms' do not. The Fancy Mart is too fancy to stock the miniature bagel.
  • Leftovers: Pasta, crab cakes and party food are big hits with my kids. Although it's kind of tacky and you shouldn't do it on a regular basis, it's fun to send a box of leftover party appetizers, like mini-quiche, cheese puffs, asparagus with tarragon mayonnaise and cheese and crackers. Equally tacky, but guaranteed to delight your children, are restaurant leftovers. Fried rice is a good one.
  • Speaking of fried rice, take some leftover rice, throw it in a pan with some soy sauce (or any other sauce you might have: Hoisin, teriyaki or Vietnamese Fish Sauce, to name a few) and whatever frozen or fresh veggies you have (broccoli, corn, red pepper, green onions, carrots). Fry an egg and cut it into pieces; add that to the rice. Voilà! Fried Rice!
  • Soup. In a thermos, please.
  • Nori rolls. My kids will eat anything wrapped in seaweed. In a pinch, you can buy ready made rolls in the deli section at almost any super market. Muss them up a bit and put them in your own container if you want to impress.
  • Quiche. This is a great one, because it's easy to make and can last for a few lunches. It's good hot or cold. Just make sure the quiche is totally set before you slice it; it'll travel better.
  • Pigs in a blanket. This is just to be nice or, in my case, to totally surprise your kids. You can use veggie dogs or regular hot dogs. Cut them in half and wrap each half in a refrigerator crescent roll. Cook, cool and send with a side of mustard. Your kid will be the envy of everyone at school.
  • Some kind of grain with stuff mixed in. Couscous, rice, quinoa or bulgur (that stuff in tabbouleh) are all good. Add nuts, raisins, veggies and/or sesame seeds. Stir in a little olive oil if it seems dry. Or soy sauce. Kids love soy sauce.
Fruit might seem easy, but here are some things I have learned. Your mileage may vary.
  • Bananas are not ideal, for the reason I mentioned before.
  • Peeled oranges are more likely to get eaten than unpeeled.
  • Tangerines are more likely to get eaten if you remind your kid that they are not oranges and are much easier to peel.
  • Grapes are good.
  • Sliced apples and kiwi are more likely to get eaten than unsliced.
  • Pineapple is a treat.
  • So is sliced mango.
  • Keep a bag of frozen, mixed fruit on hand. It comes in handy in a pinch and will mostly melt by lunchtime. Send a fork.
  • Dried fruit is not a fruit. It is a Third Thing.
And now, the Third Thing, the bane of my existence. Well, not really, but it is a pain. The Third Thing must be chosen wisely. It should be good, but not so good that it will be eaten in place of the main thing. Once in a blue moon, you can skip the Third Thing, but this is for advanced lunch makers only; I can't really explain how you know when it's okay, but I know it when I see it. Here are some Third Thing options:
  • Carrot and/or celery sticks. Bonus points for a little container of ranch dressing (Fancy Mart only, all of the other ones have MSG) or hummus for dipping.
  • A second piece of fruit. I'm not proud, but sometimes this is necessary. If possible, make sure the two are different shapes and colors, like a green apple and red grapes.
  • Apple slices with peanut butter. This is a convenient fruit and Third Thing in one.
  • Ants on a Log. Celery sticks with peanut butter and raisins. Tip: the fresh ground peanut butter holds up better; it's not as runny as the jarred kind.
  • Leftover popcorn
  • The day after a party, leftover chips or melba toast. Just make sure you weed out the soggy ones that were next to the dip.
  • Homemade trail mix. Get creative and use what you have in the cabinet:
    • raisins
    • dried apricots, apples or figs
    • shredded coconut
    • leftover cocktail nuts
    • roasted peas
    • chocolate chips
    • cereal
    • a chopped Viactiv calcium caramel chew
    • M&M's
  • Applesauce. To clarify, this is not a fruit, because it is a sauce!
  • Leftover snacks from soccer, if and only if the rest of the lunch is ridiculously healthy and tasty.
  • Dessert. I try to only send dessert if I made it: banana bread, a cookie or two, a small piece of cake. The fact that you made it will impress the teachers, so they will overlook the fact that you sent your child junk food. One of my children had a teacher that would send packaged junk food back home, but let the child eat the same food if it appeared to have been made at home. Not that I'm suggesting repackaging junk food...
Drinks are optional. We send a water bottle every day. Cute notes are also optional, but you should try for at least once a week. Kids love the notes. And you can write stuff like, "Eat your fruit, because Daddy and I love you!" Make sure you sign them with love. If you have more than one child, make sure the notes are similar (equal amounts of affection) but not exactly alike. And that is all I have to say about school lunch.

Namasté, y'all!

1 comment:

Brenda said...

Who knew there was such a science to school lunch?! I only have to pack lunch once a week, for homeschool art, and your post makes me appreciate homeschool art lunches even more. Homeschool art is where a things like four pieces of ham rolled up in with swiss cheese and a bag of plantain chips are perfectly fine. My kids have been known to be jealous of a friend who had an unpeeled orange and bag of microwave popcorn for her lunch.

I would go nuts over the Third Thing too.