The Dreaded School Lunch

When The Boy started kindergarten seven (SEVEN!?!) years ago, he was at a shiny new school. They were very progressive and tried to find a way to teach the kids in every situation. For a while I was letting him buy the school lunches and then I started looking more closely at the weekly menu. Although there were always choices, the “main” option of the day usually looked something like this:

Monday: Nachos

Tuesday: Cheeseburgers

Wednesday: Corn Dogs

Thursday: Tacos

Friday: Pizza

Remember this stuff?
Remember this stuff?

I know you are asking yourself “But where are the funnel cakes and fried twinkies?” I can only assume that those things were reserved for Saturday school. Now, I’m not going to begrudge my kid Friday pizza. Even I remember being a kid and LOVING that weird rectangular dough creation a Friday or two each month. But the carnival food (as my friend Jennifer coined it) every day seemed like a REALLY bad idea. After all, if everything is a teaching opportunity, shouldn’t the kids be learning to make healthy choices? I started corresponding and speaking by phone with the county food service director. He told me all about how these ARE healthy foods, the pizza crusts and chips are whole grain, they are using low fat cheese, etc. I pointed out to him that a five year old isn’t going to know the difference between “healthy” pizza and, well, good pizza. The kids are told, and believe, that the schools serve a hot, healthy lunch so, by GOD, nachos MUST be healthy, right? He also pointed out that the kids are supposed to take two fruits or vegetables. But vegetables are sometimes french fries (I’m not kidding) and when there was an argument at one point that enough pizza sauce could constitute a vegetable, well, it was clear that this was not a war I would not win.

The battle was lost.
The battle was lost. On your right, you have a grain, two proteins and a veggie! It’s practically health food, right?

And so we decided that The Boy could have carnival food once a week. He was allowed to choose whichever day he wanted to purchase the school lunch. Much like his mama, he loved the weird rectangular pizza and the salisbury steak but even he knew that eating junk food every day wasn’t a good idea. And in our family, those types of things are meant to be treats And so began my foray into being the morning lunch packer.

With the exception of really “special” occassions or if I just run out of lunch fixings before the end of the week (someone in our family has been known to put an empty peanut butter jar back in the cabinet), I have pretty much packed lunches for The Boy every day since mid-kindergarten.

The
The “special” Thanksgiving feast during fifth grade. The Boy added the emoticon. It was appropriate. Are you drooling over the white circles of not very warm “turkey” covered in yellow gravy-is-it?

I searched for kid-friendly bento boxes and a friend in California turned me onto EasyLunchboxes. They are super durable and really affordable because they last forever. I’m still on my first set (although I’m getting ready to upgrade because there are new colors and I’m easily distracted by SHINY!). They are pretty leak resistant and keep the food from getting mixed up or squashed. (Seriously, ya’ll should get these! http://www.easylunchboxes.com – Go now.) For the most part, I sent in pretty standard lunches: sandwich, fruit, veggie, cheddar crackers, a cookie. Sometimes I sent lunches that were more like a variety of snacks: string cheese, crackers, a piece of fruit, some carrot sticks, a little container of hummus. But generally, I devolved into packing a boring sandwich lunch. After five years of this, he got pretty darn sick of it to the point that I couldn’t make him a sandwich for lunch on the weekends (“If I see one more sandwich….”).

boring lunch
A typical booooring lunch with a sandwich, string cheese, cheddar crackers, gorgeous grapes and a little container of tapioca pudding.

At the beginning of fifth grade, The Boy asked if I could please try not to send sandwiches anymore. Yikes! I told him that I couldn’t promise NO sandwiches but that I’d try to mix it up. I did pretty well for the beginning of the year. There was a fine line between being really awesome and being so weird that it was an “embarrassing” lunch (who knew such a thing existed!).

Here are a few of the ideas I came up with.

Top left: Asian Tofu Noodle Salad with Edamame, Strawberries and Blueberry Buttermilk Pie; Top Right: Homemade
Top left: Spicy Asian Tofu Noodle Salad with Edamame, Strawberries and Blueberry Buttermilk Pie; Top Right: Homemade “Lunchables” with Turkey, Swiss and Wheat Crackers, Strawberry Rugelach, Grapes and Strawberries; Bottom Right: Hummus and Veggie Wrap, Chocolate Pudding, Cheddar Crackers and Mozzarella Pearls; Bottom Left: Hot Dog “Kabobs” with Gherkins, Cheddar and Mustard for Dipping, Strawberry Rugelach, Cheddar Crackers and Strawberries.

He was really digging it and I was feeling good about what I was sending. Plus, you eat with your eyes first. If your food is presented to you in a beautiful way, you are more likely to taste it, eat it and enjoy it. And you’ll see that I usually include a dessert of some kind. Sometimes it’s fruit, sometimes it’s a single cookie. The Boy has admitted to me that he often eats the dessert first but honestly, it’s so small that it’s not enough to fill him up. He really has to eat some or all of the other stuff to be “full.” And with such a variety of food, he’s bound to get some nutritional value from his lunch.

Clockwise from top left:  Black Bean and Avocado Wrap, Mallomar, Mozzarella Pearls, Baby Carrots, and Applesauce; Peanut Butter and Banana Wrap, Cheddar Crackers, Grapes, and Brownie; Salad with Grilled Chicken, Nuts and Feta; Tomato Basil Soup, Quesadilla, and an Apple; Parmesan Pepper Palmiers with Pesto Ranch Dip, Mozzarella Pearls, Grapes and a Cookie;  Meatball Slider, Cheddar Crackers, Baby Carrots, and a Cookie.
Clockwise from top left:
Black Bean and Avocado Wrap, Mallomar, Mozzarella Pearls, Baby Carrots, and Applesauce; Peanut Butter, Honey and Banana Wrap, Cheddar Crackers, Grapes, and Brownie; Salad with Grilled Chicken, Nuts and Feta; Tomato Basil Soup, Quesadilla, and an Apple; Parmesan Pepper Palmiers with Pesto Ranch Dip, Mozzarella Pearls, Grapes and a Cookie; Meatball Slider, Cheddar Crackers, Baby Carrots, and a Cookie.

One thing you may notice in my photos is a couple of little things I figured out after packing so many lunches. I use little one ounce portion cups (like you find at the salsa bar at your favorite Mexican take out joint) for things like sauces, dips or dressings. Unfortunately, the lidded ones aren’t always easy to find in quantities less than 1,000. Luckily, Chef J was able to bring me a few from the dregs of a package at work but I’ve recently seen them in quantities of 10 at the dollar store. I also use cupcake liners when I send a small portion of something like crackers or when I make “lunchables” to keep everything from getting jumbled. The liners are the exact same height as the EasyLunchbox I use, The lid fits so snuggly that the ingredients don’t spill out of the cupcake liner.

Portion cups and cupcake liners will make your lunches pretty and keep things from getting soggy or jumbled.
Portion cups and cupcake liners will make your lunches pretty and keep things from getting soggy or jumbled.

You can do this too! Very often, I make the exact same lunch for myself. If you have more than one kid, it’s pretty easy to set up a little assembly line of lunch boxes and pack for yourself and everyone else.

Assembly line lunch.
Assembly line lunch.

You will almost certainly fall back on the trusty old sandwich lunch sometimes. But if you mix it up a little with ideas like this, your kiddos will be so excited every day to see what culinary adventure awaits them at lunch.

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