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Week Two of Back-to-School and I'm Already Sick of Making Lunches

Adventures in lunch-making that won't break the bank or have you snapping photos of elaborate bento-box creations (not that there's anything wrong with that.)

It's common knowledge the picky child is the bane of the dinner table.

The tears. The recriminations. The invocations of starving children from Africa to China, children who would kill, KILL I tell you, to have this plate of delicious healthy food.

But in some bizarre food flip-flop, the pickiest eater in the evening is sometimes the easiest person to pack a school lunch for in the morning.

They value nothing higher than the warm hug of repetition. Pack the same boring thing and they are happy campers, plus you don't feel awful about it. School lunches are about getting some non-sugary calories into their busy bodies, not making a point about orphans from Azerbaijan.

My somewhat reformed picky eater, now almost 10, will have no trouble eating a plain Jane turkey sandwich Monday through Friday, without interruption or deviation, from now until June. He may feign some annoyance around January, but that should never be interpreted as an invitation to slip in some tuna salad or god forbid fried shrimp sushi rolls in the shape of a fish with deviled egg eyes. Just keep on truckin' with the turkey. 

Two slices of wheat bread and deli turkey — I spring for the expensive stuff, nitrate finger-waggers — no condiments, lettuce or cheese necessary. Add ice pack, water, fruit and something crunchy and he's at the bus stop with minutes to spare.

But when it comes to the more adventurous eaters in our family of three children — that's where I stumble.

Two weeks into the school year and I'm already cursing their willingness to eat from a variety of food groups. Why can't they just eat the same thing every day like their brother? Why is my refrigerator empty when I just went shopping yesterday? What's so wrong, really, with sending them off with a fistful of quarters from the couch and a bag of Cheetos? (Not that I ever would. Or have. Is it getting hot in here?)

No lunch is too fancy or complicated for them. Pack a three-course hot meal and they will gobble it down. My two daughters have each asked me to pack a delicate field green salad with homemade balsamic vinaigrette and a full steak dinner. Not exactly what went into my Bee Gees lunchbox.

At least they aren't worried about peer pressure. I guess today a terrine of foie gras isn't enough to get you jumped on the playground.

When I was a kid all I really wanted for lunch was my secret favorite sandwich, liverwurst on toast with mustard, but I didn't dare. You couldn't dare. This was the 70s.

Instead I took the safe route and demanded my mother pack Oscar Mayer salami or bologna with French's mustard on Wonder bread with side of Wise potato chips, the one's in the blue bag that still taste the best, just like my friend Jennifer. (How could she not be a Jennifer?)

And it had to be exactly like Jennifer's mom made it because as we all know, a sandwich cut in half up and down tastes very, very different from one sliced on the diagonal. Smooshing a layer of the Wise chips into the sandwich once at school was optional, but preferred.

I suspect my daughters secretely pine for a real bento-box mom, the kind who can take the average lunch and transform it something more akin to art — or insanity, depending on your take. Those kids are the envy of the lunch table. If only I loved mine more, I'd haul myself out of bed earlier and put a little care into the product.

I won't judge a woman who wants to turn the humble ham sandwich into a fire-breathing dragon complete with pimento eyes, I just know I can't be her. 

What you really need as a parent is a list of healthy school lunches that would be varied and easy and definitely not expensive or involving nori or a sushi rolling mat. That's where you come in. I know there are legions of moms and dads out there far more accomplished in the parental arts than I — and I'm certain you've already cracked the lunch code, so I'll just crib from the best.

Add your most enviable school lunch ideas in the comments below and I'll turn my kids into guinea pigs and encourage my friends and neighbors to do the same. If you add your successes and failures we'll cheer and laugh, I mean cry, right along with you.

Here are three promising takes from around the web-o-sphere to get us started:

  • Totally too bento-ish, but I love how Laptop Lunches divides their lunch box ideas by seasons and offers a little bit for everyone. I want to try steaming apples and sprinkling a little cinammon instead of just shoving the Gala in there. 
  • The online version of Eating Well magazine has some good suggestions here, though I would caution against pairing a white shirt day with the chicken barbecue sandwich! Our youngest would actually love the cream cheese and sliced strawberry sandwich.
  • Your mom loves this magazine for a reason! Good Housekeeping brings it with 30 school lunch ideas. The turkey meatball pita is a solid one to check out because it's the perfect bridge from last night's meal into next day's lunch. If eating leftovers is good enough for you, it's good enough for junior, right?

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