Parenting: School Lunch
Test: SCHOOL LUNCH
Prepared and packed by: Parent
‘Zzzip,’ ‘smack,’ ‘snap,’ ‘click’… these are just some of the morning sounds coming from kitchens all over as parents go about a familiar routine—packing their children’s school lunch boxes.
This routine, which is as underappreciated as it is significant, requires careful planning, and is put together amidst mayhem, as kids wake up, get dressed and rush through hasty breakfasts and drop-offs.
The Vasanthakumars’ versatile lunches
For Sheba Vasanthakumar, mother of Jonathan, 15, and Jeshua, 13, the lunch rush begins at 6:45am.What makes Sheba’s task challenging is that she doesn’t take the easy route with pre-packaged, frozen or ready-to-go meals but insists on packing nutritious, home-cooked foods that will leave you with food for thought.
Sheba’s well-balanced lunches take into consideration Jonathan and Jeshua’s comfort level when they eat foreign foods in the American environment. Who says idli-sambhar can’t be a part of your child’s school lunch? As an occasional respite from the ubiquitous PBJ sandwiches and macaroni-and-cheese, she is able to work in not only idli-sambhar but also various kinds of rice (with coconut, lemon, or yogurt), channa, paneer, chicken-curry, paratha wraps and other Indian options in her repertoire of school lunches for her kids.
And regardless of the main entrée, she is sure to pack salad and fruits, a bottle of water (“American culture is heavy in drinking sodas. It’s the worst thing you can do to your body.”— Sheba believes children should drink water as the primary source of fluid), appropriate utensils (forks, spoons and napkins), and a Kashi health bar to top it off.
The actual packing of the lunch every morning is just the culmination of a process that begins much earlier. The labor of love begins when Sheba and her husband, Jemson, pull out an assortment of Ziploc bags and different-sized containers, and spread them across the kitchen counter. Jemson fills the water bottles, chops the cucumbers and celery into bite-size pieces and packs them along with the baby carrots while prepping the kids’ breakfast. He then slices the fruit—apples or pears—and brushes them with lemon juice or dips them in Sprite (to preserve the color and texture) before putting them in another snack-size container.
Sheba, in the meantime, is working on the main meal. Yogurt, a staple in the school lunch box, is pre-set on weekends at home in tiny, individual containers, which go direct from the fridge to the lunch box. Things that can be prepped the night before are set and ready to go or for the final touches in the morning. Paratha wraps are cut in bite-size pieces. Everything is packed in an insulated lunch bag. The pace is usually frenetic. “We are spinning around the kitchen,” Sheba says, “to get them out of the house. As soon as they’re on the bus we relax and have our coffee.”
The greater comfort for the Vasanthakumars is in knowing they have packed a combination of raw fruits and vegetables that their kids can pick and choose at will. Jeshua, for example, eats the cereal bar at snack time, while Jonathan prefers the raw vegetables, while saving the “treat” for lunch. Because Sheba doesn’t always prepare a vegetable-based dinner, she ensures her family gets those at lunch or anytime during the day, depending on their individual schedules.
Though both children have money in their lunch accounts to buy lunches, fries, ice cream or cookies from the cafeteria, Sheba’s detailed planning leaves them little excuse to buy junk snacks from the school.
However, stories of kids trashing their lunches are all too common and one could ask why Jonathan and Jeshua don’t trash their lunches for the mouth-watering, high-carb options like pizza, burgers and wraps that are available at the school cafeteria?
“If you start giving them healthy foods from the beginning, they get used to it,” says Sheba. “They want to take lunch from home and don’t want to buy it from school.” She describes the habit as “training their bodies to eat right.” Several years ago, prompted by a visit to the pediatrician, she switched from high-sugar store-packed yogurts to the low-calorie yogurt she sets at home. The children resisted the switch initially, because they were not used to the unsweetened variety of yogurt. But she trained them gradually, first packing the yogurt with two sugar packets and then finally weaning them off the sugar totally.
The husband-wife partnership extends to a family chorus on the weekends when the family goes shopping together after church. Sheba says the kids pick and choose the fruits for the week plus treats like chocolate and puddings she may sometimes slip in. Observes T. Berry Brazelton, author of Feeding Your Child: The Brazelton Way, “Preparing a child’s lunch box is also an opportunity to let her/him make choices about her food and even let her do some of the work to get it ready.”
The five-day week is also divided into five main meal options at the Vasanthakumar home. Vegetables, fruits, yogurt and water are constants. Idli/rice/parathas and curry, pasta, peanut-butter-jelly (PBJ), and sandwiches, known more affectionately as ‘Daddy’s Sandwiches,’ are the main meals that rotate. “Daddy’s Sandwich Day is when Jemson takes over,” Sheba grins, explaining how she side-steps on certain days to take over his duties, while he toasts and layers the sandwiches with mayo, vegetables and meat. Whether the sandwich is between bread or rolled in a wrap, Sheba ensures the fiber of the meal is multi-grain and/or whole-wheat, and the deli meat is Boar’s Head, containing fewer preservatives.
Sheba believes the primary reason for her success is the effort put in by her husband. Jemson shares not only her concerns about healthy eating, but also participates in the other components that contribute to health—buying the best ingredients available (for example, whole mayonnaise as opposed to low-fat mayo with synthetic ingredients) and the belief in eating in moderation. “I cannot do it without him.” she acknowledges.
Anshu Chopra’s got lunch all wrapped up
For Anshu Chopra, mother of Arsh (13) and Avi (6), the morning mayhem is a solo task since her husband travels during the week. A substitute teacher in Fulton County, Anshu begins her day at 6 a.m. Her kids’ lunches are cooked and wrapped by 7:10 a.m., after which she drops them off at the bus stop and heads to work.
Anshu whips up delicious meals like spaghetti in fresh marinara sauce and pesto sandwiches for both her kids who refuse to take Indian lunches to school. “They occasionally take raajma rice, pau-bhaji, or parathas wrapped in aluminum foil,” she says. However, her children don’t like the taste of Indian food when it turns cold and soggy. So Anshu supplements their preference over the week with Indian dinners at night.
With spinach or whole-wheat wraps as the backbone to some lunches, Anshu coats the inner lining of each wrap with olive oil (to ensure it is leak-proof) and then puts in a nutritious filling of lettuce, cucumbers, tomatoes, jalapenos, olives and cheese. On other days she might just stir-fry and season some paneer with peppers and use that for the filling; it all depends on what her kitchen holds and what her kids ask for.
Anshu packs a variety of fruit in re-useable plastic containers. Air-tight containers, foils, cling-on wraps and plastic-ware are the tools she depends on to separate the foods from one another before fitting them all in one large plastic lunch box, which she then slides into an insulated lunch bag. During the warm spring and summer months freezer packs ensure yogurts and juices stay cold.
Anshu’s options are limited by her children’s preferences for Western lunches and their fussy eating habits. She makes her work easier by assigning one type of lunch to each school day of the week—veggie sandwich day, pasta day, chicken sandwich day, quesadilla / wrap day and one day when they can buy their lunch from school.
However, what works for one child doesn’t necessarily work for the other. Because her son Avi is in elementary school, Anshu stocks her pantry with a variety of easy-to-eat snacks that his teacher prefers her students to bring. Anshu also keeps in mind Avi’s preference for juices whereas Arsh prefers water.
She remembers a time when Arsh entered middle school and the excitement of a cafeteria where he could order à lacarte lunches was overwhelming. “He didn’t want to take lunches from home. He wanted to buy lunch from school every day,” she recalls. So Anshu gave in to his whims at the time, and when the euphoria eventually wore off, she continued to be creative with her lunches. “Now he wants to take lunch from home almost every day,” she smiles.
According to Brazelton, “When parents prepare a lunch ‘from home’ for a child to take to school, food takes on an additional meaning for the child: it becomes a connection to parents, a private moment to remember them and feel close to them.”
Though both moms have different techniques, and varied styles, age groups and taste buds to cater to, they share some common apprehensions about their kids buying school lunches frequently. For Anshu it’s the uncertainty of the methods schools use to prepare lunches in bulk. For Sheba, the concern is in not knowing the proportions and the ingredients being used. Though the nutritional values of school lunches are on almost all counties’ websites, both moms still prefer sending lunches from home and share some common goals: the desire to see their kids grow up healthy and strong, and the awareness of precisely what their children are eating.
For those parents who are unable to provide school lunches from home, Brazelton suggests finding out the options being served at school ahead of time and looking into whether there are healthy choices or only fast food. He also says it’s important to educate your children on making the right choices and know if your kids are really eating what you pack or whether the lunch somehow ends up in the trash.
According to McClenahan, factors that influence a child’s eating habits and undermine parental influences are babysitters, school cafeterias, peers, the media, extended members of the family and restaurants. When it comes to nutrition however, the parent is finally the real teacher.
Tool-kit and tips for acing the school lunch:
The work station :
- Have a dedicated drawer or cabinet area to keep all supplies such as lunch bags and boxes, smaller snack boxes, freezer packs (reusable blue ice) in various sizes, zip-loc bags, cling-on wraps, aluminum foil, plastic cutlery (you may encourage your child to bring back the cutlery for re-use to encourage responsible consumption), napkins, rubber bands, twist-ties, sticky notes, pens, highlighters etc.
- Keep a handy list of your tried-and-true lunch and snack options around (on the fridge, maybe). Most parents report that they often run a blank when it comes to thinking of lunch options on the spot, in the hustle and bustle of keeping house, so a cheat-sheet comes in handy for shopping, cooking, and prepping.
- Containers with screw-on lids hold liquids and gravies better than snap-ons.
- An insulated lunch box such as a thermos is indispensible for packing hot lunches. Pour boiling hot water in empty thermos flasks and shut them tight. Let this sit for a few minutes, then drain, and pour the hot food in. Food stays hot for about six hours.
- When cooking dinner the previous night, decide if you want to cook extra quantities to freeze it for school lunch in the following days.
- Consider if tomorrow’s lunch requires some prep work the night before, and take into account how much time you have in the mornings.
- Think about how your kids are going to eat the lunch in a social setting at the school cafeteria. Slip in the right cutlery. For example, packing a “spork”— a fork and spoon combined into one— can make life easier for the parent and the child.
Some food choices and nutrition :
- Figure out the child’s likes and dislikes at home before you pack new foods for lunch or snacks.
- Give the classic PBJ a healthy twist and make it a PBH -- a peanut butter and honey sandwich. Still better—use raw almond butter (sold at Trader Joes, amongst other stores) instead of peanut butter. Whether peanut butter or almond butter, butter from raw nuts is healthier than the more common one derived from toasted nuts.
- Raw fruits and vegetables make excellent snacks.
- Dipping sliced fruit (apples, pears) in Sprite or rubbing the exposed flesh with lemon juice prevents the skin from browning.
- When using canned fruit, choose fruit that is canned in fruit juice instead of heavy syrup.
- Bread slices with some kind of protein such as peanut butter or cheese make excellent snacks. Kids like them more when they’ve prepared the snacks themselves.
- Instead of expensive cereal bars, buy bags of dried fruit, trail mixes, granolas, cereals, crackers, dry biscuits, and pretzels and toss a chosen selection in a reusable container with a few M&Ms, Hershey’s kisses, or chocolate-covered raisins/almonds.
- Hummus, guacamole, yogurt, salad dressings/spreads can be packed in tiny containers, put with tiny freezer packs and sealed in a Ziploc bag.
- Veggies-and-dip featuring baby carrots, celery, slivers of bell peppers, etc. make for a great snack, side, or even the main course (on days they are expected to eat junk food at parties or events such as scout meetings).
- Avoid serving eggs in school, boiled or otherwise, as they tend to emit a smell.
- If it’s a special day, scribble a quick note and Post-It with lunch—the results are incredible. A written reminder or a simple ‘I love you’ note does wonders. This may even get your child wanting to read before he’s ready for it!
- Shopping with your kids and encouraging them to choose helps them prepare and set expectations for the week ahead. It also imprints a sense of responsibility to eat what they have chosen.
Great websites to boost your creativity:
school-lunch-ideas.com (with monthly e-Magazine)
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