Is Packing My Kids' Lunches a Privilege or a Pain in the Apple?

School lunches have come under some serious scrutiny as of late, and, it seems, not a moment too soon. As Americans try to find explanations for our growing obesity epidemic, the food available to children during the school day is being fingered as one of myriad culprits. I was horrified to read about the low cost, low quality, highly processed junk consistently fed to American children, day in and day out, under the National School Lunch Program. I was fired up and inspired after watching Jamie Oliver’s impassioned TED prize acceptance speech and call to arms to try to recapture our lost food culture by teaching children about cooking and eating good, fresh food. And I was amazed when I read about the multi-course meals served to preschoolers in France: appetizer, entrée, salad, cheese course and dessert. As I tend to do as a slightly neurotic and perennially guilt-ridden mother, I took all this information, digested it as best I could, and got down to the business of fretting about how I was doing with regards to my little family.

In his excellent post, Open Letter to Our Children, Lee Zukor pulled a horrifying quote from Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation, which explains how our government manages to serve a school lunch for less than a dollar per child.

"Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the USDA chose meat suppliers for its National School Lunch Program on the basis of the lowest price, without imposing additional food safety requirements. The cheapest ground beef was not only the most likely to be contaminated with pathogens, but also the most likely to contain pieces of spinal cord, bone, and gristle left behind [...]

"Beginning with the 2000 - 2001 school year, ground beef intended for distribution to schools would be tested for pathogens; meat that failed the tests would be be rejected; and "downers" - cattle too old or too sick to walk into a slaughterhouse - could no longer be processed into ground beef that the USDA buys for children. The meatpacking industry immediately opposed the new rules."

My son was a year old and attended a daycare that served hot lunches when I first read Fast Food Nation with white knuckles and my hair on end. The prospect of E. coli poisoning scared the bejeezus out of me, so when I read about the quality (or lack thereof) of the meat consistently slated for schools, I asked that anything containing ground beef not be given to my son. My eyes had been opened to the fact that I couldn’t count on my government to safeguard the food my baby was eating.

Fast forward nine years and two more children. I am no longer the easily spooked rookie mommy. The edges of my fears have been smoothed out by time, experience and fatigue. I have mellowed on pretty much every child rearing issue, including food. But have I gotten too laid back? Too blasé? All this talk of nutrition in school lunches was a good reminder to take a hard look.

My kids go to a Catholic school in Southwest Minneapolis which happens not to have a hot lunch program. Our kids take a packed lunch every single day except Mondays, when they can (and mostly do) opt for Papa John’s pizza and Thursdays, when they can (and mostly do) opt for Subway. They generally get fresh fruit with their lunches on those two days and a cookie or fruit roll-up for desert. Almost universally, we parents breathe a huge sigh of relief on Mondays and Thursdays because, say what you will, packing lunches can be a relentless chore and as complicated as mapping the human genome.

For starters, my kids have pretty much taken the world of food, divided it in half, and picked sides. Maybe they’re trying to assert their independence, find ways of distinguishing themselves from each other, but it drives me bananas. One doesn’t like turkey, the other doesn’t like salami; one likes a bagel with cream cheese, the other doesn’t; one will eat a hard boiled egg, the other brings them home untouched every time; one likes mac n’ cheese in a thermos, the other will only eat pasta with olive oil and parmesan. And did I mention neither of them will eat peanut butter and jelly? The end result is that I have to make two (or three if the little one has preschool) different lunches every day. Gone is the possibility of an efficient assembly-line sandwich factory like Alice used to do on the Brady Bunch. Do you think the Brady kids each had a different kind of sandwich in those brown bags?

Try as I might to be creative and crafty with my offerings, my kids thwart me at every turn like nimble picky ninjas. My son’s issues: salami is greasy when it’s warm, hard boiled eggs are wet, oranges and grapes taste different at school, apples get brown when they’re sliced, blueberries and pears get mushy. My daughter’s complaints are simpler: turkey is gross, cheese is gross, yogurt is gross, only bagels are good – oh, and don’t try to slip in the multigrain or honey-wheat business. White. Bagels. Only. It may sound as if I’m indulging their culinary quirks, but I’m not. They aren’t yet savvy enough to pitch what they don’t eat, so I see what comes back and I’m the one averse to the waste. Which is why I continue my dance to find foods they will eat.

Another issue at our school is that the kids get twenty minutes to eat. There just isn’t more time in their busy school day. My attempts at sending homemade chicken noodle soup were foiled because they didn’t have time to eat it. The dawdlers, the daydreamers, the socialites and conversationalists – they don’t eat. I wonder what this is teaching the children about the role of food in their lives. Is it simply fuel? Are talking and eating mutually exclusive? They are when you only have twenty minutes.

On the plus side, our kids are encouraged to bring “Smart Lunches,” which means that after eating lunch, the child should have only one piece of garbage. If they have a smart lunch, they get a stamp on their hand. And if they get a stamp on their hand, they’re happy. And if they don’t get a stamp on their hand, they're unhappy and you are a bad mommy who doesn’t care about the environment and alienating your child from the rest of the earth-loving children. And taking some Cheez-its out of the cellophane snack bag and putting them in Tupperware is cheating, but hey, it happens. The Kindergartners even make cloth napkins every year to keep in their lunch boxes. And, as of a few months ago, they compost. So in addition to thinking about variety, nutrition, who will eat what and how fast, you have to figure out how to provide things in reusable containers and then find a way to fit them into the lunch box, drawing on geometry and spatial reasoning skills I sorely lack.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s great. Don’t get me wrong. It’s a huge pain in the apple.

As much as I’m relieved that my kids aren’t tempted by greasy fries and nasty burgers every day, I have to admit that in an effort to give them the calories they need, I fall back on Goldfish crackers, chips, fruit leathers and such. We all do. Every one I know struggles to balance nutrition and sanity when it comes to packing lunches.

I decided to pay a visit to my daughter on a sack-lunch day and see how our collective balancing act was working out. I asked her lunch posse to make two piles on the table: one of junky stuff and one of healthy stuff. I let them decide which was which and they did a great job. So did their parents, it turns out. At our table, the piles were roughly equal and I would have argued for putting the granola bars over in the healthy pile. The snacky stuff was mostly in tiny containers and I wondered if smaller portions could be an unintended benefit of Smart Lunches. I honestly thought I’d find a lot more filler junk than I did. (Check out Simon's gorgeous sandwich!)

I happen to know that making those lunches took some time. I also happen to know that the quality of the lunches can vary, day to day, depending on what's in the fridge, who forgot to throw the muddy uniform into the laundry, and other minor catastrophes. We also have a relatively well educated and affluent community at our school, so it is no surprise that these moms and dads are making an effort to feed their kids healthy foods. But it's really not about patting ourselves on the back - it's about figuring out a way for parents with less time and resources to be able to understand the importance of fresh, healthy food for their kids and for their children to have access to it, every day, every meal.

On a personal note, I left school feeling less beleaguered by the tyranny of lunch and the despots that are my children. Even though it's not easy and I don't always succeed in packing a completely nutritious and environmentally friendly lunch, my kids are seeing me try. Every time I see a sandwich with one bite out of it and ask them about it, they may be getting the message that I ask because I care, and I care because it's important. Variety, nutrition, sustainability, and taste are all critical components of any meal and worth chasing, whether said meal comes on a plate, on a tray, or in a lunch box. It's a small shift in attitude, but perhaps the burden of packing a lunch is actually a privilege -- an opportunity to show them, through my incessant trial and error, that mindfulness, moderation, and balance are all part of the food equation. And maybe, just maybe, they'll make their own darn lunches someday.

Gabriela Lambert is a former lawyer who, after 10 years of practice, decided to stay home with her three kids and pursue a life of leisure. Given the choice between salty and sweet, Gabriela will hit the salty every time. Given the choice between pig and cow, she will clutch her chest and whimper that it’s like asking her to pick her favorite child. On her birthday, she is most likely to choose a trip to the farmers' market with her family, but that’s one of her favorite things to do on any given day. In addition to minding her brood, she spends her time practicing yoga, driving around in her minivan, and blogging at