Musings on Life, Love and Lefovers

What’s In Your Lunch Bag?

lunchbag croppedOf all the duties that come with being a mother of three, the one I disliked the most was packing school lunches. I tried to avoid the entire “lunch-packing” fiasco by encouraging the boys to buy lunch in the school cafeteria. No dice. “It takes too long to get through the line,” they moan. My kids want to spend their time on the playground instead of waiting for their food. They don’t get this from me — give me food prepared by someone else over playing basketball anytime.

Oddly enough, there’s more to packing a third-grader’s lunch than you realize. The uninitiated mom will throw a few things into a brown paper sack. Viola! You’re done. Not so. Lunch packing in the 21st century is a high-stress assignment. It’s right up there with deciding which cell phone company offers the best deal. Support groups are forming as we speak.

You can’t send your child off to school with a nutritious lunch made up from what you have around the kitchen and expect it to be eaten. The days of pouring chicken noodle soup in a thermos and wrapping a bologna sandwich in waxed paper–like my mother did–are long gone.

Today’s top-notch lunch-preparer has her finger on the pulse of lunch food trends, an assortment of kid-sanctioned, lunch-box-friendly coupons and a keen sense to buy goodies when they’re on sale.

Not only that, but the designated lunch-packer determines the correct number of items that comprise a marketable school lunch. If you put in more than five, something gets thrown away. Less than five and you’ll hear how starved your son was during geography.

I’ve broken down a prototype school lunch into categories: a main course (sandwich/chicken fingers/pizza slice); a snack item (crackers/pretzels/potato chips); a beverage (juice box/bag); a piece of fruit (apple slices/grapes/banana) and a sweet treat (cookies/scooter pie/pudding). Along with a napkin, items are lovingly placed in lunch box (kindergarten – third grade) or brown bag (fourth grade on).

Through astute detective work (asking why a melted Ding Dong is lining the bottom of a backpack), I’ve learned what gets eaten, what gets traded and what probably lands in the school trash can.

Any kind of Lunchable – eaten. Carrot sticks – traded. Bruised PB&J sandwich (jelly leaked through the bread) – tossed. Anything broken, melted or banged up in transit – returned home (in case little brother wants it).

My sons, Shawn, Jake and Seth, would coach me about the format (cool/not cool) they preferred their lunch items to be supplied. Here’s what I’ve learned:

Cool: Store-bought individual bags of Doritos.

Uncool: Snack-size zipper bag filled with packaged-by-mom Doritos.

Cool: Anything leftover from Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, KFC.

Uncool: Leftovers mom cooked.

Cool: A napkin.

Uncool: Same napkin with a hand-written love note.

Cool: Chocolate pudding cup.

Uncool: Forgetting to pack a spoon to eat the pudding cup with.

I would strive to provide my sons healthy, nutritious food for their midday meal and, at the same time, keep them in a power position when the lunch bell trading begins. Reputations are at stake. My kids need to be ready to make deals. They’re on the frontlines bargaining, exchanging and swapping. So I keep on top of the volatile lunch food market. What’s hot and what’s not. What are trendy fifth graders eating this week?

You might think this is easy — to know what to pack and what not to pack. But you’d be wrong. There is no crystal ball; no E! Entertainment TV coverage; no financial advisers or websites where this information is posted. The Wall Street Journal doesn’t offer This Week in Lunch Box Futures. There’s only one way to research this thing. Go to the source — the kids. They are keenly aware of the commercial value of their lunch bag contents. Garfield fruit snacks don’t bring in what they did two years ago. Two Oreos might get you a Chips Ahoy and a half-eaten box of raisins. Individual-size Pringles and a taco Lunchable can put your child in a strong position to trade for pizza and a nutty bar.

That’s why it’s up to us mothers — nutritionists, cooks, shoppers, healthcare providers, personal trainers — to be savvy shoppers and fill those lunch boxes and bags with what the customer wants. I’m comforted to know my sons–then armed with Fruit Roll-ups–could barter for someone’s chicken nuggets. After they had wolfed down their lunches and headed out to recess, I wonder if maybe they ate something I packed, too.



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