Monday, April 11, 2011

School Lunches on Autopilot

Next week is spring break for our kids. We're staying in town and haven't planned much, but I'm as excited as if we were going to Hawaii for the week. Because I have five whole days off from making lunches.

Every morning as I pull out the lunchboxes I am reminded of what Dorothy Parker reportedly said whenever her telephone rang: “What fresh hell is this?” Some weeks I’m on a health kick, making sandwiches on high fiber high protein bread spread with soynut butter accompanied by fresh fruit, low-fat pretzels, and fruit juice. Other weeks it’s the path of least resistance: plain pasta with olive oil in a thermos, gummies (at least it says fruit on the wrapper) and a couple of Girl Scout cookies, alongside some chocolate milk. Whatever. I'll make them eat a banana when they get home.

In the morning I spend a lot of time crossing from refrigerator to pantry to microwave, stopping in the middle of the kitchen to think, sighing, trying to remember which girl likes pretzels and which one likes dried apricots, and then resuming the circuit. As a person who now packs an average of 40 lunches a month, I am awed that my mom found a simple formula and stuck with it, for three kids, for at least ten years.

The school lunches of my childhood were an object of envy, and not because they were gourmet. When you’re nine years old, the last thing in the world you want is a lunch that is different from every else’s, emitting garlicky odors or displaying shiny textures or unusual colors. In short: if you would pay top dollar to eat a particular dish at a top rated restaurant specializing in ethnic cuisine as an adult, it may as well be plutonium when it show up in a lunch box.  That’s why the lunches carried by the Davis kids were so darn right. They didn’t try to be anything but what we were: bland and middle class.

A sandwich, either peanut butter and jelly, peanut butter and butter, peanut butter and Marshmallow Fluff (catching a trend yet?) or the cheese sandwiches that my siblings and I used to tease my mom about, as she unwrapped the bright orange squares from their individual cellophane wrappers. “Mmmmm, American Processed Cheese Food Product,” we’d say, reading the cheese packaging label aloud and careful to stay just out of swatting distance. “My favorite!”

A single serving size bag of Fritos nestled alongside the wax paper-wrapped sandwiches. My mouth still waters at the memory of their fatty, salty, corn goodness pressing rectangular tracks onto my tongue, as I savored them in the cacophony of the Council Rock Elementary School cafeteria. 

Next into the paper lunch sack went a Hostess Ho-Ho, which is where my siblings and I exerted some individuality. My oldest sister always ate hers like it was corn on the cob, slowing rotating it and nibbling through the hard chocolate exterior then the cakey layer, until she got to the vanilla cream inside. My brother, disconcertingly referred to as "Little Larry" even after he'd topped 6 feet, could put one away in a single gulp. And I liked to break little bits of mine off and pop them in my mouth, examining the strata of the rolled pastry cake as I went.

At the bottom of the lunch sack was the shiny New York state Macintosh apple. That went straight into the garbage.

I don’t recall envying anyone’s lunch, or ever trading parts of mine away. There was no room for improvement as far as I was concerned, and I never complained about monotony. Who’s stupid enough to complain about a Hostess Ho-Ho?

Don't bother telling me that my kids are old enough to make their own lunches; you know it, they know it, and I know it. But it's not a hill I'm willing to die on. The fact is that the mornings they make their own lunches are filled with trauma and tears and they end up packing a 100% starch meal, whereas if I pack the lunch the trauma and tears are at least accompanied by 50% protein and fiber. It's simple math.

Frankly, if I was clever enough to come up with a lunch formula that would last for a decade, as my mother did, I wouldn’t care if resembled the food pyramid or a food pyre. It would be enough to have the whole process on autopilot.


  1. It was a peanut butter and banana sandwich today + fruit snacks + cheese curls + cookies and fruit. Usually some variation and the lunch box usually comes home empty.

  2. Just yesterday, Ethan asked if we could get the "Swiss Rolls" for his lunches. "No," I replied, "Even though I got them just about everyday in my lunch. I might consider it if they were called 'Yodels' like they were back east." I too used to jettison my fruit, until the Principal found me doing it and made an example of me in front of the entire cafeteria.

  3. More proof that we were separated at birth, Maria - glad my principal didn't know yours, though. I just read today that Flower Foods agreed to buy Tastykakes, thereby securing the future of artifically-colored lunchbox pastries for another generation.

    Ed - the empty lunch box - I'm jealous. Every day my kids take their fruit on a round trip journey from home to school and back again.

  4. Growing up my mother made us sandwiches of peanut butter & jelly OR bologna & mayonnaise on Wonder Bread (you know, the white bread that sticks to your guts), an apple (which made it in the trash, too) and Hostess Ding-Dongs (unless my brother, sister, and I ate them all on Sunday night). That was it. She would say, "You get what you get and you don't throw a fit." My four kids, however, think I am the lady at Subway Sandwiches, poised and ready to make whatever exotic sandwich their little hearts desire. But to no avail. I actually threatened them yesterday with a bologna sandwich.

  5. I used to envy girls like you. My mom was "ahead of her time"in the fifties and made us sandwiches on whole wheat bread, home made oatmeal and raisin cookies and fruit. I lusted after Twinkies and snowballs and kool-aid. In fact, at least once, I faked an excuse to go back to the cloakroom and proceeded to furtively eat a classmate's twinkie! I blush to think about it now.

  6. How come nobody else got slabs of Underwood liverwurst between slices of bread? My mother staunchly refused to buy any sort of faux cake treat or chips - but of course, the apple was a constant (did our mothers all know each other? is there some contract one signs while in labor?), which I was smart enough to keep in the bag as I chucked it.

  7. "What fresh hell is this?" ~ best line ever & exactly what I think every time I look at Isabel's lunch box. Eva eats the same thing every day, and every bit of it; edamame, hard boiled egg, wheat bread with butter (cut in half, always) piece of fruit. I tried sneaking contraband like gold fish and cereal bars into her lunch for kicks but was politely reminded in a cheery lunchbox note that those were not allowed at her pre-school.

    I have no memory of my elementary school lunches, but how I wish I could maintain my track & field body today as I did in high school on the snickers, package of chocolate donettes & a sprite daily diet.

    Youth really is wasted on the young.

  8. Why on earth are cereal bars not allowed?


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