I was raised by a mom who insisted on sending me to school with a lunch of a peanut butter and lettuce sandwich on whole wheat bread. Let me repeat that: peanut butter and lettuce. (Actually, it’s a pretty good combo, though it’s no peanut butter and pickle.)
Rounding out my lunch would be an apple and some carrot sticks. I spent nearly every lunch hour staring longingly at other kids’ bologna sandwiches and Hostess Swiss Rolls. This was in the 1980s, after all — a magical era of childhood junk food that gave us both Sour Patch Kids and Gummi Worms.
So I was the weird kid with the healthy lunch. I was also a kid with a mom whose food budget didn’t allow for fun things like sugary cereal, no matter how hard I begged for a box of Lucky Charms at the grocery store. Now that I’m an adult with a child, I understand that she probably wanted to be sure that every one of her food dollars went to actual food with nutritional value. There was simply no room in her budget for Twinkies.
When the new school year started for my nine-year-old kid, I gained a renewed awareness that at least 50 percent of the food I pack in Oliver’s lunch bag is going to end up in the trash. This is partly because his lunch period is pretty short and he’s — how shall I put this — a talker so I’m guessing he spends most of his lunch hour doing that instead of actually eating.
And it seems that no matter how much or how little I pack for him to eat at lunch, a full, damp bag of warm baby carrots always comes home at the end of the day.
Now, let’s talk about children and vegetable consumption. Somehow, I’ve trained my kid to eat all his vegetables at dinner. I always thought kids, by nature, would do everything in their power to avoid eating A Vegetable, but mine actually likes broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and kale (his three favorites), and begrudgingly eats nearly every other vegetable (asparagus, green beans, lettuce) because he thinks he has no choice. I’ve never bothered to tell him that if he pitched enough of a fit I might cave, and I don’t plan to set the record straight anytime soon.
But that’s when we’re sitting at the dinner table in the evenings. Lunches are a different story entirely. Not only does a nasty old bag of baby carrots come home every day, but most of the rest of his lunch, too. His sandwich might have one bite taken out of it. He maybe ate the bag of vegetable chips I packed. If there is string cheese in this lunch situation, that’s probably still in his bag at the end of the day, too.
At times like these, I think three things: 1. This sure is a terrible waste of food and money, 2. I’m super glad Oliver loves breakfast and eats plenty before school, and 3. Why hasn’t my kid figured out that he could totally lie and say he ate his lunch but throw it in the trash?
Recently, lured by a great deal on a case of individual pudding cups, I started adding one fun item to his lunch, just so he would have some calories — any calories — to fuel him until dinner. I’ll admit, it is thrilling to give my son something I did not get when I was a child. But I imagine his teacher thinks I’m a terrible person — because guess what he’s eating for lunch now? Pudding.
That’s when I realized maybe I’m not packing vegetables in Oliver’s lunch because I think he will or should eat them. Maybe I’ve been sending all these useless, unwanted carrots for the benefit of his teachers and any other adults who might be around. Does it matter what he eats when he's away from home?
I mean, I try. We eat well overall. And part of me is pretty sure he’s using his charm to get other kids to give him Cheetos anyway. What's the harm of a cup full of high fructose corn syrup-laden pudding now and then?
Which brings me to the universal law of children’s lunches:
“I cannot know exactly what my child is eating when he is out of my sight, so I should just let it go and make sure he eats some vegetables at dinner.”
And so it is. I’ll continue to put that sad little bag of carrots in his lunch bag every morning, in the hopes that someday he will actually eat them — or at the very least, lie to me, even if his uneaten food is at the bottom of a cafeteria trash can.