Mamas Who Lunch

18 Oct

My favorite present I ever got from my husband is a big, glossy coffee table book called Hungry Planet: What the World Eats, by Peter Menzel and Faith D’Aluiso. It’s the compendium of a worldwide photographic study, featuring pictures of families with one week’s worth of their groceries, plus a short essay about their life circumstances and typical meals. I am super snoopy about what other people eat, and this book fascinates on a voyeuristic level, plus engages the family shopper/meal preparer in me. (And in case you’re wondering–well, take a look at the book and judge for yourself, but–in my estimation, the pictures of the US families with their oodles of packaged products and prepared foods are among the most horrifying. That’s probably just the self-hating liberal in me, though.)

What the World Eats is on my mind lately as I’ve taken to eating lunch with both kids at school every Friday. This is a great way to embarrass my eight year old by kissing her, (“Not in front of the BOYS, Mom!”), and delight my five year old by kissing him, (“Just one more kiss, Mommy!” “Eat your lunch, dear, you only have 20 minutes.”) And, of course, it’s a great way to get a look at what everyone’s bringing for lunch.

Back in the olden days of yore when I went to elementary school, I used to bring one of my dad’s brown bag specials. This was made the night before, in an assembly line with the other lunches he was packing–four for me and my siblings, one for him. These lunches typically included the following: 1. A grape jelly and crunchy peanut butter sandwich on very dry whole wheat bread (dry save for the wet, sticky spot where the jelly had soaked through.) 2. A small, hard Red “Delicious” apple with a tough skin and greenish inside. 3. A handful of generic gingersnaps, crunchy yet stale, with a metallic tang. The cookies were my favorite part of the lunch. Oh! Except for the 4. Quarter, which I used to buy a cold carton of chocolate milk, all the more delicious because I suspected I was supposed to buy plain. Every once in a while my dad would err and include the baggie of leftover steamed broccoli or asparagus that he’d meant to put in his own lunch. So it’s not like he wasn’t eating the same stuff we were, only grosser.

He liked to tell tales about the kids from his era who brought Wonder Bread sandwiches with butter and brown sugar, and a bag of chips. I knew we were supposed to be scandalized by these stories and grateful we had a parent who knew enough to pack us nutritious food, but I was always secretly jealous.

Because so much of my parenting is, intentionally or not, a reaction to my own upbringing, I pack for my kids a lunch I consider to be healthy, i.e. not butter and sugar sandwiches, (every time I type that I think “Yum”), but I have given all the components an upgrade from what I was packed. My kids’ lunches include: 1. A sandwich on the lightest, moistest wheat bread around that I buy especially for their lunches from the bakery. (I was really scarred by the gross dry bread.) I try to change up the sandwich fillings two or three times a week–I generally rotate through ham and cheese, hummus and cheese, and the sandwich of champions, Nutella and crunchy peanut butter. (I do have some guilt about sending cake frosting and PB sandwiches, but I struggle to suppress it, because delicious.) I also bought Thermoses so I’d have the option to send leftover pasta, or, their favorite, Chinese take-out. 2. A tube of yogurt, for the calcium and because it’s filling and quick to eat. 3. A portion of seasonal fresh fruit. I spend more money than I can conscience on fruit. Fruit is so GOOD when it’s good, and so utterly uninspiring and dire when it isn’t. I want my kids to think of fruit as a treat, and I flatter myself that they do, so far. 4. Some kind of crunchiness–granola bar, nuts, crackers. 5. A low sugar juice box, and I don’t feel good about it, either. But when I send water they don’t drink it, and when I send milk money they buy chocolate milk, and I, unlike, my parents, am not ok with that because it has over 20g of sugar in that one little carton. Thus, a low-sugar hydration option.

Clearly I have put a fair amount of thought into what I pack (did you ever read so many defensive justifying asides?), and for that reason and because I am, as I mentioned above, just plain nosey, I love to see what other people send.

One thing I’ve noticed overall is what a large proportion of parents choose reusable containers. Seems like I’m always admiring someone’s nifty little Bento box or stacking lunch pail. There’s also a lot of fresh food–vegetables, fruit, nice sandwiches. This is not necessarily impacted by the socio-economic class of the lunch packer, although there is certainly a comedic tinge to the little girl with the daintily sliced organic bell peppers and cunning container of hummus seated next to the little girl who pulls out a granola bar, a package of crackers, and a processed fruit twist–the lunches probably cost the same to put together, so what you’re really looking at is the amount of time someone spent on the packing.

And then there are the lunches that just pierce me. Last Friday the little girl sitting across from my son plunked a full plastic grocery bag on the table. As soon as the teacher saw it, she came over and hovered around. The girl very seriously applied herself to the knot in the bag’s straps, and then pulled out two packages of crackers with processed cheese, two bags of barbeque potato chips, two packages of Twinkies, two containers of Kool-Aid, and two Slim Jims. She started pulling open a bag of chips, and the teacher leaned over her and said softly, “Now, don’t eat all of that. That’s probably supposed to last you two days. Just eat some, and put the rest back in the bag, and you can leave it in your cubby for tomorrow, ok?” The girl nodded and went on eating while I sat across from her fretting about a five year old who already needed to think about portioning out food, who might not have someone at home who noticed whether she had money for lunch, or something in her backpack to eat that day at school.

How would my life be different if that was the way I’d always thought about lunch? How would my kids’ lives be different if that was their reality? You can learn a lot about people at lunch.

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