Why am I interested in posting about alternatives to school lunches? Well, because many parents have the money and time to prepare meals at home for their children. It would be great if all parents had the ability to do this for their children every day. Not all of us are that lucky in life. Additionally, I believe it’s important to learn about what parents prepare for their children outside of school.
I am Judy Thomas, a Virginia mom, gardener, home cook, crafter and part time college teacher. I guess there are two ways to approach sub-par school lunches: one is to change the system, the other is to opt out. I admire those who have tried to change the ways our kids eat, but am writing this for those who opt out of the school food system.
I have been packing my son’s school lunches for nine years (and my work lunches for years before that). We are vegetarians, but that is not the main reason to pack, our school has a “vegetarian” option every day. No, I want my child to eat healthy foods and our schools just do not provide them. Before I go on, I have great sympathy for school cafeteria workers and managers. They are under tremendous fiscal pressure to make their school cafeteria self-supporting. They have to watch every penny like a hawk and the most common solution is to use cheap, pre-prepared, processed foods and commodity foods. I also feel for poor families, who cannot afford any alternatives to the school lunch, but many of us can.
In our elementary schools, parents are able to eat lunch with their children. Watching what other kids ate (or would not touch) on their cafeteria trays reinforced my belief in providing lunches from home. Mystery meat and gray vegetables, cheap carbo fillers, and the “fruit cup” were unappealing, as was all the packaging and waste. Many kids ate only one solid food item for lunch, like pretzels. And washed it down with milk or juice. Most of the time, the home lunches seemed better, though not always (chips, cokes, doughnuts and “Lunchables” were sometimes included).
For many years, my son’s tastes were simple-a PB &J sandwich or cheese sandwich, cheese and crackers and occasionally a thermos of pasta and cheese. To this I added some fruit (pre-cored and/or sliced to make it easy to eat), a cookie, some “juicy water” (water mixed with a little juice, now just water) and maybe a handful of crackers or “goldfish” on the “forbidden fruit” principle (I believe if you forbid your child to eat any convenience food, that food will become highly desirable to them).
This year, my son started to balk a bit. The main reason is that he does not like carrying around a lunch bag all day (though sure likes dipping into it during class to get a snack when hungry!) and was tired of the uniformity of his lunches. So here are some typical “new” offerings for this school year: grilled cheese or “pizza” sandwiches on homemade bread (the latter with added tomato sauce) (well wrapped to stay warm), a thermos of pasta, ricotta and mozzarella, leftovers from dinner the night before (cheese blintzes, soup, lasagna, Indian lentils and rice), vegetable sushi (I purchase this as an occasional treat), hummus and baked tortilla chips or crackers, and PB, but now with apple/banana, honey and raisins. I add the usual fruit (though now will sometimes cut up pineapple or strawberries) and salty snack. It takes me on average about 10 minutes to prepare a lunch, and some of that is just reheating. I include food from the garden in his lunches when available- the soups, salsa and tomato sauce are made from my home canned tomatoes, and my pumpkin bread us from our garden pumpkins. I give him home canned or frozen fruit from the garden- much of the fresh fruit and veggies come in the summer, when he is out of school, and we all just gorge ourselves on it then! (Right now, we are into major brace$, so it limits his munching on raw carrots, and things like that).
I love to cook, having learned from my beloved mother what NOT to do in the kitchen (she was of a generation that hated to cook and made the same food over and over. Shake and Bake frequently graced our table). I do have a luxury that many people do not- I work part time, much of it from home. But even when I worked full time, I was able to fit bread making and scratch cooking into my weeks and weekends. And that is an important key to making good lunches for your kids, and having tasty leftovers that you can reheat and pop in a thermos on those busy mornings. Bread can be made once per week, using an overnight method or refrigerator dough (and nothing is as wonderful as he smell of a loaf fresh from the oven!).
Many people are intimidated by baking bread- it really is not hard (I know, I have been doing it for 25 years), does not take a lot of active time (just some time waiting for it to rise) and can be fit into a busy schedule. I first learned to bake from “The Tassajara Bread Book” (great instructions in “A Loaf for Learning”) and “Laurel’s Kitchen Bread Book,” both from the hippie-inspired 60’s and 70’s and somewhat more involved than you may want (now I just whip up a recipe every week, making a different, often sourdough, bread, but that does take some experience). When I was working, I mixed and kneaded bread either at night to bake in the morning or in the morning to bake when I got home from work, or waited until the weekend (we actually listen to a radio show as a family on Sunday afternoons and this is my bread-baking time). When my son was little, he was my baking helper and knows the basic ingredients of bread and how to knead it… and sure appreciates the final product! As a teen ager, he is not as interested in cooking, but this summer he is going to be “my kitchen buddy” helping me plan and cook one or two dinners per week. One bread-baking option for busy people is the approach taken in a new book “Artisan Breads in 5 Minutes a day” and a follow up book by the same authors.
But even if you don’t want to learn to bake bread (but it is sooo satisfying!), making simple, wholesome food in large batches (like spaghetti sauce, lasagna, blintzes or dumplings, soup, chili) that can be frozen in smaller batches and reheated in the mornings is the way to go for busy parents with several kids (while the food is reheating, you can be assembling other parts of lunch or dressing for work). I also bake a tray of bar cookies, cut, individually wrap and freeze them to put in school lunches. I know this isn’t exactly health food, but have you ever read the ingredients list on commercial cookies? And, again, think of the forbidden food principle. One thing I also do is I ask my son for his opinion each time I send something new to learn what he likes and what works well in his lunch bag.
I know we are all busy and tired and frazzled, but if you have the desire and a little motivation, it is possible to change your eating habits- at home and at school! One approach is to start small- can you pack one healthy lunch per day? Then two, then….
(I have a garden blog for those of you interested in gardening, Central Virginia Organic Gardener, come visit and post any questions you might have).
NOTE: all guest bloggers have contacted me of their own free will, have given consent, do not know me personally, and are not receiving compensation.