Adventures in School Lunch

Usually time and money are on opposite sides of a choice — you can spend more to save time, or take extra time to do something yourself and save money. It’s the rare daily choice that will actually save you both. But the National School Lunch Program is just such a rarity.

In the August 2009 issue of Good Housekeeping, an article noted that the average cost of a hot meal nationwide is $2.08. The typical lunch packed at home costs $3.43, so giving your kid cash instead of a lunch box will save you $243 a year (that is, the $1.35 daily difference times 180 school days). Per kid!

It will also save you time. To pack lunches, whoever procures the groceries has to plan ahead to buy items that can go in a lunch. Then it takes a few minutes to make sandwiches, throw in some fruit, a box of raisins, something ridiculous like Barbie fruit-flavored snacks, and a drink. While people usually overestimate time devoted to routine tasks, it’s hard to imagine that this would take less than 5 minutes per day, and more if you have more than one kid. That’s not much, but it’s often time in the morning when everyone is frantically trying to rush out the door.

Since giving kids lunch money saves both time and cash, I give it a big thumbs up in 168 Hours. But I definitely get some push back when I mention that to people.

Why? The biggest complaint is that school lunches are unhealthy. This deserves to be addressed because in many cases it isn’t true. To qualify for reimbursement, a district’s school lunch must meet federal guidelines that include having no more than 30% of calories from fat (10% from saturated fat), and providing one third of a child’s recommended daily allowance of Vitamin A and C, iron and a few other nutrients. I have trouble believing that the slices of American cheese on Wonder Bread that some families send with their kids will be more nutritious. Yes, many districts also sell a la carte items (particularly in high schools) such as chips or candy, and if you send a kid with money they could in theory buy these instead of the official lunch. But they can also trade the food you send with them for other things too. And did we mention the Barbie fruit-flavored snacks?

There is also a question of freshness and safety. While USA Today has done a recent series about some school cafeterias not meeting safety standards, the Good Housekeeping Research Institute did a test of 19 popular thermoses, and found that only one kept hot food at a safe temperature for up to 6 hours. Cold milk can easily go bad in a thermos, too, and other foods such as mayonnaise and cold cuts are generally not designed to be left out for many hours either. Putting an ice pack in an insulated lunch box doesn’t always keep things evenly cold. Since schools generally don’t give kids access to a fridge or microwave, the school lunch is usually the best way to give kids access to food that’s fresh.

But talking about nutrition guidelines and thermos safety doesn’t necessarily get at the issue, because I think the lunch-packing habit is actually about something deeper. If it’s just that the kids don’t like the school lunch, fine — they need to pack their own lunches then. Even an elementary school kid can learn to do this. But in many cases, parents — particularly mothers — have internalized that packing a lunch is just something that a Good Mother does. (Many of the primary parent dads I’ve interviewed just send the kids with money!). By the time kids are in school all day, and going to sports and activities, there’s just not that much time available to interact with them during the week, even if you are not in the workforce, or are only working part-time. Packing a lunch becomes a way to show that you care, to send a message during the school day that you have thought about what they like.

Which is fine. But another way to show you care would be to use that time in the morning to sit and talk with the kids, and ask about what’s going to happen that day, and brainstorm ways to deal with the joys and woes of school life. For the first few months that Jasper was in day care, we had to pack food with him, but now at his school he gets the prepared lunch every day. He’s been introduced to foods I never would have thought to pack, like mandarin oranges, which he turns out to really like. And our mornings are much calmer, so I think that’s a big win.

5 thoughts on “Adventures in School Lunch

  1. I like this way of caring for my child. She appreciates it more, because it saves *her* time; she relaxes at the table while half her class is standing in the lunch line for 7-15 minutes. And she appreciates me more after 3 hours at school than in the morning when we’ve been in the same house all night.

    And her thermos only has to keep it cold for about 3 hours and 20 minutes. Lunch is at 11:30 for first graders like her.

  2. I let my younger two buy lunch 2x a week. The problem with school lunch is that they don’t always make the best/healthiest choices and it does take a lot of time to wait in line. I like home-packed lunches because I can choose things I know they like that are also healthy. Also, with buying in bulk I would argue that home lunches cost the same or less than the school ones. Costco sells fruit roll-ups that are 100% fruit – no barbie fruit snacks for my kids! And I try to avoid high fructose corn syrup and other additives — I check lables carefully.
    My older two (middle and high schoolers) flat out refuse to buy lunches. They don’t like the lines and think most of the food is not appetizing. They both pack their own lunches, but again since I do the shopping, I know they’re packing healthy stuff.

  3. Education begins at home. One does not only acquire knowledge from a teacher; one can learn and receive knowledge from a parent, family member and even an acquaintance. In almost all societies, attending school and receiving an education is extremely vital and necessary if one wants to achieve success.

  4. I think it is dangerous to trust outdated Federal guidelines for the school lunch, where most of the furnished food is provided from surplus generated by farm subsidies (thus they are buying what happens to be available versus what is considered necessary and healthy).

    Perhaps after Michelle Obama’s overhaul of childhood nutrition and school lunches you can trust that your kids will be getting good food and building healthy habits for the _future_, but for now I think it is more “ketchup is a vegetable” style nutrition than farm stand produce.

    I do agree that cheese on wonder bread with barbie snacks are equally bad, but I think you are presenting a false choice. If nothing else, packing up leftovers from the day before from a healthy balanced dinner would be probably as easy.

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