Lunch box fare in the Pinterest era

4392418334_01f357ee79_zMy oldest child will be starting first grade this fall. Since kindergarten was half day, this will be the first time he’s experiencing the cafeteria scene. I’d be happy for him to buy the hot lunch every day, but I’m familiar enough with his taste in food to know that this will probably not be happening.

Which has left me figuring out how to keep lunch packing from landing on my daily to-do list for the next dozen-plus years of my life. My first inclination is to teach my son how to pack his own lunch. This has the benefit of helping him develop a life skill, as well as a sense of self-reliance. I figured this is what many parents do — until I learned that lunch box fare has become a major focus of modern intensive parenting.

I blame Pinterest. While once the only people privy to what was in a kid’s lunch box were the parent, the kid, and the other kids at the kid’s table, now people are into sharing high-design snapshots of their lives with the world. In Pinterest’s daily round-up the other day, I was promised hundreds of ideas for school lunches that, incidentally, looked like they should be pinned on Pinterest.

That same day, I received a copy of a magazine called Family Fun (the substitute for Parenting, which went to that great recycling bin in the sky). The back-to-school issue promised lots of “school fuel” as dreamed up by various food bloggers. There was the Green Monster Freezer Smoothie — cubes of blended spinach and pineapple, frozen and put in a thermos to thaw by lunch time. There was J.M. Hirsch’s “Minikopita” with spinach and feta, and some “Hummus-stuffed Baby Bells,” introduced with the hopeful (and naive) statement that “Even reluctant veggie eaters can be won over by the novelty of little bell peppers. Sliced in half, they make yummy, edible vessels for layers of hummus and tabbouleh, a parsley-seasoned, citrusy salad.”

The final straw for me, though, was the watermelon pizza. This was presented as an idea for a parent who volunteers for snack duty at school. You’re supposed to top 1-inch thick rounds of seedless watermelon with 2 tablespoons strawberry jam. Then you sprinkle on halved green grapes, dried cranberries, chocolate chips, and sweetened coconut flakes. “Slice the rounds like pizzas and serve.”

Really? Do these people have preschool aged children? Because while the pizza looks beautiful — like something you’d pin on Pinterest — my own experience has been that the more something departs from the form in which a child expects it, the less likely he or she is to eat it. A child who will eat watermelon, grapes, strawberry jam, and dried cranberries separately may still balk at all of them touching each other. A sensible snack would be to bring several of these items separately. Mixing them together? That’s about creating a pin-able photo — not about actually feeding the kids.

What goes in your kids’ lunches? It would be PB&J every day here, but peanut butter is banned.

Photo courtesy flickr user Jeffrey Beall

30 thoughts on “Lunch box fare in the Pinterest era

  1. A. My son packs his own lunch and did last year too.
    B. I used to pack him fancy leftovers in cute reusable boxes. By age 4, all the other kids had X-butter and jelly sandwiches. After a few weeks, the preschool teachers gently requested that we also send him with a sandwich so they could avoid whatever negative behavior (probably sulking) he was having at lunch.
    *
    That particular preschool was in an expensive coastal city, and the butter in question was almond butter or sunflower butter (nuts were ok, but peanuts weren’t). Now that we’re back in the wilderness it’s PB.
    *
    Bento boxes are adorable, but many kids would rather have a jelly sandwich. I sure hope DC2 no longer has a wheat allergy by the time she hits the sandwich age.

    1. @nicoleandmaggie – when we had camp this summer, both boys got bagels with cream cheese, apple sauce pouches, pretzels, gummy snacks, and a Nutri-grain bar. At least one item would return uneaten each day, but it wasn’t always the same item, so I kept packing them all. These are all things my 6-year-old could retrieve on his own, so we’ll have to work on that.

      1. DC1 usually has a PB&J sandwich and two snacks (he doesn’t eat much). He likes it best when the snacks are a fruit leather and a baggie of pretzels. But sometimes he gets trail mix or fruit or whatever random dried goods DH has picked up at the bulk foods aisle. And sometimes if he’s lucky he gets cookies. Sometimes we have to tell him what to put in there and sometimes he takes the initiative himself.

  2. Wow. We homeschool, I haven’t been on Pinterest much, and I had no idea that this was a thing. I should have known, and I shouldn’t be surprised.

    On another note, sunbutter is a staple at my house and is allowed in most schools. I know some kids (and grown-ups!) will accept no substitutes for their beloved PB, but maybe yours will? You can get it on Amazon… 🙂

    1. @Anne – oh, it is totally a thing. “Pizza wheels” featuring tortillas rolled with pepperoni and cheese and sliced up, with marinara in a separate compartment for dipping. Fruit skewers — despite the pleas of lunchroom monitors everywhere please not to send things that function as weapons in with meals — and drawings on the plastic covers of fruit cups, if you are forced to do something so disdainful as sending a fruit cup 🙂

      I want to know who these children are who eat spinach smoothies out of their thermoses for lunch.

      I don’t mind the bento box thing, as I know it encourages variety — lots of little bits of things — but the high design concept thing is just, ugh.

      1. I’ve even seen photos of “tattooing” a banana for the kids’ lunchbox. We homeschool, so lunch is often leftovers or sandwiches. The kids do fix their own lunches though. And when they need to pack, they fix that too. Actually, they fix their own breakfasts too. It doesn’t have to be pinterest pretty to be nutritious.

  3. Hmmm. I’ve avoided the Pinterest/social interest angle of this but last year did briefly wonder if my kindergartener’s lunches were too boring (repetitive). Then I realized I was (contemplating) turning something that wasn’t a problem into one (he ate what I sent with him and didn’t complain or ask for more variety), and quit thinking about it.

    Lunch last year (and likely this) equals a PB sandwich, 2 of some sort of fruit or veggie, and either corn chips or pretzels. If we have homemade banana bread around I’ll drop in a slice, and on astoundingly rare occasions I’ll include a granola bar as a special surprise. The end. Oh, and he takes water to drink.

    I’m sure this will get more complicated as he gets older and realizes there are more options available. For now he accepts that while other kids get different stuff (e.g. cookies), “this is how our family does it.”

    Also, so far, I pack this for him because I find doing so easier than the alternative (bad mother, I know).

    1. Pretty sure that doing what is easiest doesn’t make you a bad mother (assuming you’re staying legal and not, say, giving your kids a shot of vodka at night to help them sleep). Having DS make his own lunch is easier than the alternative for us (he makes his while we make the baby’s), otherwise we’d do it. If you really want to be a bad mother, you’ll have to work much harder at it.

      1. Haha, well, I hadn’t thought of the vodka (much), but now that you mention it … (we are going through a very low sleep needs phase — on the kid’s part — and O.M.G.).

        But — right. I do sometimes feel I should make him do more for himself, but we muddle along.

    2. @bogart – good choice not to make an issue out of something that’s not a problem. I’m reminded of the saying not to try to make a happy baby happier.

      1. That’s a good one (about the happy baby). Right, I try not to go looking for problems, enough present themselves without needing my help!

  4. How I dread the return to packing lunches for my picky eater. On the other hand, if he’s eating his lunch at school, I need not be present for that moment when he says, THIS IS NOT WHAT I WANTED. (We are working on teaching him table manners — e.g., saying “No thank you!” instead of “I don’t like that” — but so far they aren’t sticking.)

    1. For whatever it’s worth, even teaching my DH that one (what to say) has been a bit tricky, though a decade plus in, we’ve made progress (having a kid at the table has, in fact, helped — there’s the whole modeling good behavior thing). (Relatedly, some time back after getting teenage stepkids, I found myself introducing the point that the ONLY acceptable responses to dinner being served were, “Oooh! Yummy!” or “Gosh, I think I’ll make myself some mac-n-cheese.”)

  5. My fussy eater started school (in England) last year. He had school lunch every day, and eats A LOT more variety as a result. System may be different though – they are served up the hot nutritious meal with no cafeteria style choice. There is always bread on the table so they don’t starve!

    One day Harry asked for packed lunches, saying that mummies made lunches with children’s favourite foods. My reply, “But you don’t have that type of mother, do you?” He agreed that he does not, and packed lunches have not been mentioned again!

    Thanks for 168 hours! Great politics and reality check.

    1. Alison, public school lunches in the US are actually a major issue—they can be extremely unhealthy, not at all fresh, & lacking in variety (think chocolate milk, chicken nuggets, potatoes as the major vegetable choice).

      1. Our school lunches don’t look so bad. I’d be fine with my daughter eating them. Sadly, she won’t eat them, probably because of all those actual ingredients that make me look at the menu and say “hey, not bad!” So we pack. She is not all that adventurous in food, and doesn’t want a lot of variety. Once we figured out what she liked, we just stuck with it. She’s asked for a few variations, but not much. Current lunch box fare is a half bagel thin (buttered), some slices of cheese (current preference is mediocre parmesan- don’t try to substitute the good stuff! That will be rejected), some strawberries, some teddy grahams, and milk. She wishes I’d send juice, but I refuse. Our compromise is that she gets strawberry milk a couple of times a week, as a treat. I used to feel bad about the teddy grahams, but then I realized that I pack a piece of chocolate in my own lunch every day. Why shouldn’t she have a sweet at the end of the meal, too? They forbid candy at her school, but chocolate chip teddy grahams are OK. I’m sure homemade chocolate chip cookies would be OK, too, but no way I’m adding that to my weekly to do list! We have to send snacks, too. She LOVES go-go squeeze, so she gets one of those and one other thing. The other thing rotates between healthy (cheese stick, dried bananas) and treat (gummy fruit snacks, fruit rollup).

      2. @Ana – from my research on it (I was trying to pitch an article on this at one point) it really varies. It’s always cheaper to do central meal processing for a district and send it out, hence the reheated stuff. But school lunches have to meet some nutritional standards, which packed lunches do not. People think they’re doing better than the school lunch…but are packing chips and gummies, fruit juice with no fruit, and jelly sandwiches. Good Housekeeping also did a product testing package a few years ago finding that basically none of the popular insulated lunch gear actually keeps food safe until lunch.

  6. Like Anne, we homeschool, so I pretty much never have to pack lunches (although I do throw together Mr. FG’s lunch while he gets ready for work).

    If I did have to make sure four kid lunches were packed every day, though, you can be sure I wouldn’t be making watermelon pizzas. We eat simple, predictable lunches here at home (sandwiches, fruit, nuts, yogurt, etc.) and I’d do the same if I was sending lunches to school.

  7. I wouldn not win the competitive mom trophy. My homeschooled kids often make their own lunch. My public schooled kids makes her brown bag lunch and packs one for her dad too 🙂

  8. Efficiency is a large part of my choices for my kids’ lunches. We do have to send all my kids lunches & snacks to their daycare. Peanut-free. They get the same meal all week long—pasta with chicken week 1, peas hummus sandwich week 2, and veggie + chicken salad sandwich week 3. Its all cooked up on Sunday and then assembled nightly. And one steamed veggie for the week. I rotate up the fruits, and the “fun snack” (pretzels/crackers) based on what we have. And then they each get a cheese stick. Its a lot of little items but I would never waste a second of time trying to make it “cute” or photograph-worthy.
    I would love for my kids to eventually make their own lunches. I bet that as much as the moms love the “pinterest-style” fancy stuff, the kids just want the same thing their friends are eating. I remember begging my mom to stop sending “weird” leftovers or soup in a thermos because all the other kids in KG were eating PB&J.

  9. I have no kids, but my own experience with public school lunch-packing was that when we were little it was always pretty predictable: sandwiches (PBJ, ham/turkey and cheese…), yogurt raisins, grapes, Goldfish if we were lucky, carrots, cucumbers, peppers… When we got to older elementary and middle school, I decided to pack my own lunches. I made some creative ones (leftovers, “cheese/hummus plate” style…), some boring ones. I learned over time what it took to keep me full and feeling good from lunches. I consider it a skill well-(l)earned. All this to say: letting your kids pack their own lunches can be scary at first (especially if there’s a junk drawer/shelf), but over time they’ll likely be wiser for the experience – and healthier.

  10. My kids are in 8th and 10th grade and I can tell you that only one percent of their classmates bring anything beyond the standard fare. Even when they were in elementary school, the vast majority didn’t get cute food or sweet notes from Mom.

    (Too many bring vast amounts of chips or processed lunch kits and think that’s healthier than the school lunch option. But that’s another story.)

    I haven’t looked at Pinterest, but I have to say that I’ve looked at magazines for healthy lunch ideas. (There are so only so many years that kids want to eat PBJ sandwiches every day.) But our wild experimentation is more like, oh, veggie wraps, cold pizza, new kinds of bread, etc.

    Don’t judge the world by Pinterest and Magazines. Were all your college friends living the “Cosmo” life?

  11. I have a template for T’s preschool lunch that I’ll blog about eventually. It’s a list on the fridge that has four categories (fruit, veg, treat, protein) and the things she likes in each so I can just grab one of each and be done without having to figure out if it’s balanced, if she likes it, etc.

    Her school is nut free but we introduced sunbutter early enough that she eats both that and PB happily. (Otherwise I think sunbutter tastes like yucky PB. It does to me, anyway.)

    I buy the applesauce cups and squeezy fruit pouches from Amazon in bulk so those items are always ready (and easy).

    Probably starting next year, I’ll get her to pack it herself (or at least parts of it).

    1. @ARC – we had a discussion on this at lunch. I asked my 6-year-old what should go in a lunch, and he talked about sandwiches, and maybe carrots. I think I’ll make a template for him similar to yours: protein, grain, 2 fruits/veg, treat. That should do it. I’ll also make sure to start buying more little packs of carrots and apples at Costco – lots of options for packed lunches.

  12. the peanut free thing is ridiculous… I will not spend $10 on sun butter for this reason and think it is absurd that the school can tell you what not to pack.. I think someone should start a business doing this but that women should not make unpaid labor out of this.. if kids don’t eat I don’t think there is ANYTHING anyone especially Laura or any intelligent mom should do about it other than serve dinner.. anysandwich or leftovers or give them $ to buy the lunch. women should not be spending time on this unpaid… I think the amount of energy women spend thinking on this is sad and should be directed to other activities on the revenue or self-actualization line.. if they dont eat that does not mean you should pac something else.. i tmeans they are not hungry and probably spoiled… when mine don’t eat you hear OMG the kid didnt’ eat.. when they do like to eat you hear OMG she will be fat… leftovers. sandwich (PB&J) or buy lunch.

    1. I initially had the same thought as you about peanut free being ridiculous, but I’ve changed my mind. My best friend’s little girl has a peanut allergy and she literally has to sit at a separate table if someone brings a PBJ sandwich. Pretty sad for a 3 year old. Kids can literally DIE if they inhale even a small amount of peanut dust.

  13. My daughter took her lunch the first week of kindergarten, then was so scared to try the lunch line (something unknown and hard) that we ended up packing every single day. Sigh. 1st grade we started the year off with lunch in the cafeteria.

    The cafeteria isn’t fabulous, but since I think variety is really good in getting kids to eat healthily, I like having something totally different for her lunch. She’s allowed to bring lunch, if she makes it. (She also makes lunches for summer camps.) She doesn’t do a bunch of sandwiches, so I made a list she can mix and match from — protein, fruit/veg, healthy treat (i.e. applesauce or yogurt stick).

    I’ve also read that we tend to pack to much in the hope our kids will eat “something”, and that making lunch smaller might discourage pickiness. So if the carrot sticks always come back but the yogurt is eaten, maybe we shouldn’t send the yogurt at all. Or maybe we should provide half the yogurt and half the carrots.

    1. @Sara- I, too, think variety is great. I would absolutely love to have some one make me a hot lunch every single day that was something different. The problem of the home office is there’s no cafeteria! the upside of those little bento box things is that you get a small amount of a lot of different things. We shall see how this pans out.

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