School lunch: Better than you think

photo-193City Journal published my article on school lunch recently, “If you serve it, will they eat it?” The gist is this: a number of districts are doing some fascinating things to upgrade school lunches. This is partly in response to changing federal standards, but also in response to the foodie culture that’s taking over chunks of the food industry in general. If people who think about food are increasingly into buying local, and working with “whole foods,” then school nutrition directors — who also think a lot about food — are going to be influenced by the same impulses. So you’re starting to see salad bars, better presentation, taste-tests for new veggies, and ethnic dishes. A lot of food is still kid-friendly, but it’s healthier versions of kid-friendly. So pizza has whole grain crust, etc.

Of course, all this runs into the issue of human nature. Kids are human beings, much like adult humans. Adult humans behave in funny ways around food. We often claim to want healthy food, but then don’t buy it in practice. McDonalds has confessed to shareholders that salads account for about 2-3 percent of sales. People want to see salads there, but then they don’t buy them. Likewise, people feel good about going to Subway — pitched as a healthy fast-food alternative — but then once inside, they buy sandwiches with fatty meats and mayonnaise, and indulge in chips and non-diet soda as a reward for going to such a healthy restaurant. After the stricter federal nutrition standards went into effect in schools, the number of paid daily lunches dropped precipitously. Many families who had a choice decided that if schools were going to make you eat dark green vegetables, hummus, and whole grains, they were going to send the kids with bologna sandwiches and fruit roll-ups from home instead.

In other words, the usual story — that parents want healthy meals, and schools are resisting — has it close to backwards. All this would be kind of funny, except that school meals aren’t exactly reimbursed at a generous rate, meaning that margins require volume. If fewer kids buy lunches, it is that much harder to make the economics work.

My soon-to-be second grader elected to buy lunch all last year. The school’s options seemed better to him than a bagel with cream cheese sent from home (since a PB&J sandwich is no longer kosher many places). He had more variety, and while I can see from the logs that he bought himself dessert, too, I would have sent cookies or gummies from home, so I can’t exactly complain about that. I told him that if I found he was purchasing multiple bits of junk daily, we’d start sending lunch, and so far that seems to have kept him in line.

As I’ve been writing about school lunch, I’ve been struck by some proclamations from people that they would “never” let their kids buy. I wonder if some of this is holdover from people’s memories of the tater tots of yore, or also that in the Pinterest era, lunch box fare has become something of a competitive art form. In any case, even if people usually bring lunch from home, buying once a week seems like a good way to save a bit of packing time and introduce a bit more variety.

Do your kids buy lunch or bring it? Why?

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19 thoughts on “School lunch: Better than you think

  1. We are brand new to the school scene (one week in!) so this is new territory for me. I know that school lunches are generally looked down upon in this area of local this and organic that. But my daughter came home the first day, lamenting that she missed out on macaroni and cheese because I had packed a lunch for her. Will I happily forfeit the duty of packing lunch every freaking day for an entire school year?? You bet! I’m sending a check next week so she can eat school lunch a couple of times a week, so I can get a break. I won’t do it every day because I know I can save some money by packing it for her; but a little bit from home and a little bit from school seems about perfect.

  2. We do a mix of packed lunch and hot lunch. Fridays are pizza days so we always opt for that plus we grocery shop on Saturdays so by then the deli meat is getting a little iffy. Every month we review the meals and my son will pick a few that he wants to do.

  3. One of the things I really miss about DS’s Madison daycare is that they made great meals and snacks, and it was all included in the cost of tuition. They were kid-friendly without being too junky because they had to adhere to the federal standards. It was better and more varied than we would have made at home for sure. Plus since all the kids had the same thing, there was peer pressure to at least try new things. At the current daycare he gets pretty good breakfasts and lunches (sadly lunch only 2x per week) but the snack is usually pretty junky (he learned the word “cookie” the first week of school) and they don’t serve milk, which I send in expensive milk boxes because he still gets a lot of his calories from milk. So I’m all for being able to have meals at school but I would balk if the food were really terrible. There was one daycare in town that ordered out fast food every day for the kids – we didn’t even go and visit.

    1. Chelsea, you know they have Tupperware containers that look like little juice boxes complete with the straw. We used to send those to daycare with milk. Might save you a bit of money…

    2. Yikes, fast food?!

      M’s daycare food is pretty crappy compared to what we eat at home, but not quite to the point where I’d pack her an alternative.

      We send in a 32oz box of soymilk each week or so and they tell us when we need a new one. Will yours store a larger container for you?

  4. This is a kind of nice thing about homeschooling…I never have to think about packed lunches because we just eat at home.

    Being able to eat at home means we have a lot more lunch options because we can use a toaster, microwave, stove, or oven.

    I think we would be far worse at getting thru leftovers if we all had to pack lunches!

  5. I’m torn on this. Yes, it is nice to have hot lunches. I had sandwiches every day for lunch as a kid, and I won’t touch them now as an adult. I’ve always been fortunate enough to work close enough to home to go home for lunch. But if I did take lunches to work, it would be wraps and leftovers and basically anything but a sandwich. On the other hand, dh takes a lunch to work every day (sandwiches half the times, leftovers the other half), and he is the ONLY one in his office to do that. The rest of them are so attached to their hot cooked meals that they eat out for lunch every day. As an adult, that’s not good for the pocketbook or the waistline. I’m glad schools are providing nutritious meals for kids at school – there are many who would eat far more poorly or not at all and their grades would suffer as a consequence. But I think as a society we are too attached to highly processed convenience foods or expensive restaurant food because no one is humble enough to eat a simple sandwich or just have bread and cheese for lunch (as they do in so many classic storybooks). Like I said, I’m torn.

  6. I’m curious about how much school lunch costs, and what the options are for a kid who doesn’t do any dairy. I’ve heard a story from a local mom whose family is vegan that her kid is getting forced to take milk every day, then gets flak from the staff when he doesn’t drink it or tries to throw it away.

    That doesn’t work for me – T is no longer allergic to dairy (no epi-pen required anymore) but we still don’t give it to her because she can’t really digest it well. I don’t need school staff policing her on different standards of nutrition. I’m not sure if that’s a common thing in public schools or just a quirk of that particular one.

    I have been packing lunch daily now for preschool since 2012 and I’m already tired of it 😉 However, given that preschool thinks a reasonable snack is chocolate, Oreos, and mochi (all on one day!!), I would rather just suck it up and pack something healthy.

    They don’t provide lunch but have an outsourced delivery option that doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence, especially for a kid who doesn’t eat dairy.

    1. But there are SO many kids with different dietary issues these days! I can’t imagine the schools not having options or at least tolerance? Maybe your friend needs to speak with the school about this, it seems completely unwarranted!

      1. This was a mom in our older kid’s toddler group so I’ve lost touch with her, so I’m not sure how she resolved the situation. I know she was working on it. It just struck me as very odd that the school staff wouldn’t just let him skip the milk and drink water.

  7. I can see that 10 year olds, who’ve gotten used to chicken nuggets and chocolate milk in the lunch line might balk at fresh veggies. But the newer cohorts, that are starting school after the changes—with a little coaching at school about nutrition and healthy options—may not miss what they don’t know? (even if they have unhealthy options at home, they would just associate school lunch as a time to eat xyz and just go with it) maybe i’m too optimistic

    1. I’m guessing they’d just throw away the stuff they don’t like. I’m wondering how much choice they give elementary kids, or if everyone gets the same lunch exactly.

    2. @Ana- this could happen. My last paragraph talks about the possibility of changing tastes over time, which I think could happen. I pretty much stopped drinking soda, and now I don’t have much of a hankering for it. If kids grow up with nutritious options, they may expect those…BUT the human desire for sugary, salty, fatty food seems like it might be pretty hardwired. I’m not sure it can exactly evolve away quickly.

      1. Same here, with soda.
        And little kids tend to just get used to their routines. My kids bug & whine for treats and snacks at home; every day its “mac and cheese! chicken nuggets! etc…”. At school, they eat what we send them, which is all healthy food (its the only time they’ll eat their veggies!). When there aren’t other options, and all their friends are eating whatever is in their lunch (even though some friends get cheetos and twinkies in their lunch instead of fruits & carrot sticks…), they just eat it. So if whole wheat pizza with broccoli & skim milk plus an apple is what is served at school every Friday, I think most will eat it.

  8. I think you’ve done it again, Laura – identified an area where there is a massive disconnect between reality and the standard narrative that everyone “knows” is true! To hear people talk about food, everyone is living solely on organic fruit and vegetables and seeing to it that their children do the same. Yet we know this can’t be true, because of the food that’s actually getting bought, sold, and consumed. (All those Lunchables and Big Macs can’t just be vanishing into thin air!) I have no answer to the lunch issue (other than we should all RELAX a bit), but I liked this post a lot.

    1. @Michelle- thanks! Yes, I’m always a bit puzzled by the assumption that parents packing lunches are automatically doing the right thing and sending their kids with healthier meals than those designed to meet nutritional standards. Especially since most kids don’t have access to fridges, there’s even a food safety issue in play. I think lunch packing becomes one of those things that “good parents” do, and hence we don’t question it. All I know is that my son has gotten peer-pressured by food service workers into tasting vegetables that I have *never* gotten into him. I am in favor.

    2. I think a larger percentage of the children in our country are existing solely on the free breakfasts and lunches provided by the school system than are existing solely on organic fruits & veggies.

  9. I send my kid to school every day with a lunch consisting of the following: a sandwich (peanut butter, ham, or turkey), 2 small containers of fruits or veg, and 1 of a “snack” — corn chips, pretzels, or occasionally popcorn (usually if we have leftover). I’m not diligent about organic (etc.) but do stick almost always to whole wheat bread, and either omit the jelly/honey on the sandwich or use just a hint, because he eats the straight peanut butter and doesn’t complain and I figure we all have enough (too much) sugar in our diets, without finding ways to add more.

    I used to worry this was too much repetition, but then I realized he wasn’t complaining and was eating, and that I was creating a problem that didn’t exist, so I quit doing that.

    Once or twice he’s asked to buy a school lunch ($1.75) and I’ve let him. And once or twice I’ve forgotten to send his lunch, or sent the wrong thing (grabbed the wrong container out of the fridge in the a.m.) and he’s bought school lunch.

    I’m lucky, I’ve got an easy kid who eats ‘most anything. He has started complaining that his friends (routinely) get cookies in their lunches, and I haven’t really addressed this but am just going to tell him we don’t do that (see above re: sugar — and really, he gets plenty, including, you know, candy, ice cream, cookies, etc. Just not as part of his usual school lunch), though I do occasionally slip one is as a surprise/treat.

  10. Our first school didn’t serve lunch, so I had to send it. About once a week they sent out for lunch, but after a couple of weeks DS said it’s just a burger, chips, drink, and cookie, and would I please send some carrots and apple slices for him!

    Our new school district has lunch line k-12, but I still send lunch. One, it’s faster! The line can be slow and they only get 20 minutes to eat.

    Two, they bring the container home after so I know how much they’ve had to eat, and have been able to detect school issues (e.g., less food was eaten because the child was in the math resource center). I was an occasional lunchroom helper in ES and was amazed at the amount of food that got thrown away. (The favorite food was the orange quarters, but they were SO popular they had to limit the early lunchers to 3 quarters so there would still be some for the later kids!)

    Three, for my high schoolers, they can eat lunch in other places, or might even have to chow down in the hallway during passage time, so a lunch_to-go is the way to go.

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