A Million Meals

Caring for children in today's confusing food environment

The Lunchbox Conundrum

Why won’t children eat any of the lunch foods we ate?

One of the moments that made me happiest as a school parent was when my daughters' school initiated its lunch program. In fact, I was willing to sign on to (and pa extra for) the program when it was merely a twinkle in the principal's eye--an enthusiasm that placed me squarely in the minority of parents, apparently, as not enough parents agreed to the voluntary program that first year to make it viable, and we were all condemned to spend yet another year making lunches for our children that they wouldn't eat. Yes, I was the parent who didn't care what my children ate (or didn't eat) for lunch at school...as long as I wasn't the one who'd labored over it. I exaggerate slightly, of course--I had the great luxury of knowing that a wonderful group of parents and administrators would craft an admirable lunch program, one whose commitment to healthy foods I've written about before with gentle (loving) mockery. And I obviously wouldn't be happy to see my kids on a diet of defrosted fries and extruded meat products. But what did make me really, truly happy, if I'm being completely honest, was the prospect of liberation from the lunchbox conundrum.

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If you've read anything I've written before (and if you haven't, scroll down to my menu for the past week), you know I'm no slouch on the kitchen. I can follow a recipe like nobody's business and, crazy as it sounds, cooking is actually what I do to relax. So it wasn't the labor of lunch that had me crying into my children's insulated lunchboxes, but rather the bizarre and extreme parameters within which I found myself working. No sandwiches. No condiments. No leftovers. No nuts. NO PEANUT BUTTER. Nothing that used to be hot but was now, six hours later, merely warm. Essentially, these rules--mostly created by my children--left me four items to choose between: yogurt, cold cuts, a raw fruit or vegetable, and crackers.

No wonder lunch came home uneaten about 30% of the time: if I had to eat from that limited list every single day, I would die of boredom. I know children like routine, but the lack of appeal of these lunch items was undeniable. Even the Crazy Mommy rants I tried valiantly to suppress, but which bubbled out about once a week, weren't motivation enough for my kids to eat: "Why didn't you eat anything? Why is this yogurt warm and unopened?? Of course you're starving!"

I took to bringing a fresh bagel with cream cheese to school pickup, as my children would fall upon me ravenously (forget about a bagel and cream cheese in the lunchbox, though: as my children will attest, it gets simultaneously hard and gummy after a few hours.)

I ascribed this strange repugnance for lunch foods to my own children's idiosyncrasies until a recent and revelatory conversation with two fellow parents at soccer. They shared that their children, too, follow strikingly similar rules about which foods are and are not acceptable lunchbox fodder. The father was as confused as I about when children stopped eating mayonnaise and related foods like tuna and egg salad. The mother revealed that her first-grade son will only eat chopped salads for lunch, so she finds herself at seven in the morning, blearily dicing chicken and rinsing chickpeas, per his specifications.

What on earth is going on here? I know there are kids (believe me, I hear about them) who will eat leftover kung pao or cold organic pizza or even sushi at school, but I am more struck by how many kids are like mine in their extreme lunchbox rules. How has lunchbox fare has shifted so drastically from when we were kids? The downfall of the sandwich and that related mystery, the collapse of condiments, is deeply confusing. When did children stop eating sandwiches? And is it the inexplicable rejection of condiments that led to this--after all, who really wants to eat a sandwich composed of a slice of turkey between two dry pieces of bread--or vice versa? It's a true mystery, and one I am only too happy to wash my hands of, now that my kids' lunch is out of sight and out of mind.

What I cooked this week:

Zanthe Taylor, M.F.A., is a former dramaturg and English teacher who is currently raising two daughters in Brooklyn, NY.

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