Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Real Food: It's What's for Lunch

One day last year I forgot to pack a lunch for Darling Son #1. Did I mention it was his birthday? Oh yes. Mother of the Year!

The really sad thing is I didn't even notice I had forgotten. It wasn't until I picked him up at the end of the day, all aflutter to hear how his birthday at school went, that he blurted out, "It was great! You didn't give me a lunch so I got pizza and chocolate milk!"

Apparently they let you buy on credit if you don't have a lunch. So I paid $3 for the pizza and chocolate milk plus a $2 service fee and had to endure pleading for several months hence for a reprisal of the pizza and chocolate milk. From then on, I redoubled my efforts to a.) pack a tasty, healthy lunch and b.) not forget to send it to school.

The Not-so-skinny on School Lunches

School lunches are notoriously lamentable. The I Quit Sugar website recently rated American school lunches as 'the worst in the world.' Apparently things like tomato paste on pizza are classified as vegetables, along with french fries. The First Lady's efforts to improve things have just resulted in smaller portions, not better food.

Now, you know I'm not totally down on french fries or chocolate milk. I've blogged about both (chocolate milk here and fries here.) But these are sometimes foods. Certainly not something I want my kids eating everyday.

Not to mention the cost--$3 is alarmingly cheap, but still, the bill for two kids to eat pizza and chocolate milk everyday would run us close to $1000 over the course of the school year. I'm certain I can beat that with better quality, homemade food.

I also pack lunch and breakfast for the Darling Husband. So we have quite a packing operation here in the mornings. Here's how it goes:

Gather the Supplies

I spent this summer researching the vessels into which I would pour out my mother/wife love in food. Wow. There are a lot of options, but I became quite specific with my requirements. I needed:

  • Insulated bags for everyone.
  • Glass dishes for the DH, so he could heat things up in the office microwave.
  • Unbreakable containers and wide-mouth thermoses for keeping hot foods warm for the small people.
  • Some sort of alternative to the hundreds of plastic baggies I contributed to landfills last year. 
I read some bad things about plastic. Apparently plastic will kill us all, but I was unsatisfied with some of the other options, so I bought a variety of BPA-free plastic containers.

These Pyrex glass containers for DH:

And these stainless-steel thermoses for the small people:

One of my favorite purchases is this fabulous ice-pack bag!
I send DH's food in this everyday. It has ice-pack stuff IN the bag! Brilliant! He brings it home every evening, folds it up...
and pops it in the freezer.
Then we just fill it up in the morning. I'm in love with this bag. Not like I love DH, but you know, the way you love a lunch bag.

Sometimes I send a salad, too. I found this container:
It has an ice pack and salad dressing holder in the lid:
ETA: The DH doesn't love the salad container. It is a little flimsy, and he says the ice pack makes the dressing so cold it becomes somewhat congealed. So, FYI.

All the above items were deals. Most I bought at TJMaxx. You can find them at places like The Container Store, but I'd encourage you to shop around.

The only somewhat pricey things I bought were DS1's lunch bag. We went to LLBean because I expect him to use it for the rest of his life.

And I found a very interesting product called Lunchskins:

These are reusable sandwich/snack bags. They function like plastic baggies, but you can wash them out and reuse them. (I also wash out plastic bags and reuse them, but Lunchskins are very durable and can be reused many more times.) You can even put them in the dishwasher. You can't do that with a plastic bag.

Everything about Lunchskins appeals to me except the price. I spent close to $30 on four bags (two large sandwich-size and two smaller snack-size.) I could buy a lot of plastic baggies for that, but I like the concept of Lunchskins. They had good reviews and so far, we're happy with them.

What do I pack in all these delightful vessels?

Leftovers. I've taken to doubling or tripling my dinner recipes and I send everyone off with the leftovers.

For DH's breakfasts, I'll send egg casseroles or quiche, or just regular food. He doesn't have any hang-ups about consecrated breakfast foods. Sometimes I'll make a batch of steel-cut oatmeal and/or a couple hard-boiled eggs and a piece of fruit.

The small people need both a snack and lunch, so it's leftovers for lunch and some combination of carrot sticks, cheese or fruit for snack.
Gucamole, peach cobbler, carrots, cheese and leftover-I-don't-even-remember-what

And water. Always water.

If you're looking for more ideas, check out 100 Days of Real Food. Blogger Lisa Leake specializes in school lunches.

How I Make it Easy on Myself

I pack what I can the night before. As I'm putting away food after dinner, I just put everything in the individual containers then. The kids stuff has to be reheated in the morning and put in the thermoses, but that's about as tough as it gets.

I set it all up assmebly-line style and just pop everything into the bags.

Lastly--no one gets a choice. I take preferences into consideration, but I never say, "So, little Darlings, what would you like for lunch today?" I might offer a choice between leftover option one or two, but that's about it. You get what you get and you don't get upset.

So that's it--that's what's for lunch. DS1's birthday is coming up and he's angling for pizza and chocolate milk. Should I relent? Make it a birthday treat? I'm open to suggestions...


  1. Great ideas here, Stephanie!
    I'd been giving some thought to school lunches as my now 10-year-old son will have to eat at school twice a week (I know, ONLY twice, but still.... new to us!), and I'm not that happy with school cafeteria lunches. They are meant to be very good, but I'm never sure....
    As for schools offering good food to kids, ours has applied for a program that provides 100 gr of fruit or vegetables for every child, a few times a week. That has to be one of the best programs I've ever heard of! Parents volunteer to go out to the school for about an hour, one morning a week (or more), and we prepare the fruit and vegetables with the children. My middle child discovered Kohlrabi is tasty (he wouldn't get near the stuff at home.... peer pressure???)
    Perhaps Lady O should get something like that up and running?

    I'd let your ds have the pizza and chocolate as a birthday treat. After all, if he only asks for it on his birthday, it's only once a year!

    1. Parental chopping! That's an interesting idea... I wonder how that would go over here. I think it would be tough since in our area, we have a lot of two-parent working households so time is an issue. I'm sure most families struggle to chop their own produce, not to mention others'!

      I'm not sure what the broader solution is to the school lunch problem. I can tell you that the American food landscape would have to change drastically before I'd have my kids eating school lunches everyday. And even if we dealt with the chemicals, GMOs, industrial oils, crappy food quality issues, I'd probably still pack their lunches just from a cost perspective. I haven't run the numbers on what a typical lunch I pack costs, but I'm betting averages less than $3.

      As for the birthday, that's how I marketed it last year to cover my gaffe--Oh, it was a treat for your bday! Ha!