James started an early childcare program this summer that we are, for convenience’s sake, calling preschool. My little boy is in school! Every time he drops a detail of his day, I get a bigger picture of who he is in the world, not just who he is in this home. It’s precious, it makes me smile, and I can’t get enough of his artwork and new songs.
But I’ll be honest, James started school in part because I needed him to. I’ve been running around like a crazy person getting us settled back into life in Maine. Travis has been swamped starting a new (and amazing!) summer program bringing college students to Ethiopia. And James and I were butting heads badly by the end of our Ethiopia Spring (“How badly?,” you ask. At one point I dumped a glass of water over his head, and then he picked up a broom and charged me). So despite being obsessed with my kitchen and with feeding my family, I had a rather laissez-faire approach to his food at preschool. In fact, I dropped him off without any on his first day. They gave him a snack, and then lunch, and then kindly explained to me that I needed to provide at least a snack for him and they would provide lunch if I did not. Cool. I shoved crackers into a snack bag, threw in a banana, and called it done.
But on the fourth day of his first week, I received a shock. Lunch that day included a sandwich with some kind of nut butter (sunflower seed butter, actually) and something white, sticky, and reminiscent of a s’more. Huh? Travis took one look at it and said, “No way. It’s a fluffernutter!” Well, you know what I said.
But before I go any farther, let me make something clear. I wholeheartedly support the school lunch program. Consider these points:
- 10.22 million free school breakfasts are served each year
- 19.2 million free school lunches are served each year
- In the face of criticism for poor nutrition, the school lunch program has gotten a bit of a face lift — the 2010 Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act changed the standards for breakfasts and lunches
- And from a geeky, data perspective, school lunches are a quick and dirty proxy for poverty in schools. Want to know how many poor students go to a school? Figure out how many of them qualify for the free breakfasts and lunches.
Of course, supporting a program in theory is very different from supporting it in practice. And in practice, I don’t let my kids eat Marshmallow Fluff. Marshmallows belong on a stick over a fire during summer. But a) I don’t want to devote too much time to crafting the perfect kiddo snack and b) I don’t want my kid to be that kid with the carob-chip cookies. If you were one of those kids, sorry, but we all thought your food was weird. It has to be said. Because peers matter, and they (yes, the nefarious and all-knowing THEY) say that earlier on than we realize, peers matter more in decision-making than parents. So I want my kid to eat something resembling what the other kids eat, even if I’ve snuck ground flax seeds in somewhere.
Now, there are fantastic recipes out there already, so I knew I didn’t need to reinvent the wheel. Pick up any parenting magazine and you’ll find nothing but great, healthy, kid-friendly school lunch ideas. What I needed was to build those cool recipes into my day somehow. Here’s what we’ve been experimenting with so far:
- Mini-pizzas. Huge success, and this will become a lunch staple.
- Muffins. My version of the carob chip cookie. Invariably this is one of my key methods for getting vegetables into James. I hate to say it, but Jessica Seinfeld stumbled onto something huge when she slipped butternut squash puree into her kids’ mac n’cheese.
- Chia-seed pudding. Varying success on this front so far, but it’s so dang easy and so power-packed that I’m determined to find a way to make it work.
- Yogurt parfaits. Aside from my fear that he’ll get beaten up on the playground for eating a parfait (they need a new name! It’s the whole “crepe” vs. “skinny pancake” thing….ooh, I should make skinny pancakes for lunches, those would be a huge hit! I need a crepe iron. I mean a skinny pancake iron.), he gets a kick out of making these in the morning. All I need to do is make sure I have good fixings and clean jars.
- Chocolate milk. I was never a milk drinker growing up, but I started to drink more of it when I was pregnant with James, and now I actually enjoy milk from time to time. I had a chocolate milk revelation a couple of years ago at the Common Ground Fair here in Maine. Walking past the Misty Brook Farm booth, the chocolate milk just sounded so good on that hot day. I bought a pint, and sucked it down, reluctantly sharing with Travis and James. And oh, it was good. So good that I tried to buy more on my way out of the fair, but they had sold out. Horrors! Since then I’ve both driven half an hour to their farmstand to pick up chocolate milk (and, you know, eggs and vegetables) and I’ve experimented with making my own at home. Here’s what I’ve determined: unless you are stirring Hershey’s syrup or Quik into your milk, you will need to heat up the milk in a double-boiler, whisk in shaved bits of dark chocolate, sweeten to taste with maple syrup, and then put it in the fridge. Trust me, it’s worth it. It is the best tasting chocolate milk I’ve had, and when I send James off to school I know that a) he’s getting good fats, b) he’s not getting excess sugar, and c) he’s getting anti-oxidants from the good dark chocolate I used. And dude, it’s chocolate milk. He’s the cool kid when brings it.
- Juice. I love using the real deal cranberry juice, watered down with a bit of maple syrup to sweeten. I’ve also done this with blueberry juice and tart cherry juice. These are robust fruits, not to be trifled with. The Just Tart Cherry Juice by R.W. Knudsen has 8% of your daily recommended iron, 11% of your daily recommended potassium, and 2% of your daily recommended calcium in 8 oz. Not too shabby.
- Yogurt smoothie. Mostly I just mix this awesome blueberry yogurt we love from nearby farm The Milkhouse with their milk and some maple syrup. Live cultures, good fats, and not too sweet. Excellent.
- PB&J. It’s a classic. But mine is made on wood-fired sourdough bread with cashew butter and organic strawberry jam. I don’t know if that makes me hippy, or crunch-granola, or yuppie. Regardless, James is a fan, and this is my go-to on fluffernutter day so he doesn’t wish he had what the other kids are eating.
- Bars. So far, I love these more than James. I’ve tried various Lara Bar – style bars chock full of pureed dates or figs, with chopped nuts and seeds. I’ve tried granola bars, even going to the grocery store to buy ingredients for Smitten Kitchen’s newest granola bar recipe for her son’s summer camp lunches (which turned out to be a bit crumbly, although very tasty). So far, to no avail. But I liked them, so hey, I’ll keep trying out recipes until I stumble onto something he likes.
Now, we’ve had varying successes, and I’m looking forward to getting better and better at this. And it’s actually pretty fun, especially when he eats one of the preschool lunches and describes the mayo and “whole wheat” bread as yucky. I feel like my time in the kitchen is well-spent when my kid rejects the corn syruped mayo and the fake real bread. I don’t have aspirations for moving much beyond the above list, but I do hope to keep the ingredients good and fun. So going forward, here are The School Lunch Rules:
- Involve James. When I make a lunch item a project, it does all kinds of great things. It makes James feel special – something in the kitchen is just for him! You wouldn’t believe how excited he gets when we buy something at the grocery store for his lunches. He also is more likely to eat something if he helps to make it. And last, doing it together is a way to spend quality time together while helping me cross something off my list.
- Minimal ingredients, or minimal specificity. I don’t need fancy, and neither does James. Preferably, whatever I am making will help me use up some leftovers, or if there aren’t any leftovers it will only require a minimal amount of staples. And this goes back to one of my kitchen rules: start with great ingredients. Any school lunch will be decent if the basic ingredients are solid.
- Cute food. At the risk of sounding like an advertisement, investing in a school lunch bag that James likes, and using cute jars to hold things, and the fun re-usable sandwich bags in bright colors, makes lunch more fun and apparently more edible. Put another way, kids ALWAYS judge books by their covers. And it makes the whole minimal thing less obvious. Blueberries are delicious. A reusable decorated bag is cute. Blueberries in said cute bag are just begging to be eaten.
- Drink good calories. James loves his cute water bottle and it’s a great way to get additional good calories in. Chocolate milk, cranberry juice, blueberry yogurt smoothies. I worry a lot less that he didn’t eat his carrot sticks when I see that his water bottle is empty.
- Trust my instincts. If you and your kid are picking out a chia seed pudding recipe for lunches and he tells you that the one with the tahini in it sounds delicious but you can’t put your finger on why it doesn’t seem like a good idea, go with your gut. You know your kid, and although our kids surprise us sometimes with what they eat, by and large they are predictable. This doesn’t mean you should stop trying new things out on them, just try them out at home a few times first before sending them off to school with it.
At the end of the day, I’m trying to not take this whole thing too seriously. Some days James asks if he can have one of their lunches and I sigh inside. Because I know that he wants the single-serving canned peaches, or the fig newtons, or the fluorescent orange crackers with the fake cheese spread. He doesn’t ask more than once a week, and I usually say Yes, except on Thursdays. That’s fluffernutter day.