23 September 2008

what's for lunch

Yesterday James had the best lunch he's had since the school year started. This is because the siren song of saturated fat and empty calories is so alluring to my son that I agreed to let him choose one or two lunches per month to buy in the cafeteria, and yesterday was his first school lunch.

"It was awesome! I had a cheeseburger -- with extra ketchup! -- and rice balls with bread on the outside,** and an apple and applesauce!"

I have had a fear of school lunches ever since I read Fast Food Nation several years ago. It's been too long for me to accurately remember all of the details, but the basic reason school lunches are so terrible is because government subsidies make meat and dairy the cheapest foods for schools to buy, so lunches are very heavy on meat and dairy (and, consequently, fat) and not so big on fresh fruits and vegetables or whole grains. Looking at James' school's September lunch menu, I see entrees such as mozzarella sticks, nachos, hot dogs, cheeseburgers, several varieties of breaded and fried chicken, and pizza every Friday. Sure, they're serving canned fruit and vegetables every day, but somehow I doubt calling your sides "sunny corn" or "yummy carrots" adds much to their appeal.

On top of the questionable nutrition of school lunches, we also have a commitment to eating ethically-raised animal products on a very limited basis, so you can see why we're not keen on school lunches. We more than qualify for the free and reduced lunch program, but as cheap as I am I just can't bring myself to sacrifice my son's nutrition to save some money. So I've been trying to be creative with packing James' lunches so that he won't feel left out of the daily grease ingestion.

Let me tell you, there are some good resources out there for school lunch ideas. I've been taking inspiration from the idea of bento boxes, which are Japanese home-packed meals featuring a wide variety of foods, and often some cool artistic designs made from food. There are many photo sets on Flickr showing ways in which people have adapted the bento idea for other types of foods and cuisines. I've also been checking out Vegan Lunch Box (not that we're vegan, but I got the corresponding cookbook from the library and it has a lot of great ideas as well as some tasty-looking recipes) and LunchNugget, two blogs in which mamas document the tasty lunches they make for their offspring.

Now, I'm not nearly ambitious (or awake) enough at 7:30am to use cookie cutters on vegetables, or fashion octopuses out of hot dogs, and we don't have a real bento box in which to artistically arrange lunch. But I do find it really useful to have so many ideas to consider, so that my kid is not just taking a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and an apple to school every day (which, incidentally, is Evan's lunch nearly every day, since he does not yet know what he's missing). And James, luckily, is willing to let me experiment and find out how well a burrito or a leftover chicken drumstick holds up in the lunchbox for three hours.

So far he seems to be satisfied with a once or twice a month special school lunch. Let's hope I'm good enough at this creative lunch-packing to make that last the whole year.
**Tater tots. How happy am I that my kid doesn't know what a tater tot is?


Jessica said...

As you probably read, we now pack Kasia's lunches (first time this year). I LOVE the links you shared!! I pack lunch for the twins in dishes with compartments, kind of like the bento box link (but less pretty). Mike packs Kasia's lunch, but she is hard to please. I think we'll have to try those ideas.

By the way, Kasia has bought school lunch for years, and by the end of last year, was crying every day that we would not pack a lunch for her. I'll venture a guess that a few times a month of eating school lunch, and James will grow tired of it. Kasia was even tired of her favorites at the end.

Emily said...

One question....what the heck is a rice ball??

kim said...

I think that public schools also get the cheapest grades of meat through government programs, and some of these have been featured in recent recalls for e Coli. Those school lunch choices just sound awful - it really can't be healthy for kids to have so much grease on a daily basis. It should be an occasional treat, just like you let James have. Molly does PB&J around five days a week and might have cheese quesadillas once or twice a week, with some kind of fruit on the side - that's the exciting lunch we have around here.