Lunch at School
In Bird by Bird, her masterful book about creative process, Anne Lamott describes a writing exercise in which students recollect their childhood school lunches. Lamott's example focuses on the social code among her grade school peers: what sandwiches were acceptable and therefore tradable, what lettuce leaf or carrot stick would mark you forever as an outsider. My own memory of school lunch is dominated by my prized Muppets Pigs in Space lunch box, and the fact that whenever my divorced dad made my lunch, it was about twice the normal size and filled with delicious but strange gourmet items—which no doubt flouted the same social norms Lamott recalls.
Flash forward three decades, and school lunch has become a matter not just for parents and kids but also for politicians, lobbyists, nutrition scientists, and activists. The reasons have to do with money, of course, and also with a sense of desperation in the battle against obesity and type 2 diabetes. We know now that what goes in children's mouths can affect their health not only today but into their adult lives.
And yet we don't seem to know—at least as a nation—how to help kids make good choices. We fear that they will turn their noses up at menus that don't include french fries and chocolate milk. New federal nutrition standards are a major overhaul of what's on the lunch tray, and some school districts, including mine, have made inroads—adding some farm-to-table pizzazz to their menus. Yet, I still don't rely on my daughter's elementary school lunchroom, opting instead for the weeknight drudgery of prepping the next day's lunch.
Luckily, she has always been a shockingly healthy eater. At one checkup, I had to ask the pediatrician, "How many tomatoes are too many?" Left unchecked, our daughter would eat her weight daily in tomatoes: big beefy ones, chomped out of hand like apples, as well as little grape tomatoes, her favorite. To my child's delight, the doctor refused to set a firm limit, saying that as long as she didn't get a tummy ache, a pint or two of tomatoes daily was just fine. ("She'll always be regular!" the doc added, with a smile.) I am lucky, too, to have a kid who hates juice (the source of so many empty calories for so many children) and has never even tasted soda. She does have a passion for chocolate in all its forms but eats it in small portions without too much grumbling.
This wasn't my doing; it seems she was born with a good-food disposition. What my husband and I can take credit for, however, is showing her how satisfying a fresh, minimally processed meal prepared at home can be. She loves her daddy's roast chicken and poached salmon; she and I happily share snacks of baby carrots, grapes, and chunks of watermelon. Which leads me to wonder whether the solution lies not in what choices children face in the free-for-all of school lunchtime, but rather in the options they've learned to love at home.