Nancy is foraging. First she tries the fridge: head in, head out in quick succession, no inspiration there, then. Next it’s the kitchen store cupboard, and it’s quick to open but slow to close, in fact it closes at the speed of a sigh and the woebegone expression on Nancy’s face is a reminder that her school is a No Chocolate Lunch Box Zone so that decision, at least, is made for us. Then Nancy looks in the fruit bowl, and hovers, hopefully, over the strawberries, and I watch her: she counts how many are left, mentally dividing them amongst her friends and working out if this would be an aspect of her lunch box that she might be expected to share, and if so, how many strawberries she would need to share respectably but also keep enough for herself because she particularly likes strawberries and she won’t really want to share them but on the other hand her friends like strawberries too so if the numbers are good and the maths are right she will be better to take them rather than to leave them because they will have been eaten by the time she gets home.
Phew. I thought I found the lunch box choices hard work, but clearly Nancy has just as many nuanced concerns as I do, although they may be different ones.
Nancy takes the strawberries. The process of filling the lunch box has begun. I glance at the clock. Another twenty minutes should fill it, plus ten minutes extra for parental intervention, plus ten minutes clearing up – crumbs, packets, cores, skin and bone will be scattered in all directions except the one in which the bin lies and I count it as a good lunch box if none of the scattered skin and bone is Nancy’s own.
There has to be an easier way to do the lunch box.
The contents of our tween’s lunch box encompasses a number of different concerns. Health has to come first: energy from a balanced meal of different food groups is surely what we all aspire to create. My aim is for Nancy to develop the same aspiration. So we can all work out our protein, carbs, fruit and vegetables, pulses or grains and teach our children to recognise these things, too. But it’s tricky, because this is in a school setting, where practicalities, accepted norms, tradeability and the opinions of others start to interfere with those primary health concerns and make the decisions about our tween’s lunch box for us.
For instance, as a family, our favourite picnic lunchbox includes hard boiled eggs, chicken drumsticks and Granny’s special fruit cake. But you can see the problems these items would cause Nancy if they were in her school lunch box: everyone else would say the eggs were smelly, watching Nancy rip the flesh off her chicken bone makes Boudicca look benign and Granny’s ‘special’ fruit cake gives off more sherry fumes than the best-ever tea party with the vicar’s wife circa 1935. And there isn’t a dedicated recycling bin for bone – yet. Those items are out, not in.
Personally, I find using left overs from last night’s dinner a satisfying component of the next-day lunch box. A cold potato salad with added avocado and a squirt of lemon juice, cold chicken and some cherry tomatoes is a given for Monday’s lunchbox. But then we get back to the issue of other people. “Why haven’t you got sandwiches?” pipes up an overly – interested voice amongst Nancy’s class mates. To me, this question is practically existential and to Nancy it is less philosophical but equally dim – why would I have sandwiches?
But many Nancys are less bold than my baby Boudicca, and the need to conform may produce a hundred white bread, plain cheese, crustless sandwiches cut into soldiers and lined up round the school dining hall like a battalion of flaccid fighters in the Same and Safe Army. And here’s the rub: we’re no longer talking about healthy eating but about the right to choose, the confidence to be different, the importance of a school environment which teaches individuality as well as food groups in its PSHE programme.
Some conformity, however, is perhaps just another word for respecting others. To eat garlic or not is always tricky when you know you will be at close quarters with others – so much easier in the Mediterranean countries where garlic is a given. We eat it, it’s health benefits outweigh its breathy aromas, and whilst we aren’t Mediterranean we are European (for now). Nancy thinks leftovers are fine but the inclusion of mushrooms, aubergines or beans is not – far too windy for an afternoon without a large playing field on the timetable on which to let off steam or whatever else one may be called upon to let off. Tradeability is an important part of sharing, and grains of quinoa don’t get the same response as Haribos; pieces of boiled beetroot may make the world turn purple but have considerably less street credibility than those Monster Munch crisps that make your mouth turn blue. Given the effect of beetroot on my insides I can only assume that shock and awe would be the result after blue Monster Munch. None of the above are ideal but a happy medium might be blueberries, grapes, pieces of satsuma or olives. Most schools ban nuts. Chocolate or other quick release, high sugar content sweets or bars result in sugar rushes that really don’t help the kids to concentrate or to maintain a sensible level of energy in their afternoon lessons.
We like small squares of flapjack, home made ones can usually be baked with half the sugar content of the recipe, and other home made sweet snacks include energy balls incorporating oats and apricots, or banana bread. Alternatives to the white bread battalion might include pancakes, cold baked potatoes, rice paper wraps, frittatas and pasta salads. Sunday afternoon often heralds a bit of a lunchbox cook-up with our tweens so the week might start out well, even if, by Thursday, the lunch boxes are looking a bit lean.
We like taste.au.com for recipes, the zucchini slice is a favourite: https://www.taste.com.au/recipes/zucchini-slice/eb7eed59-5f53-4f6f-bfb5-9b7e3f81a702
Click here for our own recipes and suggestions, great for cooking with the kids on a Sunday afternoon:
This week, my friend Thelma and I are sharing our cup of tea in a flask and taking a picnic to the woods. We will each be packing a lunchbox. What is in and what is out will be interesting, after the above conversation. I’m sure we will do some trading, we will be respectful without conforming, we will be healthy but not saintly on the subject of a sweet treat and we will be just a little bit surprising, too, because we will make each other laugh about the lunchbox laws – that’s for sure.