Back-to-School: Time to Make the Lunches {repost}

This is a repost of an original article I wrote for

Last week, a friend who lives in Georgia posted to Facebook that school had started back up in her town. Kids were putting on new backpacks, carefully pressed dresses, and clean shirts to climb on the bus and return to the classroom. Homework, recess, and math drills had replaced days at the beach, swim lessons, and s’more making in the backyard.

In the Northeast, where I live, school doesn’t start until September, but my friend’s comment had my heart pounding and my fingers clicking over to our online family calendar. How many days did my kids have until school started?


school lunch

Photo credit: Melissa via Flickr

And, more important, how many days did I have before my blissful summer of no lunchboxes was replaced with evening lunch-making procrastination?

I counted carefully: 22. I have 22 days until school lunch making begins again — 22 days of freedom.

In the split of parental duties, in my family, lunch making falls on the Mommy side. This allocation has its origins in the days when my children were breastfeeding infants, and I was their main source of food. While they attended daycare, I pumped in my office at work, my door closely tightly, a “Do Not Disturb” sign affixed with duct tape.

I carried that breast milk home in a cooler, always triple-checking I hadn’t forgotten it behind when I left at the end of the workday. I kept a close watch on the amount of milk stored in our freezer, and I packed their bottles each evening, carefully filling them more and more as my babies grew.

I had nightmares about bringing bottles without nipples to daycare or of leaving the bottles somewhere, never to be found — my subconscious expressing the sadness I felt about not being with them. The demands of working motherhood offered no other choice, however.

As my kids moved on to solid foods, I retained my lunch packing role. I scoured articles for tips to offer my son and daughter inventive options, and I asked other parents what they packed in their kids’ lunchboxes. I stopped looking at Pinterest for ideas when yet another more board of sandwiches shaped like Darth Vader and cucumbers cut into flowers made me and my go-to carrot sticks feel inadequate.

I appreciated creative parents whose genius came out in the lunchbox, but for me, making lunches increasingly felt like a chore. No amount of razzle-dazzle in the snack department could make me see this role differently.

Part of my discouragement stemmed from seeing what my kids actually ate from the lunches I thoughtfully packed for them. That’s a benefit of the daycare they attended; what they didn’t eat came home each night.

I would open up their sticky lunchboxes with a sense of trepidation. Inside, I’d find half-eaten apples, empty water bottles, and crumbs — lots and lots of crumbs. I’d also find important insight into their rapidly changing palates, offering me a way to track my kids’ evolving view of food.

There was that time that my daughter, who couldn’t get enough of sunbutter and strawberry jelly sandwiches– it’s all she ever asked for — suddenly refused to eat them ever again. And, my son, who never saw a meal he didn’t want, rejected every item I put in his lunch, save banana yogurt. He ate that yogurt for lunch every day for a year; the day he agreed to try blueberry was a noteworthy event in our house.

Now my kids are in elementary school where a new temptation exists: buying lunch from the cafeteria. My efforts to tantalize them with healthy food choices– homemade granola bars, sandwiches on organic bread, and vegetables from our farm share — are nothing compared to going through the lunch line and buying chocolate milk and a pizza slice.

It doesn’t matter that my meal is made with love — and comes in that cute, pink Hello Kitty lunchbox or the red one with a turquoise fish on it — buying lunch is new, different, and so much better than whatever I put together.

Occasionally, I do let them buy lunch. We review the menu together, selecting two to three days each month when the meal sounds reasonably healthy to me and “cool” to them. They walk off to school with lighter backpacks, lunchboxes left behind on the kitchen counter.

At the end of the day, they tell me stories about going through the lunch line and eating the same meal as their classmates. When I ask if the school lunch was tasty, I take pleasure in my son’s reply: “Not really, Mommy. It wasn’t that good.” When he runs off to play in his room, I pull out the lunchboxes for tomorrow, smiling.

So, as much as I complain about my kids’ lunches (22 days to go!), I find myself clinging even tighter to my role as chief lunch maker. Perhaps it’s the realization that, one day far too soon, they won’t need me to do this for them; they’ll be able to make their own lunches.

I know I’m a big talker about how much I don’t want this responsibility: but deep down, I really like it.