The XX Factor

What Lurks in Your Kid’s Lunch Box?

Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images

When I was in elementary school, my mother slapped five slices of white bread on the counter on Sunday night, spread on some mayo, slapped on a slice of “lunch meat” and one of cheese and another of bread, bagged them all up and threw them in the freezer. Every day, I’d get one, along with a prepackaged bag of chips, a Twinkie or Ding Dong and a Coke in a brown paper bag.

I really never realized that Mom was livin’ the dream. Over the years that my kids have packed food for school (there is no lunch to purchase in preschool, and our elementary school does not offer a daily healthy lunch, and requires the kids to bring a snack in any case), the requirements we’ve had to meet have fluctuated. Children must bring a “protein” and a “fruit.” Lunches must be trash-free (meaning no baggies, foil or disposable containers). No candy. No nuts, products including nuts or “made in a factory or facility that also processes nuts.” No seafood. No eggs or egg salad, although egg can be used in baked goods. Children must use a lunch box with a flat lid that unclips or unzips rather than the sack variety.

And then there are the community-imposed demands. White bread? Seriously? A Twinkie? Toward the end of school last year, I reached the point where I’d put (or let a child put) anything in the lunch that fit. I just didn’t care anymore. But when my husband saw me about to award the mini-can of Coke to the 5-year-old heading to Montessori, even he stopped me. “You’re going to get us kicked out of there,” he said, grabbing the more politically correct (but calorically identical) Capri Sun. And then, at the end of the day, my working mother got—nothing. Anything left from my lunch went in the trash. I get four assorted flat lid lunch boxes filled with miscellaneous containers that fill the top rack of the dishwasher and, for months from one school, the remnants of any pudding or yogurt, loosely wrapped by the teacher so that the now warm liquid had filled every edge and crevice. I eventually had to give those children cards for their lunch boxes. “Please do not send [child’s] leftovers home. We do not reuse them, and I do not care that [child] does not finish her serving.”

The packed lunch is fraught with peril. There’s real peril, too, or at least the possibility of it. This morning’s New York Times includes a reminder that common lunch box foods, if not kept suitably cold, grow potentially dangerous bacteria quickly, as does unwashed fruit, reminding me that last year’s freezer packs are sadly inadequate. And beyond the issue of what’s in the lunch box (and we haven’t even discussed whether those contents are suitably organic and locally sourced), there’s the question of who packs it and when. I realized early last year that four lunches and two “snacks” daily would quickly push me over the edge of sanity, and lunch-packing is a nightly chore for my kids, with occasional exceptions. I can’t imagine doing it myself (or creating elaborate bento lunches), and I can’t imagine letting the kids wait to do it in the morning, either—and yet I know families who do both. And even done at night and by kids, packed lunches are a stress source that stays with me all year long.

And so I’m curious. As school ramps up again, what are your plans for lunch packing this year? Who will pack the lunches and when, and what requirements—family requirements or school demands—do those lunches have to meet? Are you confident the lunches your kids bring stay safe, and that they get eaten? Answer in the comments, and we’ll do a round-up next week that might even include lunch-packing ideas that will make everyone’s life easier. Or at least let us know that when it comes to lunch box loathing, we’re not alone.