Since I helped to run a healthy kids lunch company in CA for 7 years, a few of my friends have asked me this week about what I pack for my 10-year-old son’s school lunch. I know Back To School pantry shopping is on our minds, so I thought I’d share in case it was helpful to others. There is a backstory involving shame, a 100-pound weight loss and a parenting epiphany to all of this, which I will include below:
In short, I pack 4-5 items that are as convenient as possible, taking me no more than 3-4 minutes to throw together but still offering my M.O. of ‘Protein and produce.’
- String cheese (always since this is easy to eat, and a well-liked source of protein)
- Pre-packaged nuts (more contentious since so many schools are nut-free, but you can also do packed de-seeded sunflower and pumpkin seeds, roasted chickpeas, or dry-roasted edamame)
- Beef jerky when I am feeling flush
- 2 fruits or veggies (Jack likes strawberries, baby carrots, grape tomatoes, grapes, bananas, easy-to-peel cuties/tangerines and apples (when he was little, I’d slice them vertically and then re-form the apple and wrap a rubber band around it like an equator. The idea is easy-to-eat fruits.)
- Snack crackers/pretzels (sometimes I buy whole grain, sometimes not)
- Granola bars that won’t melt or get crushed
- Baked chips
- Trail mix with raisins or non-melting ‘treats’
Now here is the back story and my EVOLUTION:
Starting in 2008, when my son was an infant, I was obnoxious and self-righteous about his food. I never had time to carve panda bears out of a slice of bread, but I prided myself on his ‘unpackaged’ preschool lunches. I am sure there were days when he just threw away the salmon and kale I presented carefully in his eco-friendly lunch box. I felt his lunches reflected me, especially since I was the poster mom of healthy kid food in our affluent area, having helped run that healthy lunch company.
I never bought into the ‘all organic/non-GMO’ movement (I have toured enough organic farms to know they aren’t necessarily what we do-gooders hope they are) but I was super strict about healthy choices and what Jack had access to. This was largely born out of my own complicated issues with food. About 20 years ago I lost 100 pounds and fear has kept it off all this time… My own eating plan is ‘Protein and Produce.’ That’s it. And that’s how I was feeding my kid.
When Jack was about 7, though, he caught onto how different his lunch was compared to some of his peers who had ‘real snacks.’ There was a particularly awful moment involving tears, shame and a melting popsicle at his summer school that had me re-think my approach. It happened to coincide with a revelation about how my son felt LOVE (at that age though junk food) and me leaving my company. News flash: I WAS MAKING HIS FOOD ALL ABOUT ME!
So, for the past few years, I have really reversed course. Jack is NOT me. Now that Jack is 10, I realize the best I can do is model healthy eating, somewhat limit the junk that comes into the house, but mostly let him figure out how to satiate his hunger. There are times when he makes great choices and with righteous indignation judges other kids on what they choose (like at a birthday party, ‘Look Mom, I picked carrots instead of cake!’) but most of the time, he picks some combination of what I think of as healthy and ‘carnival’ food (French fries at restaurants, ice cream sandwiches at the swimming pool snack shack, convenience store candy on our summer road trips.)
For my overall approach to all meals and snacks, I still focus on protein and produce. There is always at least a little of both on offer. But I rely HEAVILY on packaged foods and convenience, off-the-shelf stuff I can throw into his lunchbox (or lunch bag as this summer’s bevy of camps required) in between clearing the table after dinner and before I ‘clock out’ every night at 7 pm. (The division of labor in our house is a whole other topic;)
I have come to learn that at a certain point, I have to let go. One way for me to not take everything my son chooses about me, I do things as easily as possible to reduce the resentment I am prone to. If this means a lunch is a string cheese, planters pre-portioned nuts, an apple, a banana and a Quaker s’mores granola bar, so be it!