Finding Inner Peace in my Battle with the School Lunch


Oh the school lunch. Not the lack of nutrition in the school lunch. Not the ridiculous waste and lack of recycle bins in the school lunchroom. Not the healthy food debate of school lunches that has created massive efforts and parent/school meetings over the past years.

No. None of that.

This is about the school lunch Mom horror show that plays out in my life. First of all, my time is precious and planning lunches, thinking about lunches, making lunch is like having to deal with changing the oil in my car. It is such a pain in the ass. Thankfully I don’t have to change the oil more than a couple of times a year. Lunch – every frickin’ day. Even the word lunch is bad. Say it a couple of times. Lunch. Lunch. Lunch. It gets stuck in my mouth.

Here is how it plays out in my suburban (even though I like to think of it as an urban pocket neighborhood because the word suburban makes me want to puke a bit) middle class world. Actually that just plays it too short. We can’t just label ourselves as middle class. We are middle class, liberal, mixed ethnically and religiously change agents. I had to throw the change agents in there. I don’t know what else to call it. I’m secretly obsessed with labels. I think they are horrible and true most of the time. Change agent labels us as not satisfied with the status quo. We don’t like the way things are right now in so many areas and we are the family that likes to get involved to create change. My poor children are dragged into this ‘we’ and I do pity them for it. Carlos and I truly love to discuss, in depth, the way things can be better in whatever area that we are currently wrapped up in; education, health, sexism, the economy, racism, environment to name a few. We serve on boards, create committees, make statements, make calls, write checks, ask for checks, start projects, finish projects, sometimes quit projects. We care what people think of us in the community and mostly we don’t care. It sounds like a mental problem. We are complicated. That is how I see it. Give me a label for that please.

Back to this world that we live in, which by the way, we created for ourselves. We could have gone a lot of different ways and we purposely ended up right here. In our world, we believe in feeding our children well. We buy into the organic, farm to table, thank the farmers before we eat, movement. I have to “buy” into it because I’m terrible in the garden and growing it is not an option for me. In our last house I hired a gardener person (I think he was called a landscaper actually) to build us a garden and then I somehow convinced my sweet husband to work the garden. I tried weeding it a couple of times but it just wasn’t my thing. I wanted to be that Mom but it was like wanting to be born with dark skin and coming out white. There just isn’t anything you can do to change it.

I would never let my child eat school lunches (well not daily at least). We let them pick a couple of school lunches a month because that is exciting for them (and gives me a day off) and then the rest of the days it is lunch from the casa. Made by mom…with about as much enthusiasm as Eeyore from Winnie the Pooh. This is not a pity party for me. We have the money to do the packed lunch thing. I make the time to do it. It is a priority and I know we are privileged for that. Doesn’t mean I have to like it. I suck it up because when I think of how I would feel knowing they are eating that school lunch crap everyday I know I would feel worse.

I’ve made it through 6th grade with Alex and his school lunches. I made a bad mistake when he was in kindergarten and sent peanut butter and jelly sandwiches everyday. To my defense, he refused to eat anything else. On the first day of first grade he said he could never eat another peanut butter and jelly sandwich again (and he hasn’t). I moved on to turkey sandwiches, sometimes ham. Over the years I have gotten creative with the ‘sandwich’ and have thrown in bagels and wraps. From day one it has always been the Brownberry wheat bread so there is that gold star for me.

But I’ve failed in using too many plastic bags (bad for the environment). I’ve failed with the juice boxes (so much fructose sugar). I’ve failed with daily dessert (sugar, again). And I lack creative food ideas. I’m good at a lot of things but I suffer when it comes to anything domestic, especially cooking.

7th grade just started a couple of weeks ago and it has brought on challenges that I am not prepared for. Alex went to an elementary school with a high percentage of low income students, 75% of the students qualified for free and reduced lunch. That means that that is what they ate. My son was the odd one out with his lunch from home. And I suppose it didn’t matter as much what was in it because there weren’t a whole lot of his friends to compare the insides of that thermal bag with. This new school has a very low percentage of low income families. Yep, it is it the rich school in the district. He transferred to this new school district between elementary and middle so the school was new for all the 6th graders and they were all getting used to the newness. It probably wasn’t until the end of 6th grade that Alex really started to take note of the different lunches that kids had. Boys are sometimes slow like that. I would hear rumblings of the kid with sushi and he started requesting leftover chili instead of another sandwich. But for the most part I glided through 6th grade with the same menu of my packed lunches.

This year he started speaking up and it really started pissing me off, or as noted, challenging me. He is comparing his lunch with others with full vengeance. Will gets leftovers all the time. He never gets sandwiches. And then there is the kid with sushi again, Zev. Probably Koki, his friend from Japan, gets sushi for lunch too. That would only make sense.

Is this when I ask myself why the hell I’m still packing his lunch? If he wants something special he should make it right? I’m enabling. Deal with it. I’m a control freak and can’t imagine him destroying my kitchen trying to pack his own lunch so I won’t even go there yet.

Why should I care what the other kids have in their lunch bags? I’m not trying to keep up with the Jones’, or at least I am intellectually against that concept, but subconsciously let’s get real…there is something ugly happening. I am trying to keep up with the Jones’ or the Izumi’s as it might be and the Taylor’s. It was creeping up on me. The topic was coming up more and more and I found myself asking what Will had for lunch with a defensive tone. Secretly I was really curious what in the hell he could pack for leftovers that would be good cold. They don’t have access to a microwave and there is only so much I can fit into the thermos thing besides soups and chili. The tipping point came and this is how it went.

Alex was getting ready for soccer and Will was waiting patiently for him.
I asked Will, “So what did you have for lunch today?”
Alex answered with a jealous tone in his voice, “He had Pad Thai.” (that is capitalized right?)
“Really?!” I answered
Will chimed in, “and Scottish Custard.”
“Yea Mom, and he had Scottish Custard.” Alex included the ‘see I told you so’ look.

Seriously. This happened.
Where did the turkey sandwiches and Jello brand pudding go? What world am I living in? I started catching myself thinking of leftovers I could send to school for Alex’s lunch throughout the rest of the week. After we would eat dinner, if there was any leftover, I would contemplate how to pack it. While I was on lunch dates I would catch myself wondering if there would be enough left that I could send to school for Alex the next day. And then I would get pissed at myself for trying to cater to this request, to this norm that wasn’t my norm but someone else’s.

These were the arguments I had in my head with myself. The “I don’t care what everyone else is doing, I don’t play that game” to “this is how you cultivate healthy and diverse eating habits and I need to be more creative, be a better lunch packer.”

Facebook posts pop up on occasion from my well educated, well intentioned, busy ass mom friends pleading for more ideas on what to pack for lunch. I read them leaning forward. I never comment. Here’s a taste of the recent facebook comments that my friend received:

Jessica: Sushi, sandwiches on a stick (think sandwich kabob), fruit kabob, wraps, yogurt parfait, hummus and crudités, etc.
Shelli: I second and I worship 100 days of real food blog. Quesadillas are a great way to change it up, leftover anything from the night before, i have been surprised at what he will eat cold (pizza, grilled cheese etc), get a thermos and warm soup in the a.m, make your own pizzas with cut up pita, mozz. cheese….okay i need to stop now…you know where to find me if you want more ideas…

No Shelli, don’t stop…yes please stop. I’m conflicted again. I want more yet I also feel like I will cry if she keeps going. Maybe she could just make Alex lunch too. This is clearly fun for her.

Denise: hard boiled eggs, egg salad, ham roll ups, cream cheese and cucumber sandwich, pasta salad, cottage cheese, yogurt with granola, summer sausage and cheese, hummus, curry tofu, salad with leftover chicken, ants on a log with almond butter

Is this what they talk about when they say facebook makes people unhappy? Because I sure as hell don’t feel good enough now. But wait, there is a full circle coming up here.

At the soccer tournament the weekend after I find out Will truly does have a better lunch than I get on most days I get the chance to bring the topic to the table with his Dad. I come right out and tell them that they are making my life miserable by packing these exotic culinary dreams for their son and I beg him to just give him turkey or peanut butter and jelly sandwiches every once in a while. Will’s dad informs me that Will makes his own lunch every morning.
Oh God. Really?
I automatically lose points for not raising an independent 7th grader and I wish I would have said nothing. Then he tells me that Will forgot to mention that he didn’t even eat the Pad Thai for lunch. He packed it, didn’t eat it and basically wasted some delicious left over Pad Thai that his Dad would have loved.  A moment of compassion fills me up. I see the sadness in Ken’s eyes as he thinks about the wasted leftovers that he could have enjoyed this past week. I imagine feeling the same way. I look forward to good Pad Thai leftovers like that too. I know that feeling when you leave the leftover box at the restaurant and realize you can’t have it for lunch the next day. It truly is a very sad thing.

And the Scottish Custard I ask? Ken had just come back from a quick trip to visit his family in Scotland and he had brought some home. It wasn’t something they made on a regular basis. It was a special treat. He had sensed my “I’m a terrible lunch packer Mom” anxiety and told me stories of wasted leftovers that Will had created in their household. He seemed to wish that Will would make a peanut butter and jelly sandwiches every so often. My pity party dissipated, my ‘not good enough’ feelings dried up. I was back to my normal self.

That is what I love about my little world. We don’t try and make each other not feel good enough. We are quick to share the pain and frustration and to create real connections based on real life. We don’t pretend we have our shit together. We don’t put each other down to falsely build ourselves up. We are united as parents doing the best we can with what we’ve got. We are making things up as we go along and we are open and honest with each when we are unsure, conflicted, confused as to the right way to go about it. I don’t know how to label that but it sure as hell isn’t the stereotypical suburban life that I’ve been judging my whole life. We laugh at ourselves and our over educated, complicated, first world problems. We help each other out. We don’t judge each other. We really don’t.

Can I put that into a bottle and sell it? I know this isn’t the norm everywhere. I hear stories and I witness it in other worlds. If only we could quit judging each other, think of where our world would be.

And imagine what life would be like if we would quit judging ourselves? If we could just accept that we are doing the best we can. Pat ourselves on the back a little. Quit being so hard on ourselves. Wouldn’t that create inner peace? And wouldn’t inner peace pave the path to world peace? Perhaps.

(The photo is courtesy of a Vegan website but I assure you that my sandwiches are not that cool)

3 thoughts on “Finding Inner Peace in my Battle with the School Lunch”

  1. plbenson says:

    What a great post – brings back a lot of memories of my own – yes, when the kids were younger and in grade school!

  2. Janna says:

    Great post, my dear change agent. It’s one of the most humbling experiences to find out that people who (we think) have it all together in fact also look for their inner peace.

  3. kirsten says:

    I can totally relate to the school lunch challenge!! My daughter (7th grade) is pretty easy since she has recently morphed from being the most picky eater on the planet (junk food only please), to requesting only healthy and organic foods. On the other hand my son (9th grade) is gluten free, dairy free, preservative and color free, not by his choice mind you, no strictly by mine. So you can probably imagine how he feels having the ‘different lunch” at the table. I am actually guilty of driving myself a bit nuts at times trying to provide him with things that taste good and mirror normal food as much as possible. I am trying to do the best I can for him and for me. It makes me feel good to know that I am supporting his inner peace by feeding him things that don’t screw up his body’s chemistry, and my inner peace knowing that I have a teenager living in the house that is more balanced as a result of his diet.
    Thanks so much for a thought provoking post!

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