personal essay

My Daughter’s Quaker Classroom Is Outdoors. What Do You Feed a Kid in Mittens?

updated Sep 17, 2020
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Credit: Photo: Shutterstock, Graphic: kitchn

Back-to-school season is always hectic, but this year feels downright frenetic. Instead of worrying about the usual school-supply lists or figuring out carpools, adults with school-aged children are also figuring out distance learning, screening guidelines, and wondering how long schools will stay open. 

In my corner of the world in Maine, school is starting and we are learning to adapt like everybody else. After kindergarten was cut short and replaced with months of being at home with her baby sister, my 6-year-old daughter is thrilled to return. She will be attending in person at a Quaker school, where she is looking forward to recess and having a desk of her own. 

While she is delighted at the prospect of school, I am apprehensive. I am selfishly relieved at the prospect of a little time to myself, but I also never want to let her go. I worry for our personal health and safety while agonizing over if this is the right decision for us to return to school and how it will affect her teachers and classmates.

Her school has constructed outdoor classrooms to mitigate indoor time (and help with social distancing). My daughter views lunch outside as a fun treat, and while I try my best to keep up with the enthusiasm, I’m left with a lot of questions about what that looks like this year. I wonder how I will be able to keep her safe and warm as winter in Maine approaches. Lunch with mittens on doesn’t seem feasible to me. I wonder if the dinner leftovers we normally pack her are too elaborate now that she eats sitting on a picnic blanket, lunch tin in her lap. Will she need her hands to eat it? If so, how will I know she washed her hands properly? With social distancing, can a teacher help her with a pesky granola wrapper? Will she remember to responsibly dispose of said wrapper?

And this year, on top of the everyday stress of trying to figure out a lunch, we’re also getting a crash course in food allergies (we are in a nut- and egg-free classroom). This is even harder when your 6-year-old already has an impressive palate. My daughter claims that she does not care for sandwiches and occasionally requests lunches out of my skill set (why no, I cannot pack you oysters on the half shell) and so packing lunch becomes emotional and logistical: How can I pack you a healthful lunch that you will eat and enjoy that also accommodates others? This then leads me to wonder how to keep our children safe when it has become so apparent that the situation we are in relies on the consideration of others. And then anxiety sets in.

As part of her education, my daughter will be learning Quaker values which include community and simplicity. When I am steeped in fear at the relentlessness of this pandemic, these values are my touchstone. These principles are what guide me in my decision-making when things feel completely out of control. I think of what community means in this time — the idea that what we do affects those around us — and try to trust myself and others. I fall back on simplicity when thinking about what to feed my family, and I lean on food I have found solace in making and eating in the past, that my daughter also enjoys. And so, with a list of foods to avoid tacked on our fridge, I make a loose, weekly meal plan, pack snacks like dried fruit or cucumber sticks the night before, and lightly cook in the morning, as needed.

The food I pack, for as long as I have the privilege to do so, will be food I learned to make or eat in a less unprecedented time — simple items I feel confident making when I need to lean into worrying less. Things like kimbap, but with easy fillings (tuna salad, deli meat, scraps of cut-up veggies) or quesadillas, which I grew up eating in Texas and made all the time in my 20s after a late night out. Or her favorite, “snack lunch,” an amalgamation of random items: cheese, crackers, dried fruit (a child’s charcuterie board, if you will). And when winter in Maine does arrive, we have a Thermos ready to reheat dal and rice. Foods that feel reliable in moments of fear and stress (and are also allergy-friendly). 

My feelings surrounding school can be many things at once: fear, eagerness, relief. School will not be the same as we all shakily begin a new and uncertain school year. And for this, I plan to rely on things from the past to see us through. I won’t be able to enter my daughter’s classroom or walk her inside this year, but I try to ease my mind with what I do know. As she runs toward her outdoor tent with a mask on her face, I find comfort in hoping that the lunch in her bag will be a source of stability in this ever-changing world.

Back to School 2020It’s the strangest back-to-school season of our lives, and no matter where your child’s desk is actually located this fall: they have to eat. Every day. What even is school lunch in fall 2020? We’ve compiled stories, commiserations, and hopeful tips from a diverse crew of parents to help us all feel a little less alone in breathing deep, eating well, and unmuting that ever-elusive Zoom button.