back to school

My Kid Buys School Lunch — Don’t Judge

published Aug 14, 2019
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Credit: Joe Lingeman/Kitchn

When my daughter was about to start kindergarten, I dreamed of perfectly packed bento boxes (stainless steel, of course) with brightly colored produce, sandwich sushi, and a tiny, naturally dyed treat for her to enjoy. But after just one day of school, she was adamant about being allowed to buy school lunch. 

It turns out that Walking Tacos, blue-raspberry slushies, and corn dogs held much more appeal than anything I could pack. My girl was feeling a serious case of FOMO. My immediate reaction was to resist because I knew I could pack her a healthier lunch than the school would ever be able to serve. 

Credit: Courtesy of Amy Palanjian

Especially because last December, the USDA loosened the nutrition guidelines that the Obama administration had worked hard to put into place. There’s no longer a requirement to continue lowering sodium levels — they can stay the same — and whole grains now only have to make up half of all grains, allowing for more processed white flour to be in the mix.

And while neither of those things is all that drastic taken on its own, it adds up when you combine it with the food currently available in our cafeteria — where “whole grain” already can just mean Sun Chips rather than Lays Potato Chips. Yes, our school district does a great job serving fresh fruits and veggies at each meal, but it still relies heavily on processed “kid food” like pizza, nachos, and cheeseburgers — and, of course, the Midwestern staples of loose-meat sandwiches and breaded pork sandwiches. And since most of the main meals are coming from a food distributor, rather than being homemade by cafeteria staff, it’s more processed food per week than I’d ideally want my daughter to eat.

(Obviously it would be lovely to live in a place where the school cooks the food from scratch, or has a warm enough climate year-round to have a thriving school garden. But we live in small-town Iowa, not Berkeley.)

Credit: Courtesy of Amy Palanjian

But here’s the thing: I’ve learned that the way that our kids feel about the food they eat, and the environment in which they eat it, often means so much more than what the food actually is. That it’s more crucial to raising a healthy eater over the long term than how much broccoli she may eat at lunch.

Studies have found that pressuring kids to eat certain foods is actually not an effective way to get them to eat those foods — and it can create negative associations that last into adulthood. Which explains why the more you push a kid to take another bite of peas, the less they want to eat them on their own … and why they might still hate them as a grown-up. When I was feeding her as a toddler, these sorts of power struggles so quickly ruined meals that I vowed to do my best to eliminate them from our table completely. Now we practice the feeding approach from therapist and dietician Ellyn Satter known as the Division of Responsibility, where the parents decide which foods are served at meals and when meals are offered, and the kids decide which foods they want from those on offer and how much to eat — no coercing, counting bites, or rewarding veggie intake with dessert.

I also share the concerns of some experts that our anti-obesity focus has actually created an uptick in eating disorders among kids. For me, it’s more about raising a healthy eater over the long run, rather than checking all the boxes of a “healthy diet” today.

Taking this approach to feeding kids is the easiest way I’ve found to trust that my kids are being exposed to a wide variety of foods and learning to trust their own intake within the boundaries that I set. It allows us to have happy family meals, no matter the main dish. Plus, by doing this every day at home during breakfast and dinner, I can relax a little more when my kids are out in the world eating on their own. 

I’ve learned that the way that our kids feel about the food they eat, and the environment in which they eat it, often means so much more than what the food actually is.

And so, we came to a compromise over the course of the first few weeks of school. Each Sunday night, we’d pull up the app to check the lunch menu for the coming week. She chose the two or three meals she really wanted to eat, and we’d agree to pack the rest. I didn’t coerce or push her to choose — or not choose — certain meals, and I made a concerted effort to be as excited as she was about her choices.

Then, on the days that we’d pack her lunch, I put blinders up to the perfectly packed lunches I saw on Instagram and went with what I know she likes: leftover applesauce pancakes with Sunbutter, pesto pizza rolls, leftover quesadillas or rice and beans, and even spinach muffins. We rounded those mains out with simple produce like sliced cucumbers, clementines, applesauce, sliced bell peppers, and baby carrots. And I made sure that her lunch box was easy for her to open by herself and easy for us to pack — rather than the cutest one in the class. 

Credit: Courtesy of Amy Palanjian

Our experience with school food has been a process and there are many times that I am still very frustrated by what our kids are being fed. But learning to trust my daughter to make more of her own choices about her food intake has been a good thing for both of us. It’s one less thing for me to manage about her day and it’s allowed her to tap into her own unique food preferences and hunger in a way that she hadn’t before. She has likes and dislikes, just like I do, and it’s actually been really fun to see those develop.

Now, as she heads into second grade, she’s even started packing her own lunches. I set her up for success by making sure we have foods on hand that she likes (her current favorite is a cheese and lettuce sandwich — no mayo, no mustard), and I do my best to avoid micromanaging her choices. Sure, she may not opt to pack herself raw purple cauliflower like so many Instagram kids seem to these days, but she’s happy, enthusiastic about food, and well-nourished — no matter what she eats for lunch.