Among my most vivid childhood memories are the brown bag lunches my mother used to pack and send to school with us each day. Sometimes they had our names scribbled on the outside in black pen with a goofy smiley face. On Valentine’s Day or my birthday, there would be a hastily written note and a few cinnamon hearts or some other small treat. My mother worked full time and raised two children without much help but she always managed to send a little love in our school lunches.
The foods in those lunches were simple: some reheated leftovers from the night before, packed in a thermos with a plastic spoon taped to the rim. There was always a piece of fruit, pre-cut or pre-peeled so we could eat it easily, without too much mess. Sometimes, when she had baked cookies for us over the weekend, there would be something sweet in those bags, but usually the familiar smells of home were enough of a treat. Those lunches offered comfort in the middle of a long school day.
I was reminded of those brown bags of goodness a few weeks ago as I read an article on school lunches in the NY Times. The gist the piece, entitled “Why Cafeteria Food is the Best”, is that modern home-packed lunches are likely to be less nourishing than the meals offered in schools that meet current nutrition guidelines for the National School Lunch Program. The author cites two research studies that analyzed typical contents of home-packed lunches in Texas and Virginia. Sadly, in the Virginia study, some of the most commonly packed items in the “homemade lunch” were chips, Capri Sun and Lunchables. When I picture that lunch, it’s not hard to see how the brown bag has gotten such a bad rap. Clearly, the parents of today need convenient lunch solutions for their kids, but the truth is that packing a healthy home-cooked lunch isn’t all that complicated. Here are a few practical tips:
- Love your leftovers: Instead of tossing out that last serving of spaghetti Bolognese, reheat and pack it for lunch the next day. (Preheat your child’s thermos by rinsing it with boiling water to keep the contents hot until it’s time to eat.)
- Add some color: Veggies like carrots and cucumbers can be cut up the night before and stored in a Ziploc bag. With a small container of hummus or dip and a cool pack, your kids can enjoy a tangy, crunchy side dish.
- Think like a kid: Cut up or peel fruits and pack them in small containers or Ziploc bags. This makes them more manageable for small hands and mouths. As lunch periods get shorter, ready-to-eat fruits can also save time for kids.
I’m a big fan of the recent school lunch reforms – and happy to know that my children would be well fed if I didn’t send them lunches from home. But as long as I can swing it (and as long as they keep asking me to) I’ll pack their lunches with foods that provide more than just nutrients. I’ll fill their bags with a little bit of love.