What's in the box?
Kids talk. A lot. And sometimes, it’s pretty entertaining stuff.
As someone who works in a school, I know to take at least half of what children say with a grain of salt. Still, it’s entertaining to hear the things they come up with and think, “Oh, if only their parents could hear them now.”
But lately, my kid has been the one doing the talking. Still innocent and naive, she doesn’t know enough to censor her comments from me. At least not yet.
A couple of weeks ago, I was emptying her lunchbox and was happy to see she had eaten everything in it. This is a rare occurrence, for many reasons. For more than two years I have tried to strike just the right balance of nutrition and appeal, convenience and affordability. It has to be easy to open, easy to peel, forever fresh, bruise-free, moist but not slimy, not too dry, crush-proof, nut-free, seed-free, crustless, and on and on it goes.
For every single day of kindergarten, my daughter ate a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and a juice box, along with a few carrot sticks or Goldfish crackers. Maybe a mozzarella stick now and then to change things up a bit. As a special treat on Fridays she got her reward: a horrific rainbow-hued Fruit Roll-Up for snack.
Ah, the good old days.
Unfortunately, after 180 days of PB&Js, she decided she’d had enough. She didn’t care if she ever saw another one, and I didn’t blame her. So I read some articles on fool-proof school lunches that were guaranteed to have your kids begging for more. Yeah, right. I skipped right over the veggie sushi, hard-boiled eggs, tuna, and guacamole, and instead tested out chicken and cheese quesadillas, ants on a log, leftover pizza, turkey sandwiches, ham sandwiches, cheese sandwiches and more.
Day after day, I tossed barely tasted food into the garbage (or gave it to my chickens). Since she was on strict orders not to eat her dessert unless she had eaten her sandwich, she often ate next to nothing all day at school. This made me feel even worse, and I worried for her health. Not only is she is a slim girl to begin with, but she would come home from school ravenous. It was a sorry state of affairs.
Concerned that she was wasting away to nothing, I started to fill her lunchbox up with cheese and crackers, peanut butter crackers, pretzels and peanut butter, and even bread and butter. She started eating again.
I loaded her up with fruits and vegetables I knew she liked, but she has inspection skills worthy of the USDA. If there was the slightest bruise on an apple or banana, or if a carrot, cucumber or celery stick had even the smallest flaw, it was deemed unfit for human consumption.
She loves mandarin oranges, but isn’t good at peeling them without help. Since she is pressed for time at lunch, I wanted to be sure she’d have time to eat the thing. So I peeled the orange, but she complained it was dry. Then I peeled it and wrapped it in a dampened paper towel. She found that disturbing and unappetizing. Then I loosened the skin on half the tiny orange and reassembled it, which seemed to work. She ate those for a week or two, then decided she was tired of dealing with the oranges. Apparently she was getting a friend to help her peel the other half, and her friend was tired too.
Undeterred, I bought canned mandarin oranges and put them into a plastic container, sans juice. She liked those. Success! Though she loves apples when sliced at home, they browned in her lunchbox. And she couldn’t eat the apple whole, because she is perpetually in loose-tooth mode. However, applesauce is something she can open herself and eat with a spoon, so I bought the healthiest variety I could find and started sending those.
It was a delicate balance. If I sent her with too many things in her lunchbox, she couldn’t differentiate her main meal from her dessert and her snack. She had a point, as most everything amounted to a snack. Other simple things seemed to throw her off, like if I added a spoon, a napkin, and an ice pack, she wouldn’t find half of the food.
When did lunch become so difficult?
We finally settled into a rhythm where I felt we had a good mix of healthy foods that she liked, with little waste, and she was self-sufficient in being able to peel and open everything without help. She no longer was confused about what to eat first and what to save for snack time, and there were no extra lunchbox implements to complicate things. Just the bare necessities.
Still, as I assembled this unusual assortment of foods, I worried that she must stick out like a sore thumb in the cafeteria. I remember being so much like her, and my poor mother packing everything from chicken noodle soup in a Thermos (yuck!) to Raisin Bran or Special K cereal and a small carton of milk (yum!). The kids would crowd around me like curious little monkeys at the lunch table.
“What are you eating?” they’d ask.
“Special K,” I’d say.
“Ewww. How come?” they’d pry.
And I’d shrug like the odd little freak of nature that I was.
Poor Lizzie. This was all my fault.
One day, as I was packing her sorry excuse for a lunch, I asked her if the other kids, most of whom eat hot lunch, ever ask why she brings strange things. She said no. I was just about to breathe a sigh of relief when she lowered the boom.
“But a grown-up asked why I didn’t have much for lunch, and I said it’s because my mom doesn’t like to waste food,” she said matter-of-factly.
I froze in my tracks. Was she serious?
“LIZZIE!” I said.
“You DIDN’T!” I said.
“Well, it’s true.”
I leaned against the counter for support.
“No. It’s. NOT.”
I wanted to say, “That’s it! From now on you’re eating a sandwich or buying hot lunch like every other kid in that school!”
But instead, I looked down at my little doppelganger and thought, “You may be a freak of nature, but you’re MY little freak of nature.”
“Want to try some Special K tomorrow?” I asked.
And the beat goes on.