Friday, November 19, 2010

What my sister taught me about school lunches

Historically, this has been the point in the school year where making school lunches officially becomes my nemesis. If I didn't start packing a few things the night before or, at least, preparing mentally for the morning lunch chore, I would literally wake up filled with a sense of dread that would lead to me stalling in bed, staring at the ceiling whilst willing my husband to make the lunches that day.*

I'm happy to report that this year my attitude is much more positive. And I have my sister to thank.

She doesn't know this, mind, but she said something to me when we were on a road trip together in September that I keep going back to when I feel resentment towards the school lunch preparation: Making my kids a nice lunch is one small thing I can do for them when I'm away from them all day.

Like many working parents, my sister and her husband commute a distance to their jobs every day. She is showered, and dressed, all lunches made and out of the house before my alarm clock even goes off. So when she made the one small thing comment to me in passing, it really stayed with me, you know? I get to work at home. I can wear a hat and sweats when I drop my kids off at school and shower when I come back home. Unless I have an early client meeting, most mornings all I have to do is get up, make their lunches, get them breakfast and nudge them along so they aren't late for school.

In short, I have nothing to complain about; I have no business feeling resentful about school lunches.

If you still hate making school lunches, that's okay: I would never judge you. It does get monotonous. It does for a lot of kids, too. While there are definitely kids who will only eat a small number of reliable favourites, most kids crave variety. In fact, I know several adults who really can't stand sandwiches to this day, so scarred are they from the all-sandwiches-all-the-time theme of their own primary school existence.

One easy way to mix things up is to just swap out the type of bread. So if your kid only likes ham on their sandwiches, you don't always have to serve it on crustless white bread. Last week my kids had sandwiches three times: once they had ham on sliced bread; once they had ham on mini whole wheat dinner rolls; and once they had chicken salad, made from leftover chicken breasts, on a croissant.

Here is a list of different bread products that I use in lunches:

1) Mini bagels
- Spread on your kid's favourite flavour of cream cheese
- Spread on free-nut butter
- Use as a base for mini-pizzas

2) Whole wheat tortilla wraps
- Throw in some flavoured cream cheese and veggies, roll up tight and refrigerate overnight, slice into little rounds in the morning
- Add leftover chicken or steak, shredded cheese, salsa, lettuce and you have a fajita
- I haven't tried this yet but thought of it the other morning: scrambled eggs and ketchup, maybe a little shredded cheese if your kids are into it, wrap up tight while hot and put in tin foil for a breakfast burrito!
- Spread on free-nut butter, cut a banana in half, wrap the tortilla around the banana

3) Croissants
- Cut in half with a little jam inside
- As bread for any kind of sandwich: cold cuts, tuna, veggies and cream cheese
- Slice it, sprinkle some chocolate chips inside, toast in toaster oven for a minute or two: chocolate croissant! (note: I would count this as a treat in their lunch)

You get the idea, right? Scour the bread section of your grocery store and look for anything that takes you away from plain old sandwich bread. Naan for dipping in curry, mini dinner rolls, submarine buns. If it breaks up the monotony of school lunches for your kid, they are more likely to eat their lunch. If they eat your lunch, maybe even (gasp!) tell you they loved something you made for them, it's going to feel more rewarding to make the lunches.

Positive reinforcement, baby. Pavlov would be proud.

*This has never happened.

Monday, October 25, 2010

More on those insulated thermal food container thing-a-ma-bobs

Because my daughter is a vegetarian in a class where there is a peanut, treenut and fish ban, I spent far more time than is good for me this past August trying to find the perfect thermos for her. Homemade soups and pastas are lunch box staples for us. Why, what better food is there than minestrone soup? It gives you a wide variety of vegetables, protein in the kidney beans (or chick peas), and carbohydrate in the noodles. Plus it's cheap, a cinch to make in large batches, and is delicious.

But getting back to August. We live in a small city and we looked everywhere for the perfect thermos to no avail. Sure there were old fashioned glass thermoses at Zellers and Canadian Tire, but having broken my way through more than my fair share of those as a child, I refused to lay down my cash for one. We did see numerous stainless steel Thermos brand "Funtainers," but we weren't drawn to them for a couple of reasons: 1. despite their small size, it seemed as if getting a soup spoon into them would be awkward because of the depth to mouth-width ratio, and 2. the designs we could find locally were all based on Disney movies and my daughter is decidedly anti-Disney after a couple of attempts at watching their movies scared the living bejeebus outta her. We would have slapped down money for a "Funtainer" if we could have found this one, but no one in my town carried it:Hello Kitty: you always make me smile even if you have strayed so far from your roots.

Eventually we stumbled into the uber-trendy kitchen store downtown where they assured me they were getting in a shipment of the best stainless steel food containers on the planet! --that came in great, child-friendly designs! --that also happened to be Canadian made! --and that had a fun product name: Otter Bottle! "Wha-hoo," I thought. "I gotta see these."

One week went by. Then two. Then we were into the first week of school. At long last, the shipment arrived. The result? Well, not exactly what I had hoped for but ok. In fact, they're not all that different from the Thermos-brand Funtainers and have the same depth to mouth-width ratio problem. They are Disney-free, though, and my daughter was quite keen on this one:

The design should grow with her longer than the Funtainer designs would, so that does make up for their slightly higher price. The kicker for me, though, is despite this being a Canadian company, the first thing I had to do was peel off a "Made in China" sticker from the bottom. I guess that's just the state of the world these days. Ho hum.

Now that the Otter Bottle has been in use for nearly two months, I can report back to say that it works just fine. It seems to keep her food hot enough and she still likes the shiny-pretty of the thing. My daughter has no problem opening and closing it, but I do know that another girl in her class had to get a new thermos because her hand wasn't big enough to handle the width of the lid--this was on a Funatainer and not an Otter Bottle but there really isn't a size difference between the two products, so keep this in mind if you have a child with small hands.

I bought a larger size Otter Bottle food container for myself and, while I like it a lot, I sorta wish I had gone for the smaller size, because pouring chunky soup from it into a bowl at work is a risky business of noodle-to-face splashing. Each time I feel the spray, I am reminded why the Funtainer and Otter Bottle (small size) design is optimum despite my initial misgivings about the width of the mouth.

So there you have it. My take on insulated thermal food container thing-a-ma-bobs. The point of this post: don't transfer your anxiety about your child starting school into consumer indecision. Just buy a friggin' food container already. Your child may end up hating school with a passion but at least she'll enjoy her lunch.


Note: no companies have endorsed this post nor have I been given any kind of product, coupon or money to write it. In fact, neither company realizes I'm alive--which is just fine by me.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Freenut Butter

My son was about 20 months old when we realized he had a peanut allergy. I was eating an english muffin with peanut butter on it and he wanted to try a bite, so I shared. He broke out in hives instantly. Thankfully it didn't progress further to anaphylaxis. I hastily administered a dose of liquid antihistamine and made an appointment with our family doctor. A few weeks later we had an official diagnosis of peanut allergy with the always-present potential for anaphylaxis. He is now 11 years old and carries two Epipens with him everywhere.

I am happy that our school has a peanut and nut ban. It's not foolproof, as lunches are only checked for rogue nut products in JK and SK. Alas, having a stated nut ban is still a deterrent and it helps to protect the many children in our school with peanut and nut allergies.

I know not being able to send peanut butter is a pain in the arse for some parents. I know some kids live on the stuff. I was one of those kids who brought a PB&J sandwich to school several times a week back in the 70s. As a parent of a kid with peanut allergy, I am grateful to the many parents who abide by the no nut policy, even if they don't like it very much.

So what can you do if your kid loves the spreadable nutty goodness but you can't, or don't want to, send the real deal.

Freenut butter!

Despite what the labelling claims would persuade you to believe it is not "just like peanut butter." The two brands we have tried are made of soy and golden peas, respectively. My friend whose kids don't have allergies once had the golden pea version on toast at my house. She took a bite and then turned to me with a skeptical look. "It's clear to me that you haven't had peanut butter in a very long time if you think that tastes authentic," she said wryly.

Okay, the golden pea version is a bit of a stretch but the soy version is very close in texture, taste and smell, save for a faint soy-tastic aftertaste. And I never claimed authenticity, people. I just said that it's better than nothing!

My kids actually like the freenut butter a lot. Granted, my son doesn't remember what real peanut butter tastes like but his sisters do and they are fine with the creamy impostor. I use it just like you would use peanut butter:

- Spread it on whole wheat bread with a little honey or jam on top
- Stuff it into that lonely hollow in raw celery sticks
- Layer it between crackers for a stackable snack
- Smooth it on a rice cake with some raisins sprinkled on top

You get the idea. There are lots of possibilities. I have even baked with it. Chocolate covered bonbons at Christmas tastes very authentic. Peanut butter cookies are more of a stretch, but if you add in lots of chocolate chips? Not too shabby.
I live in Canada and both the versions I have pictured here are available through certain regular grocery stores. I know that most health food stores carry some form of freenut butter, too.

Some day my son will be an adult living in his own home. At that point my husband and I will likely invite real peanut butter back into our lives. Until then, the freenut butter is a handy substitute on those days when I haven't got a clue what to send for lunch.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The Insulated Thermal Food Container

... or "Thermos," of course. My kid would starve without the ability to tote hot lunches to school.

Someone asked a few posts back how thermoses work, and it's pretty easy: while you're heating up whatever, fill the waiting thermos with REALLY hot water from the kettle and let it sit for a few minutes. Then when the food is ready, dump the water, briskly wipe the thermos with a tea towel, insert food and voila, with any luck your kid will have reasonably hot soup come lunchtime.

Here is a longish list of things that Her Royal Pickyness has seen fit to bring to school:
- hot apple cider
- hot chocolate
- a mocha, which the Wee Sophisticate made and packed herself without informing me and now I get to be known as the mother with the 11 year old who brings coffee to school, lucky me.
- Hot pasta sauce, and a container of cold pasta to mix together at lunchtime.
- 5 million thermoses of soup.
- Baked beans her grandfather made. Of course, she can't bring beans of any sort now, grade six being the way it is.
- And chili. Lots of chili. Chili is probably off the roster too now - I should probably ask.
- I nearly forgot: hot taco stuff, with the rest of the taco packed in her lunchbag. That's always a hit.
- Apple crisp!

I'm sure there are other things, but that's all I can think of right now.

I've heard from some parents that thermoses are a bit dorky at their kids school and their children won't bring them - but they seem to either be all right at the Girl's school OR she's just oblivious. Do your kids bring thermoses? What do you pack in them?

Wednesday, September 15, 2010


My kid - the one IN school, as opposed to the other two - goes to a school that has A Balanced School Day, which means that instead of having old-fashioned "lunch" at noon, she has two "nutrition breaks" at 10:35 and 1:00. Instead of having two short recesses and a longer lunch hour, the kids now get two short recesses immediately following the "nutrition breaks." One of the big pluses for this new system is that it saves time - having fewer recesses means that the children waste less time struggling into and out of winter clothes - AND classes can now be longer. Because if there's one thing that's important, it's making children more time-effective!

Bah, I say. And also phhbbppph.

Every parent I know loathes the horrible Balanced Day, and that is because it makes packing actual school lunches next to impossible. We were sent home a cheerful handout describing a week's worth of Healthy Nutrition Break Suggestions, like this:

Nutrition Break 1#
1. A slice of homemade zucchini bread with some low-fat cream cheese.
2. A small container of steamed edamame.
3. A peeled and sectioned organic tangerine.
4. Half a tuna sandwich (although every school in town has a fish ban).

Nutrition Break 2#
1. A low-fat yogurt.
2. A homemade oatmeal cookie.
3. Carrot sticks with homemade hummus dip.
4. Cubed Edam with whole grain crackers.

Now, I AM a stay-at-home mother, and I do like baking. But that is a LOT of baking - and this being a low-income area, I seriously doubt that little kids are coming to school with their lunchboxes full of organic fruit, edamame (and REALLY, soy is such a highly allergic food. 2/5 of my house can't go anywhere NEAR it), and expensive cheeses. ALSO, most little kids have a limited palate of things they like to eat at lunchtime, and it's very hard to stretch that limited palate over 2 school day meals.

There is one kid in my kid's class who gets lunches like that (and it is NOT my kid) and the other kids just get their regular old lunches, which they can then "balance" themselves as best they can (my kid "balances" her lunch by eating all of the dessert-y things as soon as she gets to school), or they get DOUBLE the same old crap (like the kid who gets TWO Lunchables a day. Two!).

There's probably some sound nutritional principles at work, but to me, it feels more of cheeseparing with the kids - let's shave off nearly a half hour of outside time a day and tell parents that it's FOR the kids. And while we're at it, let's turn the simple PB&J, apple and cookie lunch into some impossible piece of performance art (you might want to switch to a part-time job, since this is going to take a while.).

(My mother - who was a teacher - COMPLETELY disagrees with this post. She says that there are lots of benefits to the balanced school day. Benefits I do not feel obligated to list, because this is MY post.)

Sunday, September 12, 2010

I blame the Illuminati

Well, if it's not the Illuminati, then it's the Masons, and if it's not the Masons then it's some secret bovine cabal that wants to destroy humankind by implanting chemical bacteria in our guts. How else do you explain modern day yogurt? I mean, what other product, aside from air fresheners, is as over-advertised? Certainly no other dairy product is: milk? eggs? cheese? Eat GOUDA: it's gooda for me; it's gooda for you!

You can't turn on the TV without suffering a barrage of yogurt ads. And who in sam hell is coming up with these ad pitches? Eat Activia! It'll make your bowels turn green and dance! Why wasn't the ad guy laughed right out of the room? And have you seen their latest marketing tactic? Danone actually wants you to log on to their website and tell them whether you eat Activia for the taste or for the dancing bowel effect. No! Really! They want you to let them know, in writing, if you're regular.

The yogurt wars, I tell you: that's our modern day Coke-Pepsi stand-off. It's the battle of Danone versus Sealtest versus Astro versus Yoplait. Soon, there will only be one standing and I've got my money on Danone. (Except that I don't but more on that later.) Yes, Danone: they're the best at marketing to the kids, you see.

My family eats a lot of yogurt which means I've made my way around the dairy aisle more times than I care to mention. What I know is this: yogurt is changing. The brands I used to buy are always being replaced by new contenders, new flavours and combinations intended to wow us all. You want banana with howaru*, whipped strawberry custard, or mocha deelight? Then there's a yogurt for you. You can get it high fat, low fat, no fat, all sweet, artificially sweet, just fruity, omega fatty acid enhanced AND/OR with any one of a number of bumhole satisfying bacterial cultures. You can buy it in individual servings sizes, as a drink, in a tube, or in a tub. Back in the day, a tub meant 750 ml but now you're lucky if you get 600 ml in a tub. The price, of course, hasn't changed, just the amount. If you find a brand you like, a brand that hasn't given in to the insanity, wait a couple of weeks. If it's still on the market, chances are the only flavour available will be strawberry.

Do me a favour: the next time you're at the grocery store count the number of ingredients in a tub of yogurt. I had a look at a Danino drinkable yogurt recently and the answer was 25. Yes, there were 25 ingredients listed most of which I couldn't pronounce. Number two on the package was sugar. How many ingredients should yogurt contain? Just two: milk solids and bacterial culture.

About a year ago I discovered a local farmer at my farmer's market who sells his own, glorious, 2.5% milk fat yogurt. I eat it plain. Hell, I'd eat it on a train, in the rain while in Spain, it is so darn good. And what's more, he sells the stuff in 2 litre jugs for $5.95. The price simply cannot be beat. And the packaging is about as minimal as you can get.

My daughter used to like this yogurt plain but she's recently gone off it's sour taste. So what do I do when it comes time to send her to school with some yogurty goodness? I haul her thermos out of the cupboard, put in some frozen fruit from the freezer, plop in some plain yogurt and drizzle a little bit of maple syrup on top. She loves it like crazy and it looks just like all those pretenders on the market.

This year, I got adventuresome. When peaches were in season, I blanched and stewed a bunch, then froze them in ice cube trays just like I did when she was a baby. Now if I want peach yogurt, I just reach for a cube and add it. I meant to do the same with plums but haven't got around to it yet. Frozen blueberries, raspberries and strawberries demand far less attention. You can also get crazy, using just maple syrup or adding nuts if you don't need to be mindful of allergies. May I suggest adding stewed prunes if your drains become plugged? Plain yogurt can also be turned into a veggie dip easy as pie. I just add a squirt of prepared mustard and a bit of dill. It's not haute cuisine but the kid loves it. Plus it thwarts the Illuminati and that can only be good, right?


*fine, thank you very much

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Sometimes it's all in the packaging

Just three days into packing school lunches and I think I have already worked through most of the stages of grieving. On the first day I was firmly in denial and now I think I'm somewhere between depression and acceptance.

Okay, but here is something I have learned over seven years of making school lunches: sometimes kids think they don't like something, but they do. They just don't know they like it because it has always been presented in the same way. For instance, if someone always served you wine in an old, cracked plastic cup you got one time through a promotion at a fast food joint, you might think, "I don't really get what the hype is around this wine stuff."

Then someone hands you a nice Shiraz in a glass with a stem and, suddenly, you're a freaking connoisseur.

Are you still with me? Are you wondering what plastic cups and Shiraz have to do with school lunches? Brace yourself: here comes the point.

This morning I got up and didn't know what to make for the kids' lunches. Then I spied a can of tuna. Then I admonished myself, "You know the boy doesn't like tuna!" Then I told myself to figure out a way to make the kid eat the tuna.

So instead of just making a boring old tuna sandwich on whole wheat bread, I dug around in my deep freezer for some pitas. Then I dug around in my crisper for an apple and some lettuce. Do you see where this is going? Look:

I mixed the tuna with some mayo and then threw in some chopped up apple, skin-on, for some crunch.

I layered the apple/tuna mixture in the pita with some shredded lettuce. Then I rounded out the lunch with some juice, watermelon, grapes, whole wheat crackers and a little treat.

Then I had some coffee. And maybe a little Shiraz in a plastic cup. Don't judge me, I am still grieving.

Did the boy eat his tuna-in-a-pita? Yes. Yes he did. And he even liked it. Although he seemed surprised that the crunchy red chunks were apple. "I thought that was radish!" he exclaimed.

Note to self: boy's taste buds are broken.

Yesterday's Lunch and Today

Yesterday, when I forgot to take a picture because I was SO HARRIED:
Leftover homemade macaroni and cheese in a thermos.
Cucumber slices and carrot sticks.
A homemade brownie.
And a pear.
I forgot to pack her a fork, so it was all for naught.

And today, she is home sick. I made her soup.

What have you been packing for your kid this week?

Sunday, September 5, 2010

My first lunch of the school year!

When I first started packing school lunches seven years ago (seven!) I was full of enthusiasm and weird ideas. I knew from being the daughter of a teacher that teachers notice what kids pack in their lunches, and so I set out to pack Teacher Impressing Lunches. Oh, the interesting, creative lunches I packed!

What I failed to take into account was this:
1) Teachers are no longer in the room at lunchtime, which means that I should have spent more time peeling tangerines than making wee sushi rolls.
2) Kids are very conservative and my Creative Interesting Lunches were getting my kid the reputation as That Kid Who Has Weird Lunches.

So now I don't knock myself out. Observe:

From left to right: a bin of cherry tomatoes, red pepper strips and cauliflower with a smaller bin of poppyseed dressing, an egg salad sandwich cut with a heart-sandwich cutter, a box of raisins (our one concession to normalcy - the poor child would love to fill her lunchbox with Lunchables and Dunkaroos and Wagon Wheels and I just cannot bring myself to do it, but look! Raisins IN A LITTLE BOX! I am nothing but fun.), a honey tangerine UNPEELED, and SIX SNICKERDOODLES. She's bringing one for each of her friends. And this lunch is remarkable for two reasons:

1) It's remarkably boring aside from the tremendous amount of cookies.
2) My kid made most of it herself!

You'd think I was able to sit around like a lady of leisure this morning, seeing that I didn't even need to get myself dressed but nope - I still had to run around like a headless chicken. BUT SHE MADE HER OWN SANDWICH.

Friday, September 3, 2010

If I see another article on bento boxes, I will surely perish

It's not that I have anything against partitioned lunch boxes. I don't. I also have nothing against sushi. If you eat fish, eat it to the gills, I say. Heaven knows, as a vegetarian I've been known to scarf down my fair share of vegetarian California rolls--with extra wasabi and lots of pickled ginger. Tasty-day, I say. What I do have trouble with is the new heralds of style over substance who trumpet the bento box as the salvation to school lunches. Immediately their songs of praise turn sour as they try to convince me that cream cheese sandwiches are better if you take a rolling pin to the bread, slather on the cream cheese, maybe with clipped fresh herbs (it only takes a second), and then add micro-thinly sliced cucumber and carrot with, perhaps, a dollop of avocado, before wrapping it all up sushi-style, slicing it into rounds, wrapping the rounds in plastic to preserve their freshness and then gently plunking them all down into one lonely quadrant of a bento box--usually right alongside a hand-written note of maternal love and misplaced self-esteem boosting, all while the other three empty bento quadrants stare you down mockingly.

Are you kidding me? We are talking a school lunch here. The last I checked, I need to make 5 of these suckers a week, roughly 200 a year AND I have to have them ready and at the door no later than 7:45 am. It's not that I'm not earnest or eager, but a lunch is a lunch is a lunch. And school lunches are about survival not proving you're the best damn parent on the block. If you want to get all carried away with the pretty, save it for Christmas. Alternatively, if you want to extend your sense of guilt and obligation year-round, if you want to build a house of cards around tradition and expectation, be my guest: put those wittle sushi sandwiches and love notes and teddy-bear shaped pb&j's in a bento box. Knock yourself out.

That's not to say I don't believe in making an effort. I do. I believe in making healthy, diverse lunches that my daughter will eat and that won't compromise the health of her classmates, some of whom have multiple food allergies. I believe in batch cooking, my deep freezer, and making the most of the local harvest. I believe in yielding to supermarket short-cuts. I believe in creativity that doesn't become labour-intensive tripe. I believe in growing a healthy child who values nutrition and who can concentrate in class. I also believe in sleeping in as late as I possibly can as often as I possibly can.

My daughter starts school on Tuesday. My posts on this blog will communicate my triumphs, challenges and frustrations. I'll share recipes and survival strategies, and I'm sure I'll vent a whole heck of a lot too. In addition to eating many fine and some mediocre lunches, I'm certain to eat many, many of my own gamey words on the way. My name is Sue. My friends are Beck and Janet. Won't you join us?