Thursday, January 31, 2013


When I was a kid, my lunchbox sandwiches were always wrapped in cling wrap. Snacks were in baggies. Everything in that bag was in some kind of disposable plastic.

Lunchboxes used to be hard plastic, remember that? With a keeps-nothing-cold-or-hot Thermos tucked in the lid. I had one shaped exactly like this, except it was orange and featured The Muppet Show.

Did you remember they made a Beetlejuice cartoon? Yeah, me neither. WEIRD.

Anyway, the hard plastic lunchboxes were awesome for two things; holding out from your body while you spun around and around REALLY FAST while you waited for the bus, and keeping your sandwiches and fruit from getting squished.

Most lunchboxes now are either the Bento style, which to my mind require too much prep to pack; metal "retro style" that look like they wouldn't last out a school year; and soft-sided insulated lunch bags, fastened with either zippers or Velcro. I think most kids probably have those.

Soft-sided lunchbags have given birth to the reusable container industry, and oh my goodness, there are a lot of different types. Plastic! Glass! Lock-tight! Take-N-Go! Store-N-Save! So many cutesy names, all with exclamation marks, and all cleverly designed to part your money from your wallet while simultaneously keeping your sandwiches square and your bananas unbruised!

They are a necessary evil, but I still get the twitches when I think about it. A whole (very deep) drawer in my kitchen is given over to these things. Square ones for sandwiches. Small round ones for snacks. Large round ones for soup or chili if the lunch is destined for the office lunchroom with its handy microwave.

It doesn't matter how much you spend on these things, inevitably the lids will get lost. Or the bottoms. Somehow, they will become separated over time and you will need to sort through The Drawer, discarding the ones that are now useless, stacking the rest neatly in a way that won't last beyond the next time you do the dishes.

When deciding which kind to buy, let me just say this: unless you're planning on using them for liquids, cheap is just as good as expensive. If you're buying them for young kids and they may not have help available at lunch time, take the kid with you on your buying expedition to make sure they can be opened and closed without too much difficulty. Anything that comes in a package of five or ten with interchangeable lids is especially practical.

One of my dayhome families has been experimenting with different kinds of lunch containers for years. There are some with these strange lid-vents that stymied ME one day, until I finally figured out that you need to pop the vent first in order to break the vacuum seal and get the lid off.

So! Low cost and ease of use - these are important, especially for younger kids. Durability and style start becoming considerations when your kids are older and better able to keep track of their possessions.

Man, our moms did not have to worry about this stuff. All they needed to do was fight with the cling wrap.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

School Lunches Again

At the start of every school year, I am full of Good Lunch Intentions, which rapidly fade away as the months progress. My kids' lunches are sadly pretty monotonous at this point - either soup in a thermos with crackers and cheese or a turkey sandwich with carrot sticks or homemade mini pizzas or wholewheat bagels with cream cheese if they're VERY lucky. Throw in something dessert-y - either a granola bar or a homemade cookie - and some fruit and that is IT, that's what they get, day in and day out.

And that is FINE. Life is not all beer and skittles, my children. The idea that I'm responsible not only for my kids' nutrition and well-being but also for an unending font of lunch-time novelty is a pretty new one, I think - I seem to recall my childhood lunches being peanut butter and jam or tuna sandwiches day in and day out (in the long-lost days before allergies swept them away) and apples, always apples and no real feelings of being hard-done-by on my part (except about the apples, which I still hate), unless lunch was that square lunch meat with olive and macaroni slices horribly embedded in it. Anyone who claims to feel nostalgic for pimento loaf is LYING.

I don't think parental effort is a bad thing and parenting should definitely not be a race to see who can be the worst, but there's a difference between a reasonable amount of effort (nutritious, balanced, reasonably tasty lunch? Check.) and trying too hard, making something that's already a daily hassle into a competitive sport. My kids' don't need elaborate Bento lunches to have a happy childhood, thank goodness. And meanwhile, this sickly winter just chugs relentlessly on and my kids are missing school AGAIN because of the weather, so I hardly need to make school lunches at all, do I.

In case they ever DO go back to school, though: what's your go-to school lunch routine? And did ANYONE like pimento loaf as a kid?

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Baking is Boss

If baking paid me better or, you know, at all I think it would be my full time job.

Seriously. I love to bake. I love the science behind the chemical reactions that make muffins rise to their deliciously moist destiny. I love the way the heavenly smell wafts through the house. And, yes, I love to eat the end result, preferably warm, with cold milk on the side.

So that makes me one of those moms that sends the homemade treats in the lunch. Not to say that I won't send a couple of Oreos. I have and I do, but a few times a week I try to send something homemade.

One nice thing about sending something you baked is that it creates another reason for the kids to get involved in making their lunch. And I do believe that they should be involved, at least to some degree. Even a 3- or 4- year-old can help make muffins or cookies. If you get the kids helping at an early age, chances are they will actually enjoy baking when they get a little older. My middle child? Exhibit A. She is 11 and both enjoys baking with me and baking things on her own. This means that sometimes I can sit on my arse while she makes something delicious and then I get to eat it without having done any work. Sometimes she'll even pour me some milk to go with it. She's a keeper.

Last night we baked carrot muffins together, me, the Middle and the Little. After they came out of the oven, my husband and daughter taste tested them and declared them lunch-worthy. So today we all get to enjoy one in our lunches. Maybe it's just me, but I think it makes the day a little sweeter.

What's for lunch today?

- Egg salad sandwiches (I know, I know, they aren't for everyone, but my kids like them)
- Pears
- Goldfish crackers
- Applesauce or yogurt, depending on the kid
- Awesome muffins!
- Chocolate milk

Monday, January 28, 2013

Strawberry Snacks Forever

Last week, strawberries were on sale at my local grocery store.  For me, there is nothing quite like a beautiful bowl of berries in the middle of January.  It's such a refreshing taste of springtime; the invincible spring within me, found in the midst of winter, is made of strawberries.  Growing up in Calgary in the eighties, fresh strawberries were rare and expensive, and so we never had them.  The most I had in the berry department would have been the frozen-in-light-syrup kind spooned over an angel food cake with whipped cream, or a strawberry shortcake.  

What kinds of fruit did you have for snacks when you were growing up?  In our house, we had apples and bananas, with Mandarin oranges at Christmastime, and that - other than canned fruit - was pretty much it.  Suffice it to say I feel my children are very lucky to have, always, a plethora of fresh fruit to choose from.  I am lucky too, since I love fruit. 

But strawberries!  My children love strawberries; between the three of us we could polish off two pounds a day easily, and maybe more.  Just think of all the vitamin C!  My immune system perked up just thinking of it.

However, occasionally moderation must prevail, and so I restricted our immediate intake to one bowl each and prepared the remainder for school snacks.  For those of us pressed for time during the week - and that is all of us, I suspect - having ready-to-go food items is a must.  The single most important rule of lunch making is advance preparation, as Janet said.  It's so much easier to just toss a handful of already washed and sliced strawberries into a container than it is to wash and slice those strawberries on a day-to-day basis.  The total amount of time might be the same, but there is something overwhelming about the idea that oh, sigh, I need to wash and slice ten strawberries, then do it again tomorrow.  The human brain works in mysterious ways. 

I spent some time Sunday afternoon baking a deliciously aromatic cinnamon loaf and preparing the strawberries for rapid snack-packing.  It took an hour, total, including baking time, and the children's snacks were ready to go for the week.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Confession Time

Let's get something out of the way right now.

I have Opinions(TM) about food.

Specifically, the food that people feed their kids. I cringe over too much sugar, too much white flour, too much processing. I wince at people who cater to their childrens' whims, making them special separate meals of chicken fingers every night to avoid the dinner table battle. I wonder why you'd buy heavily-sweetened yoghurt with lots of additives & preservatives. I look at shopping carts when I'm in line at the grocery store and silently congratulate myself for having not once bought a Lunchable.

Really, I can be kind of a jerk about preparing food from scratch, using the best ingredients you can afford.

However, I do have a confession to make, and if in the weeks and months to come I wander into sanctimonious-land you may remind me of this. Perhaps with the judicious and pointed use of a smirking emoticon.

My kids have a love affair with string cheese. AND SO DO I.

Don't worry, it's just between you and me.

You know the stuff. It's made out of rubber, probably. It doesn't taste anything like cheese. It's got lots of protein but an odd dearth of any other nutrients, vitamins, or substance.

It keeps perfectly well in a lunchbag. It's so easy to just grab them and toss them in - not only when packing school lunches, but when going on a day trip or a long car ride. From my kids' perspective, you can peel down the tops to make hair, and the wrappers on the brand we buy has pictures of little cartoonish characters made of string cheese that you can recreate for merriment.

They fill the hunger gap, especially during morning snack, and as my kids are early risers that's pretty important. Without a protein at that morning break, they'd be going from 6:30 or 7 until noon - that's a long time when you're an active kid.

Sadly I've become so dependent on them that all three of my kids now notice if they somehow get a lunch without one. Yes, even the baby. If he sees someone else getting string cheese, he will immediately start yelling like he has a diaper full of bees, pointing angrily in the direction of the wayward milk-ish stick and wondering why in hell he doesn't have one.

My kids like all types of cheese. I could easily cut up a more 'authentic' cheese into cubes, for their lunches. I could go broke buying them B*bybel. I could put my foot down and say NO MORE CHEESE.

But I already don't pack chips for them, or chocolate. The closest thing they get to a treat in their lunch is usually a homemade muffin or maybe a granola bar with a chocolate drizzle, if it's Friday and I'm feeling generous. I am not one of those moms that includes a note every day telling them that they are super and that I love them.

So, every day, three string cheeses. (I run a dayhome, and it's easier if all the lunches are ready to go when the time comes to feed five at once, so I pack lunchbags for all three of my kids every day, even though two of them eat at home.)

3 strings/day x 5 days per week + I even pack lunches during the summer = IS THERE A DISEASE CAUSED BY STRING CHEESE? IF SO, NAME IT AFTER ME.

Today's lunch: Big Kid and Middle Kid has ham & cheese wraps. (I don't buy pre-sliced ham; instead I get one of those 'pre-cooked country hams and shred/slice it myself. Much cheaper.) Little Kid has leftovers; salmon, wild rice, and peas. Snacks are bananas, dried cranberries, apples - and string cheese.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

On Pizza Day

My children's school - and I only have the luxury of saying that for the rest of the school year, because The Girl is off to high school in the fall, if you want to know what time rushing by feels like - has hot lunches once a week, when they make a big pizza order. But! Should you want pizza, you will need a pizza card - a pre-bought card that entitles you to a certain number of slices - and this pizza card costs close to $40, so my children only rarely have one. Even when we can afford them, we're just too damn cheap.


A few years ago, you could buy pizza by the slice and so my kids DID get to take part once a month or so. But the shift to requiring a pre-paid pizza card has made it inaccessible - not just to my kids, but to a lot of other children in our low-income area. And while I don't think equal access to pizza is a huge social justice issue - it's more of an issue about the limited number of harried parent volunteers, and I ALSO don't think that my kids are all that hard-done-by for not taking part in the doughy school pizza - school lunches themselves are a landmine of issues for kids.

For example: some kids get to bring Lunchables and pop to school EVERY DAY, as I am reminded frequently by my poor, poor children, who are forced to bring (reasonably) healthy lunches to school by their cruel tyrant of a mother. Some kids bring elaborate hand-crafted lunches, courtesy of their mothers who take Pinterest REALLY SERIOUSLY. And some kids bring sparse, heartbreaking little lunches that whisper quietly of neglect, of living on the edge of hunger all the time.

"A friend of mine didn't have much of a lunch, so I gave him most of mine," said G after school, shruggingly explaining why he needed such a big snack.

The same volunteers who run the pizza program quietly fill up snack bins in each class - granola bars, applesauce cups, cookies - that all of the kids are free to take from during lunchtime. And they do: N frequently comes home with granola bar wrappers in her lunchbox that I KNOW I didn't send in with her and while I'm not enthusiastic about this nutritionally, morally I am all for this pragmatic way of helping hungry children while protecting their dignity. It is only a stop-gap measure, of course, but it's something.

And then on pizza day, I get up - dammit! - half an hour earlier than normal to make homemade miniature pizzas for my kids. It's a pain, but it's only a small piece of work on my part to keep my kids feeling included. The bigger, never-ending job is finding ways to keep all kids included in a system with limited funds, limited time and limited volunteers and problems that go far beyond easy solutions.

Today's school lunch: nothing. School was cancelled because of the extreme cold.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

More prep, less stress

A lot has changed since I last blogged here. This past fall I made the shift from freelance-at-home-writing to full-time-in-an-office writing.
Sadly, this change did not exempt me from making school lunches.


I did, however, have to make some modifications to my routine.

When I worked from home, I would typically crawl out of bed at 7:30 am, rush around making lunches for the kids before racing down to the school, unshowered, barely getting them there before the late bell rang.

Now that I have to get to work on time, I rise at 6:30 am, rush around making lunches for the kids and race to work, barely making it there before the mandatory morning production meeting.

But now I am SHOWERED. See? It’s totally different.

Actually, there is another big difference: I do most of the prep work at night. I get the kids to set out the lunch bags and choose one or two things that they know they want in their lunches.  Then we pack anything that doesn’t need to be refrigerated. If fruit needs to be cut up and washed, we do that at night, too. Except for apples because they will turn brown and nobody will eat them. Thanks, oxidation. Thanks a lot.

I also gather up the reusable containers we will need for the next morning. Because being unable to locate the lids that match the containers? Kind of makes me rage-y in the a.m. And the p.m. (Seriously: Where do they go?!)

All of this organization means that the only thing that’s left to do in the morning is make a couple of sandwiches or heat up some soup for the thermoses, a role that my husband typically fills now. Which is completely awesome. Because skipping the morning shower is no longer an option.


What was for lunch today?

-         Chicken noodle soup

-         Crackers and cheese

-         Apple sauce

-         Sliced pears

-         Pudding

Monday, January 21, 2013

Home For A Lunch

When I was a child I lived a five-minute walk from my school.  I would go out the back door, skip down the alley, squeeze through the crack in the fence, and saunter down the well-worn path alongside the plateau area that was flooded to become an ice rink in the long, long winters.  The plateau was between two hills sloping the same way; in winter we would sled down the steep hill, hitting the ice rink, and – if one was lucky with conditions or had enough kids piled into the wooden sleds – clearing the ice rink to go down the hill on the other side, which ended in a row of fences.  To my knowledge, no one ever hit the fences at the bottom, but if they did, it wouldn’t have been a cause for alarm.  It was the early eighties, after all.  Past the ice rink was the playground with the rickety teeter-totters of which I had been bumped off of many times, the squeaky, tippy swing set, and the wooden play structure that would give you splinters if you so much as looked at it.  The field with the baseball diamond and soccer field lay ahead, and there stood the school, a dark brown brick building with ugly orange doors.  I would reverse this trip every day at noon to go home for a hot lunch. 

Lunches of my childhood were the same whether I was at home or if I “ate over”, as we called it, at a friend’s house: soup and sandwich – grilled cheese or bologna, Campbell’s Tomato or Lipton’s Chicken Noodle – Zoodles, or Kraft Dinner.  Everyone I knew went home for lunch.  In my suburban, stay-at-home mom neighbourhood, eating lunch at school – save for the occasional extra-curricular club or activity - was not even an option.  Almost everyone had a mom at home to serve them and any extra friends lunch; the few who had working moms would go to a neighbour’s house, hired expressly for the purpose of lunch provision and noon hour care.
My kids do not eat lunch at school.  They come home every day except for early-dismissal Fridays, but instead of walking I drive them, given that this hour has 55 minutes and a fifteen minute walk there and back, not to mention the attiring and discarding of winter clothing would eat the time meant for eating.  And so I pick them up every day at noon, but these days they are in the extreme minority; one little girl from Mark’s class goes home for lunch three days a week, no one else in Jake’s class of 29 does.

I worried, then, when I was asked to contribute to the resurrecting of the Ladies Who Make Lunch, that I would be disqualified since I don’t belong to the club who wearily and with great boredom pack lunches every day; I merely pack snacks for their morning nutrition break.  However, and this is true of motherhood as a whole, we are all in this together.  Whether our children eat at school or at home, lunches are like laundry: vitally necessary and tediously never ending.  We tend to the nourishment of their little souls, their little minds, and their little bodies, and a big part of that bodily nourishment lies in the noon hour munching.  We all rise to the occasion even if that occasion is a tedious, unvarying chore. 
Join us, the Ladies Who (Make) Lunch, as we navigate the muddy waters of lunch preparation.  Follow us as we swim through the ocean of sandwiches, Thermoses, carrot sticks and cookies.  You’ll find recipes, ideas, memories, and diatribes as we rage against the machine of relentless lunch making in the face of school restrictions, allergies, and picky eating.  I’m Nicole; my fellow Ladies are Beck, Janet, Hannah, and Sue.  Come (make) lunch with us!