The Power of School Lunch

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My daughter played "What food am I?" in preschool the other day. When I came to pick her up, her teacher gave me an odd look. "What happened?" I asked. "All of the kids had to describe what kind of food they were today," she began. "Most kids said apples, celery, oranges, hamburgers, tomatoes, etc., but your daughter told us she was a mix of quinoa and gooseberries…"

Good or bad? I wondered to myself. Probably some of both.

In my mind, that definitely tells me I’m going to be “that mom,” the one whose kid constantly feels embarrassed about. And “that mom” was originally my mom: the mom who dares to be different when, among other things, it comes to packing a school lunch.

My mother lovingly packed soggy, lopsided and sometimes grease-stained paper bags carrying oddball sandwiches or various leftovers from dinner.

Delicious? Totally. Awkward to eat? Totally. Not like any of the other kids' lunches at a time when you did not dare to be different? Totally.

What was a classic lunch for me?

Soggy tinfoil containing meatballs and sauce, four slices of bread and a sandwich bag filled with broccoli in lemon vinaigrette. I would look over at my friend’s perfect peanut butter sandwich and my other friend’s thermos of soup and wonder what my lunch was trying to be. A sandwich of some sort? “You’re supposed to put the meatballs and the broccoli on the slices of bread to make a sandwich,” my mom later explained, “That way the sandwich won’t be soggy.”

That explanation helped. Assembling something right before eating could make a big difference in how the food tastes.

A few weeks later my mother packed me a fruit salad with a little bag of ice attached.

“The fruit needs to stay really cold until you eat it so it has that refreshing factor," she told me. Somehow the fact that the fruit juices (and melted ice) leaked all over my bag mattered less when I devoured the still-cold fruit from the bag.

I started getting up on the weekends and scaling down recipes from The Fannie Farmer Cookbook. I baked coffee cakes for one. Cornbread. I even attempted (and failed) at a stack of pancakes (looks a lot easier to make than it actually is!). I sampled the cake warm from the oven and then again when it had cooled. Some days I overcooked it. Once I mistook salt for sugar. But it didn’t matter because all of those lopsided lunch bags and mismade cake experiments were some of the things that nurtured my love for cooking (and eating). Lunch can be a place to introduce your children to new things. It can also be a place of bonding and experimentation — it can also be just lunch.

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