My son’s grandmother did me the favor packing his lunch the other day. (In a nutshell, I’m sick.) All she required of me was his Monsters University lunch bag/box/whatever you want to call it (it’s one of those insulated softies), and I ended up throwing in a box of V8 Fusion. My mother was doing me a favor, so I wasn’t about to lecture her on the specifications of packing my preschooler’s lunch.
I go all out with my kid’s lunches. I like to be creative and make things fun. Bagged lunches can be boring, so I like to include variety. I also like to zazz things up with fun character or holiday-themed paper products (plate and napkin), colorful zip-lock bags (available at Target), and character-themed tupperware containers. I’ll periodically rotate in special food themes –– “China food” or “Mexico food,” or even “spooky food,” and on the rare occasions that I throw it a dessert, I’ll find some way to make it literacy based. (This used to be a major hobby of mine.)
I also make a point of including “love notes” in his lunches. Even on the day that Grandma packed it for me, I made a point of slipping a little heart-shaped sticky note into his lunch box with an excuse explanation as to why everything looked so dull different. (Wasn’t it NICE of Grandma to pack your lunch today?)
I’ll scribble down a few sentences worth of well-wishes, interesting facts, useful information, or suggest social prompts. Some notes will have it all. And every note contains an integrated “sight word”, which I also make a point of S-P-E-L-L-I-N-G O-U-T. It sounds crazy, but the kid loves it, and his teachers find it adorable. (There are only six other kids in his classroom, so they can afford to give him a little extra attention.)
So this got me thinking… what if I had left my mother an exacting set of instructions on how to prepare and pack my child’s lunch? There are plenty of parents out there who obsess over what they feed their kids, and god help you if you accidentally feed them inorganic produce. Some insist artificial dyes were responsible for their children’s behavior problems; others seek to “cure” their kids of autism Jenny McCarthy style (which evidently involves removing gluten and casein from their diets). More still have taken it upon themselves to “diagnose” their poor kids with multiple food allergies and intolerances before subjecting them to rigorous dietary restrictions. I can only imagine the enormity of the written instructions these parents must leave their child care providers, who may not even be able to make the distinction between quinoa and couscous.
Grandma ended up sending the boy in with beans, spaghetti, and the V8 juice I’d given her. Not quite the lunch I would have packed, but certainly delicious and nutritious enough to keep my child satiated and content.
But if I had left her a list of specifications for packing my kid’s lunch, here’s what it would have looked like:
1. THE LUNCHBOX: Dimensions of lunch pack should be approximately 7.5 inches in height, 9.25 inches in width, and 3.5 inches thick. Must come fully insulated with zipper closure, top-carry handle, and suitable for children ages three and up. Acceptable designs include Monsters Inc, Mickey Mouse, Toy Story, and Dora the Explorer.
2. PAPER PRODUCTS: One (1) round or square dessert-sized plate to be placed beneath one (1) full-sized paper luncheon napkin. Plate and napkin should coordinate, thought the designs need not necessarily be identical. For instance, a Minnie Mouse napkin may be paired with a Mickey Mouse plate, provided they are similar enough in coloring. Solid-colored napkins may also utilized, so long as they are appropriately matched with a character plate. For example, a red napkin may be paired with a Lightning McQueen plate. Under some circumstances, it may be permissible for a solid-colored plate may be utilized, but in these rare instances, the corresponding napkin had better be pretty spectacular. Under no circumstances may a solid-colored plate be used with a solid-colored napkin.
3. PLASTICWARE: If plastic spoons and/or forks are needed, it is essential that they not be permitted to violate the integrity of the plate-napkin color coordination. Due in part to the vast under-representation of forks and knives in children’s lunches, it is not always economically feasible to have all plasticware match the paperware. Still, a diligent effort should still be made to ensure that the colors do not clash. If a suitable green or yellow spoon cannot be located for my kid’s yogurt, a black or white spoon may be substituted in its place. (Note: metallic-looking plasticware should only be used with space/futuristic character themes, and clear only goes with winter themes.)
4. THE DRINK: Include 6.75 and 8 fl. oz of organic whole milk or V8 Fusion. MIlk must contain at least 32 mg of DHA per serving. Acceptable brands of milk include Horizon Organics and Stonyfield Farm. The preferable flavor of V8 Fusion is pomegranate-blueberry, but strawberry-banana is also acceptable. Kefir is also an appropriate beverage. Milk and juice must be contained within an appropriate air-tight sports bottle (suggested design: Monsters University) and twice tested before being placed into the lunch pack. Kefir is best stored within 8-oz plastic tumblers, preferably clear to make the flavor more readily identifiable. Due to the thick nature of this beverage and its potential to ruin and entire lunch, tumblers filled with Kefer are required to be check thrice.
5. THE DAIRY: If milk or Kefir have been packed, move on to the next step. Otherwise, a Dora the Explorer (strawberry) or Cars (vanilla) yogurt cup should be included in the lunch. Alternatively, you may substitute a quarter cup of shredded cheese for the yogurt, but only if the meal is Mexico or Italian-themed. Monterey jack or a cheddar-jack mix would be an appropriate accompaniment to a Mexican lunch, while parmesean, romano, and asiago cheeses may be paired with pasta, either independently or as a mixture.
6. THE FRUIT: A fresh banana (neither too green nor too brown) or a packet of ascorbic acid-treated apples will fulfill this requirement, as would half a cup of seedless, tricolored (red, green, & black) grapes. Grapes should be washed with a special fruit & vegetable rinse (available in most produce sections) and cut in half the morning of school. Dried fruit (such as craisins and raisins) are also acceptable, as are “monkey chips” (i.e., plantain chips). It is important to observe that my child DOES NOT eat banana chips. If V8 Splash has been packed (see Step 4), a full serving or fruit may not be necessary. A few grapes may suffice, or a vegetable (such as corn on-or-off-the-cob), or perhaps even a small dessert as a stand-in. (See Step 9.)
7. THE ENTREE: The entree should ensure my child a balance of all three macronutrients: protein, carbohydrates, and quality fats. (Whole grains whenever possible/tolerated.) Acceptable entrees include but are not limited to a turkey “sandwich” (the low-sodium turkey breast must be packaged separately from the whole-grain potato bread, as they are not actually consumed as a single unit), Spanish rice (Uncle Ben’s brand) and beans, spaghetti with tomato sauce and a TON of cheese (which would also fulful the dairy requirement — see Step 5), rice and “Mexico” cheese (ditto on the dairy), lo-mein noodles (be certain to supplement with milk), and turkey sausage or meatballs with a whole-grain potato roll on the side. There needn’t necessarily be a discernible entree, so long as reasonable protein and caloric requirements have been met. For instance, a lunch consisting of V8, rice cakes, yogurt, craisins, and shelled sunflower aka “sunny” seeds would be perfectly acceptable — and is a great favorite.
8. GOOD FATS: Seeds and seed oils are some of the best sources of polyunsaturated fatty acids available. (Please note that my child has a nut allergy.) Every lunch should help ensure that he is getting sufficient amounts of these in his diet. Sunny seeds and/or sesame oil (over noodles) are a great supplement to any meal, but chips cooked in certain oils — such as sunflower, safflower, or canola — may also suffice. My son eats both yellow corn chip and “monkey chips,” and he has never met a potato chip he hasn’t liked. Also, as discussed in Step 4, all milk should contain at least 32 mg of DHA per 8 oz serving.
9. THE DESSERT: Desserts are optional and should appear sporadically. They should be small, preferably free of artificial dyes and ingredients (my reputation with his teachers is at stake here), and serve to both educate and entertain. Trader Joe’s Cinnamon School Book Cookies are ideally suited to this purpose, although it is crucial to take the time to securely wrap each individual word in aluminum foil so that my child is not forced to deal with a jumble of letters. Also, the word must plainly match the word-of-the-day in the note. (See Step 10.) Fortune cookies make great accompaniments to “China food.”
10. THE NOTE: To be penned on a single heart-shaped sticky note, preferably red, though pink would also be acceptable. Holiday-themed sticky pads may be substituted whenever appropriate. Due the inherently unreliable stickiness of Post-It notes (as well as the cheap knockoffs), the note should be secured with tape to another lunch item — preferably a container, but a ziplock bag will also suffice. Note the note should never be attached to cold item due to the risk of condensation-related water damage.)
The lunchtime love note should begin with a formal greeting (either ‘dear’ or ‘hi’ will do) followed by my child’s name, and end with a ‘<3 [lunch packer’s name].’ Black or blue ink. If the sticky note is a color other than red, the heart should be shaded in with red ink.
The body of the note MUST contain a three or four-letter sight word suitable to the content of the message. This sight word should highlighted (either underlined or all in capitals) and then S-P-E-L-L-E-D out, either immediately following the sentence which includes the sight word (i.e., “have a good day today!” D-A-Y) or just before the signature. As mentioned above, the body of these love notes should include well-wishes, interesting facts, information, and/or social prompts.
The love note is — and ought to be recognized as — the most essential component of my child’s lunch. Because without the inclusion of that red (or pink) heart-shaped (or Christmas tree-shaped) sticky note in my son’s lunch bag (or box), my child will feel as if he’s been abandoned, his teachers will assume he is being neglected, I will have failed in my duties as a mother, and Child Protective Services will undoubtedly crucify me. Which is why I make a point of being the BEST. LUNCH-PACK. EVER.
Here’s an idea: what if I were in charge of setting a state-mandated school lunch policy for ALL preschool children, and given unilateral discretion to determine what parents are required to send in with their kids — regulations which, if violated in the least, would end in confiscation, weighty fines, public humilation, suspension, and possibly even loss of custody for repeat offenders. (Note to self: I’ve found my calling!)