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Pack your own lunch

It’s almost time to head back to school, and my daughter’s finally old enough to pack her own lunch. Not that she wasn’t actually old enough last year. But now she wants to.

When I was nine, I’d been making my own school lunches for at least a year, if only to save my sandwiches from my mother’s clutches and keep her from adding butter to the jam–something that did, and still does, make me absolutely nauseous. Emergency grossout prevention is the mother of lunch-making independence.

As many of my friends with same-age kids do, I worry that I haven’t been pushing my daughter hard enough toward independence by having her fix her own lunch. Is it too late to impart the mysteries of the toaster oven? But all is not lost–the other morning she figured out how to cut up her own apples (she has braces and our orthodontist “charges extra for stupidity-related bracket repairs”). She doesn’t appear to have lost any fingers. So we’re good to go!

Which is fortunate because lately I’ve been seeing a slew of new books on how to pack your kid’s lunch–they range from “here are all the vegan-friendly brand-names that look just like everyone else’s school lunch, only cooler” to Alice Waters insisting that the first step is growing your own school garden (which I’m actually in favor of, but not if it means waiting 6-8 weeks for your lunch to germinate).

Few of these fabulously sophisticated new books even consider the things I took to school every day as a kid–peanut butter and jelly, apple, carrots and celery. Or peanut butter and jelly, orange, carrots and celery. My mother was dull. My sister and I had no cool foods like Ho-Hos or Cheetos to distract us, and we usually ate at least some of the vegetables and the apple. Actually, so did most of the other kids in our school. It was that or suffer the cafeteria kale. And almost no one was fat. I’d like to point that out.

Hip mamas today (mostly those still in their 30s) look horrified at my daughter’s lunches because out there in hipland PBJ on whole wheat is so…so ’70s. It doesn’t contain any of the seventy-two essential nutritional supplement buzzwords (like selenium and phytoestrogens and antioxidant) they’re convinced all healthy food has to have (well, it’s true you have to have those things on the label to compete in the ads). And it has fat. And sugar!

But you know what? A decent peanut butter and jelly sandwich on whole wheat is a lot better deal nutritionally than most of the prepackaged, often self-righteously labeled, crap the hip kids bring to school these days. Much of it is along the lines of Kraft Foods’ “Lunchables”–a processed meat and cheese cracker kind of thing packed with some ersatz juice and faky side items like jello and  candies (not even, as I check belatedly, a tiny tin of applesauce–and check out the Lunchables nutrition and ingredient stats!). But you know how popular these things are–because they’re a kit. Buy five boxes, throw one  in your kid’s backpack each day. They stack neatly in the pantry.

Very few of these children ever bring a substantial serving of fresh vegetables or actual fruit–not even apples. Those require washing, peeling–maybe even cutting up. And sometimes the apples turn a little brown on the cut sides. Organic fair-trade labeling aside, any remotely fruit-like substances in the hip-kids’ lunch bags arrive in a rectangular cardboard box with a plastic overwrap, a plastic straw attached, and a sanitized-for-your-protection seal. No wonder they stare.

Anatomy of a PBJ:

Straight-up peanuts-only butter (no salt, no sugars, no mono- and diglycerides, no emulsifiers or BHT or “natural flavoring” or any of the rest of it) has about 16 grams of fat per 2 T (1 oz) serving. True. Absolutely true. But it’s not the same as the heart-stopping blubber you find on a piece of meat, so stop shrieking. Most of the oil in natural peanut butter is polyunsaturated (the “good fat” kind of fat). And it separates (because of the lack of fakery and emulsifiers) so you can pour off a good bit of it if you want to when you first open the jar.

Furthermore, the same peanuts-only peanut butter contains 8 g protein, 3 g fiber, almost no sodium, and about 210 mg potassium. And a little iron. It’s a pretty good deal for a kid’s lunch item at about 200 calories.

Two slices of whole wheat bread without too much sodium or garbage ingredients gives you another 200 calories–we’re up to 400, but only 3 g. saturated fat, another 3-7 g fiber, another 4-6 g protein, and with a little care preferably less than 400 mg sodium (all from the bread). Add a spoonful of all-fruit jam with 8 g sugar, at about 35 calories, and you have something that will get your kid through school without tears or big sugar highs and lows.

It doesn’t have big vitamin- and calcium-fortified labeling. It doesn’t have a label. It’s not supposed to do it all on its own. Your kid will eat about half, maybe the whole thing if he or she is growing fast or running around a lot that week. But he or she will get the vitamins and calcium from the other things in the lunchbox–some crunchy raw vegetables and an apple or orange and a thermos or carton of plain unsweetened milk. That’s it and that’s enough.

Do your kid a huge favor and leave out all the chips, chocolate, go-gurt (real milk-and-cultures yogurt is ok, not the fake tapioca- and gelatin-stretched stuff), cookies, jello, sorta-applesauce, and fluorescent boxes of juice. School is hard enough without sugar crashes or cavities, and they don’t need any of it to have a good day.

Oh yeah. And for crying out loud, please skip the sushi. Your kid does NOT need to be that hip in the school cafeteria. Or that sick, if the sushi doesn’t stay cold enough.

(Why yes, I live in Southern California. What gave it away?)

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