Dad Packs the Lunch

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    Dad_unchIt seemed like a good idea at the time. And how hard could it be, anyway? A sandwich, some cookies, a nice, ripe piece of fruit. A whimsical mix of the bedrock food groups, all prepared by my loving hand each morning. Plus, in the delicate balance of parental household labor, here was a chance for me to hold up my end.

    It was settled. It was win-win. Dad would make the kids’ lunches.

    Then school started.

    I can’t tell you exactly when our kids grabbed the controls of the lunch train and sent it hurtling down the wrong set of tracks, but I suppose it started in the housewares section of Target. As anyone sending children off to school in the twenty-first century knows, the days of lunch packed in a brown paper bag are definitely over. Nowadays, you’re nobody if you don’t have a brand-new, thermal-cooled, double-zippered, quart-sized meal container to carry your lunch, a snack, and maybe a juicebox or two. She’s ten and wants one with pop art flowers. He’s eight and determined to have army camouflage. Trust me, you won’t find these on aisle five at Kroger.

    Fine. No problem. This is a good thing. Because if I were to usher the children into a new era of healthy eating – and carve out a special niche in their hearts along the way – I needed lunch satchels big and sturdy enough to hold all the nutritious food they would soon learn to love. And as the school year kicked into high gear, the lunches I created were positively gourmet in their ambition. As every box and food wrapper from the store proclaimed, we included only the finest ingredients.Low-sodium deli meats. Multi-grain wheat bread. Tomatoes, cucumbers, and only the freshest lettuce. Snack-size Greek yogurts. Nature Valley granola bars. Organic grapes. It was enough to make the great pharaoh of the vaunted food pyramid blush.

    And let us pause long enough for me to pat myself on the back yet again. For only a true morning maestro could pack the lunches and feed the kids breakfast; make sure homework found its way to backpacks; brew coffee and toast a muffin for Mom; and usher an aging beagle with bladder-control issues out the back door before she explodes. All this, and even with “frontloading”— putting obvious lunch items out on the kitchen counter the night before—we still open and close the fridge so many times before eight o’clock that we’ve given up all hope of getting an Energy Star credit for low-power use.

    So kids and lunches went out the door on schedule every day. And from on high, I saw that it was good. And I rested. Until the lunches came back.And the complaining began.

    The first sign of trouble came from the containers themselves. In the first few weeks, opening the totes at the end of the day helped me see how well I’d gauged food quantity and variety. I’d sift through the crumpled Ziploc bags and chemical-free plastic containers like an anthropologist studying the culture of a faraway tribe. Adjust the number of whole-grain crackers here, I’d think.Add a second small Fuji apple there.Maybe try some animal crackers?

    But when entire menu categories started to boomerang back unopened and untouched, I started to wonder if maybe the natives had taken up some sort of hunger strike. Which, it turned out, they had. Will informed me that while he enjoys mini carrots, he would no longer eat them unless they were accompanied by a small container of cucumber ranch dressing. Lucy whined that bananas made everything in her lunch smell like bananas. Will spurned imperfect fruit; apples with bruises or gashes just ended up back in our kitchen. Lucy refused to break the wrapper on any breakfast bar that wasn’t raspberry-flavored.

    The grievances mounted as mid-year approached. No nuts of any kind in sandwich bread, please. Yes, grapes are nice, but not if they’re the green ones.I’m told that chocolate-covered pretzels don’t go with peanut butter, for reasons I still can’t fathom. An all-out revolt occurs when I make sandwiches with strawberry jam instead of the usual grape. And don’t think for a minute about trying to pack anything exotic. I suggest including healthy hummus but get frowns and an immediate retort. “It looks like duck vomit, Daddy!”

    I don’t even try to turn the tide by entering into rational discussion (“yes, but does it taste like duck vomit?”), so I push back in small ways instead.

    Unopened items that return home simply get sent back to school in the next day’s lunch. Back and forth go the unopened fruit cups, sticks of string cheese and moldering fruit as we play a game of chicken, with father and children wondering who will blink first.Will the food eventually go down their sullen, ungrateful throats, or will I end up just tossing it all in the trash?

    Now, with spring upon us, I’ve learned that the only thing harder than getting them to eat what they don’t like is to get them to stop eating what they do like. So lunch has become as bland as a prison meal. Peanut butter, Oreos and Cheese-Its, day after predictable day. I suppose I could obsess, but why fight it? Look, they’re not gonna starve. Besides, in my own brown-bag days, I lived on Pringles, Double-Stuff and chocolate pudding, too. And here I am to tell you all about it. Which is why when yet another sandwich came back uneaten the other day, I did the only sensible thing.

    I blinked. And ate it.