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Lunch-packing crunch

Rachael O. Phillips

Packing school lunches this year? I will send you a sympathy card. Plus a few insights gained from years of therapy.

Let’s discuss your compulsion to rise at ungodly hours to pack lunches every day. Why do we consider this normal? Imagine the reaction of an alien mother from the planet Zoraxx who never, in her 400 years, has packed even one lunchbox: “Honey, what are you thinking? Sending bags of food to school cafeterias full of food?”

Interplanetary viewpoints aside, I feel your pain. I, too, packed lunches. Along with many parents today, I allowed shivery, quivery stomach memories from my school lunches past to influence me. During the ‘60s, choices were thought to be confusing for children. School cafeterias followed this credo to the max. No a la carte. No salad bar. Just a meal that met 700 percent of federal fat requirements. Although a few kids brought Howdy Doody lunch boxes, my cruel mother refused to pack 25 lunches a week.

What attitude. After all, she didn’t go to work or school. She needed stuff to keep her busy and out of trouble.

My parents also excused themselves on the grounds that a day’s worth of school lunches for five kids cost $1.25. They couldn’t feed us hay for that price. They even had the gall to wish they, too, could eat school lunches.

Years later, I understood their viewpoint. My children’s school menus sounded delicious! This may have been due to the fact my own lunch consisted of a week-old Happy Meal and a half-chewed teething cookie. I tried to sneak into the school cafeteria line, but I got carded. Sigh.

Given this perspective, what made me abandon the you-will-clean-your-plate-and/or-die approach? Fear, plain and simple. My children weighed less than their tennis shoes. If each lost five pounds, the teachers might mark them absent.

So I ensured their survival by packing lunches. I remembered who ate mustard on the top piece of bread, who ate mayonnaise on the bottom and who considered Grey Poupon a culinary invention of the devil. Still, my little lunch police rendezvoused during recess to make sure I had not committed fraud. They measured cheese slices, weighed turkey bologna and counted the peanuts in granola bars.

Though I did my best, I committed the unforgivable sin: I sent vegetables in their lunches. Not even normal vegetables, like celery and carrots. I confess to my shame that I sent sliced turnips.

Only later did I comprehend the dire consequences of my transgression. One slice of turnip in a school lunch might trigger lifetime exile from the popular tables, where everyone ate prefabricated food and jockeyed for a seat beside the girl whose cousin was a rock star. My children found themselves banished to tables occupied by kids whose mothers also had committed mortal sin by concealing dangerous weapons, such as zucchini, in muffins. 

At least they couldn’t trade away the turnips. Even kids with hummus brownies refused to touch turnips.

One daughter wreaked revenge on me for ruining her lunchtime social life. Either that, or she did not realize trash cans had been invented. Daily after eating, she carefully combined banana peels, bologna sandwich fragments and, of course, turnips. She simmered them in her locker a semester or two, then brought them home to Mother. I didn’t know turnips could grow tentacles.

Some might say I deserved this.

I say, not even the kid’s mother who made hummus brownies deserved this.

And no matter what Mama of planet Zoraxx thinks, lunch-packing instilled character into my family. As a mother, I stood my nutritional ground despite the constant perils of Turnip Ferment Plague. Later, despite living with college roommates who subsisted on ramen noodles with Cheeto sauce, my kids actually bought and ate fresh vegetables.

The daughter who recycled her lunchboxes into Petri dishes now packs school lunches for her offspring.

I will send her a sympathy card, too. And enclose a few slices of turnip.