The Drevitches, Week 31: We Are What We Pack

Filed under: Healthy Families Challenge

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Have lunchboxes, will eat healthy. Credit: Gary Drevitch

When I was a kid, lunch was easy.

I brought my meal from home every day, first in my Adam-12 lunchbox, then in my Six Million Dollar Man lunchbox, and then in my King Kong lunchbox. It was, most often, American cheese on pumpernickel bread (sometimes we'd splurge on bologna or salami), with a snack-size box of raisins. I never even considered getting school lunch until I was in high school.

But, as with so many things, my kids expect better. Benjamin, 10, and Natalie, 8, bring lunch from home about half the time, and get school lunch on other days. (Happily, we don't have to worry about the nutrition of those meals anymore, since our public school scrapped its old high-sodium, high-fat, high-carb menu for healthier meals from Wellness in the Schools, an organization committed to improving children's eating and fitness here in New York City and elsewhere.) Adam, 4, brings lunch from home daily, except on his pre-K's once-a-week pizza day.

Our mainstay packed-lunch sandwich is hummus on multigrain bread. Muenster cheese is second-most-common. And, once a week, there is tunafish, which I make with a conservative dollop of mayo and a bold scoop of Grey Poupon. The kids would eat it every day, but we follow federal guidelines and limit them to tuna fish (and its inherent mercury) once a week.

Whether they plan to get their lunch entrée from school or not, the kids take lunchboxes to school each day, stocked with snacks. So there's pressure on us to make those snacks healthy.

We certainly try.

Every day, each child takes a Trader Joe's organic cinnamon apple sauce cup to school -- Benjamin and Adam tote Red Sox lunchboxes, by the way; Natalie carries a Hello Kitty design, although she now feels she's outgrown it. Each kid also gets a fruit or granola bar: a Trader Joe's blueberry bar for Adam and a fig bar for Benjamin, and a Kashi TLC almond crunch granola bar for Natalie. And they bring a small sandwich bag containing a handful of cookies, usually something like Trader Joe's organic letter-shaped Schoolbox variety, or the market's chocolate cat-shaped cookies. Sometimes, when we have them around the house -- after Halloween or Valentine's Day, for example -- we'll throw a few candies in the boxes as well.

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As much effort as we put into packing healthy lunches and snacks at the kitchen counter at 7 a.m., unfortunately, we can't control what the children do with that food in the cafeteria at noon. This is the reality all parents face. If a CSI team were to bring the kids' lunchboxes back to the crime lab most days, they'd probably discover by analyzing the scattered crumbs that the cookies went first; that the sandwich, if it was finished at all, went next; and that the fruit bar was eaten at a later time, and perhaps in a different place. And those lab boys could dust Benjamin and Natalie's apple sauce cups for prints for a week -- they wouldn't find anything.

When I spoke to our school's Wellness in the Schools chef Stefanie Devic recently, she talked about what she sees kids carry to school -- a lot of sugary, fattening, juice drinks (which my kids don't drink, because we don't offer them, and because they simply don't like them much); a lot of candy; a lot of peanut butter; and, in some cases, some healthy soups in thermoses or bento-box-style lunches. Her advice was to mix things up and go beyond sandwiches, to pack containers of healthy pasta salads with vegetables, say, or hummus on a wrap, or soups without meat or cheese that can remain good even as they cool down after going in a thermos. These seemed like good ideas for my kids' lunches, which are pretty routinized.

But the tip that really struck home was to be more creative with leftovers when packing lunchboxes. Our dinners are healthy here, with fresh home-cooked chicken or fish, usually with rice and broccoli or carrots. Why not chop some of that up and send it to school?

In the few weeks left in the school year, we'll give it a shot -- and be prepared to send the lunchboxes back to the CSI lab to find out for sure what got eaten, and when.

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Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.