What's in a Lunchbox?

A mom resists fruit chews.

I made up my lunch before I went to bed but still threw my son’s together without too much thought right before he left the house.
  • I made up my lunch before I went to bed but still threw my son’s together without too much thought right before he left the house.
  • Image by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.

Until recently, I packed my son's lunch in the morning, before he went off to school and I went off to work. I’d pack my own lunch at the same time, usually in the five minutes I had while he put on his shoes and laboriously tied his laces. Because of this rushed method, my lunch ended up being pitifully inadequate. Some days it was merely an apple and a teabag. Of course, the spartan lunch seemed like a good idea at seven in the morning when I was feeling fat and tired, but by noon my stomach was screaming to be fed and everything around me started to look edible.

It didn’t help that I worked in an elementary school and was surrounded by snacks of every possible variety. In the end, I’d end up eating much more than I would have had I brought even a substantial lunch. For example, by recess I’d have put away half a jelly doughnut from the staff lounge, several carrot sticks given to me by the teacher I worked with, some fossilized Twizzlers from an ancient classroom jar, and a few Tootsie Rolls from a perennial stash in the nurse’s office. Then I’d add to this menu at lunchtime with a slice of rubbery pizza left over from hot lunch, some more Twizzlers, and my apple. I’d wash this all down with a cup of tea made with microwaved water. Nutritionally, I’d probably have been better off with a hospital vending machine.

I could have gone on like this indefinitely, no doubt, despite the sneaking suspicion that I wasn’t doing myself any favors with my bad lunch habits, but a couple of events triggered a change in the way I made and viewed both my lunch and my son’s lunch. In the process I discovered a great deal about what goes into the average lunch these days and how, in this age of advanced information and technology, the lunchbox meal seems to have reentered the Stone Age.

The first catalyst for change occurred when I was perusing the stacks in my local bookstore. In between the children’s section and the novelty section where book-mad adults like me get sucked into buying any number of book-related knickknacks, I found a collection of lunchboxes. Not so odd, you’d say; lunch-boxes aren’t exactly an endangered species. These lunch-boxes, however, were different. Each was fashioned in the old style, that is to say metal with a hinged lid and hard plastic handle. There were three different designs to choose from: Little Lulu, Betty Boop, and Curious George. The major difference between these lunchboxes and the ones that had been around in my childhood was the size. The lunchboxes I stared at on the table were about half the length and depth of a regular lunch-box, making them not only nostalgic but cute, too. Despite what I thought was an inflated price, I had Little Lulu in my hand and was debating whether or not to buy it. I was undecided until I realized that the lunchbox was full. Inside, wrapped in plastic, was an assortment of all the candies I’d ever collected on Halloween. There was Bit-O-Honey (not worth the time it took to eat it), saltwater taffy (hell on dental work), and Red Hots (way too much cinnamon, not enough red-dye flavor). It was a killer package, and I was an immediate victim. I ended up buying three. I kept Little Lulu and gave Betty Boop to my sister and Curious George to my brother.

I was excited beyond all reasonable proportion over my lunchbox. I planned to actually use the thing. Because of its uniquely small size, I had to really think hard about what I was going to put in it. The items had to be small, perfectly proportioned, and all of a certain shape. I couldn’t, for example, fit an entire apple in the lunch-box and still be able to close it. A thermos was totally out of the question. What I ended up with then looked very similar to the kind of wooden shapes we ask children to put together to form a pattern when we are testing their ability to solve problems logically. I had a tiny juice box on one side, nestled next to a high-protein nutrition bar. With the remaining space, I was able to fit in a few thin slices of cheese and some apple slices. Occasionally, I went hog wild and put in some crackers to go with the cheese. The resulting density resembled that of a shot put.

I carried my new lunch-box to school with pride and soon became the object of much curiosity as the teachers unwrapped their Lean Cuisines, ate the staff-room doughnuts, and threw change into the soda machines for Diet Cokes.

“Isn’t that the most darling thing?”

“Only a tiny person like you could have such a tiny little lunchbox.”

“How can you get enough food in there for a decent lunch?”

“It’s so cute, where can I get one?”

Keep in mind, I was well into my 30s when this all occurred. If I had been only slightly younger, I wouldn’t have felt the inevitable pull of the past with its attendant hints of comfort and remembrances of a time when things were just plain simpler. I didn’t pack my new lunchbox with the items I’d had as a child. Those, I didn’t necessarily miss. However, I missed the solace of knowing that someone was there to take care of me and send me out into the world with a meal. Although I was now my own caretaker, I could still fool myself, via the lunchbox accoutrement, into thinking someone else was doing it.

This was all much more complicated than I’d bargained for when I bought my tiny lunchbox, but it illuminated two very important points. The first was that the lunchbox was still a very potent symbol, not just for me but for all the adults I worked with. The second was that if I was going to put so much effort into packing up my lunchbox, Td have to prepare it the night before. So I entered a sort of nether-state where I made up my lunch before I went to bed but still threw my son’s together without too much thought right before he left the house. That, too, would soon change.

The current state of the lunch within the box was thrown into sharp relief for me when Caroline, the teacher I worked with, decided that she wanted to teach a unit on nutrition. Our class, a group of six-, seven-, and eight-year-olds, came to us as part of a pullout program. Each one of them needed extra help with something different, whether that was reading, math, or behavior management.

I told Caroline I thought a unit on nutrition was a fabulous idea, that nutrition seemed to be the last thing on anybody’s mind, and that most of the parents and the teachers could probably use the information themselves. This was a notion brought home the very same morning by Mr. Watchman, a fifth-grade teacher who I witnessed eating a double-chocolate brownie at 8:30 a.m.

“Bill, how can you eat that so early?” I questioned. We were walking from the staff lounge to his classroom, and he scattered soft dark crumbs as he answered.

“Its okay,” he said, his words muffled by the brownie, “because I’m only having a Slim Fast shake for lunch.”

Caroline began her unit with a discussion of the food pyramid. Of course, she was something of a lunch nut herself. Every day she brought in a picnic-style cooler filled with enough food to support a family of four for a week in the event of a nuclear disaster. Thus, Caroline’s lunch provided a good model for the lesson she thought she was going to teach. When we had the kids bring in their lunchboxes, however, the lesson plan shifted abruptly. For example, Sara had sliced kiwi fruit in her lunch, but she also had fruit chews, a fruit roll-up, fruit juice, and one giant oatmeal cookie (“Because I didn’t give my mother a hard time this morning,” Sara explained). Technically, the fruit chews, fruit roll-up, and fruit juice didn’t count in the fruit group, each having less than 10 percent real fruit in its contents. Caroline was puzzled. “We’ll come back to you,” she told Sara. Kyle’s lunchbox offered up a can of caffeine-free Diet Coke and a prepackaged Rice Krispie treat. Caroline could not find a way to make the Diet Coke fit on the pyramid Technically, it wasn’t even a food (I should mention here that Kyle’s mother was a nutritional counselor for young women with eating disorders and was extremely upset when Kyle came home to tell her that what he had brought in his lunch was not considered a food by his teacher.)

David, who breakfasted at Burger King every morning on the way to school (“I have to take him or else he won’t get out of the car and go to school,” his mother said), brought in a cooler that matched Caroline’s in size. In fact, it was fully half as large as his whole body. Inside was an instant ramen soup mix and a thermos full of hot water. As was usual, David s mother had neglected to send a spoon.

“Noodles,” Caroline proclaimed, “go in the bread group.”

It was Marissa, however, who was really the star and the envy of the group. Marissa had brought a packaged lunch direct from the supermarket shelves. The little container sported sections for small taco chips, taco sauce, and shredded cheese. Also included were a plastic bottle of punch and some Oreos. There wasn’t one child at the table who didn’t covet Marissa’s lunch. Every one of them knew of these treats and the others in the same series: a pizza lunch, a deli-meat lunch, and a burrito lunch. Caroline turned the package over to read the long list of ingredients, most of which, once again, didn’t involve actual food. The oddest thing about Marissa’s lunch, though, was that her parents owned a Mexican restaurant I wondered about the logic her parents used in sending this particular item to school.

Caroline asked the kids to bring their lunches to class every day for a week. She was hoping that, with their new information, they’d start toting more balanced lunches to school. It didn’t quite turn out that way. All week, we saw more of the same. I started paying more attention on my lunch duty with the rest of the school population and saw similar trends: prepackaged lunches with chemical additives and attractive packaging, juice that was really water and corn syrup, and sweetened yogurt in tubes. Of course, I saw sandwiches, too, but not nearly in the numbers I expected. Peanut butter and jelly, it seemed, was just not stimulating enough. What I didn’t see at all were Twinkies, of any of the other snack cakes I had coveted as a child. Perhaps, I thought, that was now considered junk food.

Curious to discover if similar lunch trends lurked outside of my school, I traveled through all the supermarkets in my area and found the shelves stocked with rows and rows of the same brightly packaged processed foods I saw in the lunchroom. The selection extended to breakfast as well with cute little packages of half-dollar-sized cold pancakes, complete with an indentation of syrup on the side and cinnamon rolls with two kinds of coating (white frosting and “apple”). Nobody ever sang the praises of baloney or Ding Dongs, I thought, but, really, was it any worse than the stuff I was looking at? I compared ingredient lists for the old-time snack cakes and the new cinnamon rolls and found the snack cakes came out on top. At least they contained beef fat, a recognizable ingredient more common in food than in nuclear reactors. I came to the conclusion that the lunchbox contents I was seeing were just a reflection of some of the most basic trends in our society. Everything had to be faster, shinier, bigger, and brighter. Why make pancakes when you could buy them in a container and the kid could eat them in the car on the way to school? Why bother making a cake from scratch when you could buy a cookbook explaining how to dress up a boxed mix? Why send a loving letter in your child’s lunchbox when you could buy “Lunchbox Notes,” a book containing perforated prewritten notes written for just that purpose?

I never thought there would be a time when the ingredients on a Devil Dog actually looked healthful. I wondered what the next generation would come up with when they packed lunch-boxes for their own children. It wasn’t an appetizing thought.

For me, Caroline’s nutrition unit proved educational in ways she never imagined. Unfortunately, it also sparked the ire of several parents. Nobody, it seemed, wanted to be called on what they sent in their children’s lunch-boxes. I felt the same way and took my son’s lunchbox to task.

Although I would never have sent him to school with some of the prefab lunches I’d seen in the supermarket, I had been guilty of some infractions. I, too, had been seduced by the fruit chews, for one thing (they were made with some fruit juice, I reasoned). He also had a box of punch (real fruit juice, though), trail mix (sweet dried papaya, nuts, and raisins), chopped celery, and Fritos. In all, not bad, I thought, although I stopped buying the fruit chews and substituted the Fritos with natural corn chips. And then, once a week, I forced myself to bake. I made carrot muffins, zucchini muffins, and banana bread. I wanted him to have something made by me every day.

I wish I could say that I kept this up, but, like most of today’s parents, I yielded to time constraints and exhaustion and, after a while, the baking became a monthly rather than weekly event. Yet, Caroline’s nutrition unit had made a deep impression on me. Every time I put my son’s lunch together, I counted the food groups. More important than the nutritional components of my son’s lunch, however, were the emotional components. As soon as I purchased the Little Lulu lunchbox I knew this to be true. I wanted him to sense the love I felt for him when he opened his lunchbox, and I wanted him to eat good food This is what my parents wanted for me, I’m sure, even though they made mistakes with me just as I would make mistakes with my son. Mistakes were inevitable and part of the evolutionary process, not for lack of trying. Nor would any of my missteps occur while I could taste the memories of my own lunches in the boxes and brown bags of the children 30 years younger than I. Some things really don’t change, snack cakes notwithstanding.

What’s in a lunchbox?

Plenty, I say.

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