School lunch concern day, contains book review of Lunch Lessons

Today I'm posting a question and a book review all rolled into one, and the topic is school lunches and our problems with them. (Blossom is "helping" me by chasing the cursor on the screen. Kittens. Whee.)

First, a question from Emily:

"Hello -- I'm anxious about getting plastic out of my life but I am completely stumped about what sorts of containers to use for packing lunches. I bought a metal bento-box-esque tin in Chinatown but 1.) it's impossible for a small child to open 2.) it leaks and 3.) I think it might actually be aluminum, which -- I think -- isn't great either. I've dorked around on the Internet looking for ideas but haven't turned up much. Glass seems dangerous and heavy. Do you or your readers have any ideas? (possibly people don't think it's that dangerous to pack food in plastic, or certain kinds of plastic...happy to hear good reasons to support that thought too)"

Well, I think plastic is dangerous and scary, too, and am scared at how it's absolutely everywhere. But it didn't really seem to be as big an issue in my life until we started Kindergarten a few weeks ago. I'm kind of stuck at this point, because the choices seem to be a) let him eat school lunch every day, which I think may actually be plastic (actual quote from last week on the first day he asked to eat school lunch instead of bringing it: "I don't know what it was but it was good and I dipped it in ketchup!"), b) keep putting organic "baby" carrots into ziplock plastic baggies, thereby putting lipstick on a pig, or c) spend $30 at ReusableBags.com on the Laptop Lunchbox set (more about that later).

[I thought I'd maybe solved the problem by considering getting a thermos-type food container to send hot soup or bi-bim-bap or something like that with him every day. But when I asked about that he uttered the cryptic "I only like cold foods at lunch because we only don't go out to play when it's raining." Um, OK. No hot bi-bim-bap for lunch. Got it.]

Which segues into my review of the book Lunch Lessons: Changing the Way We Feed Our Children by Ann Cooper and Lisa M. Holmes. The intro of the book was beginning to irk me, because we got a lot of statistics about how school lunches are so horrible for kids, and are contributing to both this huge obesity epidemic and the harmful consumer culture that's sweeping over us like a tidal wave. And then they talked about how well the kids eat at a private school in the Hamptons (a very wealthy area of Long Island, NY) of which one of the authors is the chef. And I thought, "Fabulous. They're scaring the crap out of us and then bragging about how their school is so great, but none of this is within reach of normal kids or parents." But then...

...they tell you how other schools and districts changed their crappy lunch programs into nutritious programs the kids are really into. Followed by a chapter on starting to break the cycle of crappy foods and choices that are bad for the environment. And then there's a chapter about what kids' actual nutritional requirements are that was helpful and realistic and doesn't make you feel guilty. They talk a ton about farmers and making sure kids can participate in and understand about how food is grown, and that they really understand the life cycle of the foods they're eating.

They have a whole bunch of nutritious, mostly-delicious-sounding recipes that you can make for breakfast or pack for your child's lunch. But the book is really focusing on lunch programs that are nutritious and help teach kids about how food is grown, and how you can try to get some of those principles into the lunch program at your child's school. It's simultaneously raising a huge alarm about how important but minimized school lunch is, and giving you the ammunition and morale to start making good changes on small and bigger scales. I love this quote about why they're working for change and encouraging us to, too:

"It may seem overwhelming to take on something as large as the National School Lunch Program (NSLP), and it would no doubt be infinitely easier just to use the recipes in this book and cook more healthfully for your own children than it would be to take on the larger system.  But for us, there are two major reasons to fight this fight. First, we have a moral obligation...The second reason is that kids learn habits, both good and bad, around their peers....It's not about changing the entire National School Lunch Program at once, it's about changing one school and one district at a time, just as the early proponents of the NSLP did."
p.32

If you send your kid's lunch to school, the authors recommend the Laptop Lunches bento box system.

Lunchlessons

(The photo on the front of the book is a Laptop Lunches box.) They go through the different kinds of plastic, and which are safest and least safe. The plastic the Laptop Lunches is made of is the safest kind. You pay a little more for that, and because they're made in California. But I'm getting to the point* that I'd rather spend $30 once on something that I know isn't leeching chemical into my child's food, and which is super kid-friendly and might inspire him to actually eat all the stuff I pack, than just keeping on buying ziplock bags (spending way more than $30 a year) that get thrown away and aren't good for us anyway. (You can buy one at www.laptoplunches.com, but I ordered mine from www.reusablebags.com because I also got another Sigg water bottle for my 2-year-old in the same order. The Sigg bottles are expensive, but are virtually indestructible, and are of aluminum with an inert lining so nothing leeches into the liquids in the bottle. Plus the kids think they're way cooler than sippy cups. And I've never lost one, while I've lost more than a dozen sippy cups over the years, so financially I'm coming out ahead vs. sippy cups, and far far ahead vs. buying bottles of water on the go.)

Of course it's easy for me to say that, since my Laptop Lunches set just got here yesterday, so this morning is our first day. He may come home from school not having eaten anything, or having thrown away half the set accidentally, or telling me it's not cool so he ate the school mystery lunch again. If I've learned nothing else from this parenting gig, I've learned that we all just do the best we can at every given time, but the kids can screw up our well-intentioned work without even realizing it. (I can't be the only one who's had the thought that parenting would be so much easier if it wasn't for the actual kids.)

And that's what I liked so much about Lunch Lessons. It doesn't go into it with the idea that anyone can feed their kids perfectly. It's just a process of continuing to try to improve the choices we offer (all) our kids within our own personal set of constraints and resources. So Emily, the authors would probably tell you to try the Laptop Lunches set if you can afford it, but otherwise look for containers made of plastic types 2, 4, and 5. Avoid plastics type 1, 3, 6, and 7. Or try the stainless steel bento box set from ReusableBags.com.

I'll report back in a week or two on how our Laptop Lunches experiment is going.

*This recent round of Thomas recalls is contributing to that feeling.