Have you ever slipped a healthy ingredient into your family’s dinner, hoping they wouldn’t notice? What would happen if your kids knew that the pan of brownies they just gobbled up were made with zucchini?
I once bought some new ice cream bars for my girls. They loved them, they begged me to buy more — until they discovered they were made from tofu. I have since enjoyed a sinister mom-kind of victory about that, although I’ve never lived it down in my daughters’ eyes.
Some things are just sneaky like that, especially life lessons. Our absorbent little sponges take in the most when they aren’t aware that they’re learning anything at all. If you want your son to learn responsibility and discipline, would you teach him from the dictionary or would you give him the daily job of feeding and walking the dog?
How about handing him an empty lunchbox? If he’s old enough to spread jelly on bread and zip a plastic bag, he should be able to pack his own lunch. You might want to check to make sure he doesn’t think an Eskimo Bar qualifies as a sandwich, but if you set up some guidelines, he’ll get the hang of it before long. And you might just be surprised by the character training and life skills zipped up inside.
Time management and planning skills: Kids tend to live in the present, so packing a lunch the night before school teaches them to plan ahead. Deciding how much food they’ll need, and varying their menu requires forethought. Invest in a small food thermos with a metal interior for soups and favorite leftovers. (Plastic may leach into hot foods.) And learning to jot their food requests down on your grocery list is also a lesson in natural consequences.
Budgeting and self-control: Even if you faithfully stock your pantry with lunch foods every week, the closer you get to shopping day, the slimmer the pickin’s get. But there are simple ways to make the lunchbox lifestyle more efficient. In our house, most snack foods and drinks that come individually wrapped are stored together and designated as “away from home” foods (i.e. school lunches, car rides, sports events), so we don’t run out as quickly. Since you pay more for individual packaging, steering the kids toward fresh foods and family-size packages at home saves money too, as long as they exercise portion control.
Being considerate: What exasperated parent hasn’t tried to settle an argument over who gets the last cookie? Who hasn’t heard someone yell, “I call the Cheetos!” when there’s only one package left? Did you ever stop to think that the practice of “calling” food legitimizes selfishness? If brother takes all the pudding cups and leaves the dried up raisins for sister, she’s going to compete for them next week. They might even resort to stashing food in their rooms. Help them internalize consideration for others by praising them when they share or forfeit something they like. No bribing here.
Students should also be mindful of classmates with severe food allergies. And if they’re lucky enough to have access to a microwave during lunch, make sure they don’t hold up everyone else’s lunch by bringing food that requires a long, elaborate warming process.
Healthy choices: Have a family powwow to agree on suitable lunchbox foods. As schools begin to serve healthier foods — and even banning some junk foods — brown-bagging students can jump on the natural food bandwagon too. The earlier you teach your sweet-toothed cookie monsters about healthy eating habits (notice, I said habits), the more likely their palates will grow accustomed to nutritious foods. That’s not to say it won’t be a daily challenge to choose an apple over a snack cake, but you can’t expect students to concentrate in class if they’re riding a roller coaster of blood sugar highs and lows.
Peer pressure: In some grades, everything is either cool or lame. Trendy Taylor will sneer at the “wrong” character on a lunchbox, or hyper Henry will make gagging faces at ethnic foods. Here’s just another opportunity for your kids to swim against the stream.
Encourage them to be confident in their personal tastes and cultural heritage instead of caving in to conformity.
No lunch left behind: Packing a lunch every night is one thing. Remembering to take it every morning is another. Being accountable for both teaches responsibility. Help your children create clever ways to check for their lunch, homework, etc. before they leave the house in the morning. Also, give them emergency hot-lunch money to keep as a backup plan in case they do forget. Now, if that “accidentally” happens every time the cafeteria serves their favorite chicken nuggets, you might just resign to hot lunch those days!
Remember, rules are meant to be broken. Sometimes, as a mom, I simply want to pack my girls’ lunches as an act of love. Occasionally I do it when we’ve had a busy night. Believe it or not, since it’s not normally “my job,” they really do appreciate it when I do it for them. And yes, sometimes it makes me feel needed as my kids become more independent.
Just for the record, tonight as I write this article, I’ll admit that I need to interrupt my work and go pack a lunch because someone had a lot of homework tonight. And I don’t mind a bit.