Editor’s note: I wrote this column in 2009, not long after I started writing about food for the Statesman. As you can read at the bottom of the story, Sinda’s daughters are now in high school, and though they made their lunches all through middle school, they now eat the school lunch.
The week before I started second grade, my mom told me she wouldn’t be making my lunch anymore.
I’d just turned 8. It wasn’t just that my mom, a teacher in another rural town not far from our own, wouldn’t have time in the morning to make sandwiches for my sister and me. “I didn’t want you to feel like you were an elitist who was too good for school lunch,” she says now.
I was both a picky eater and the new kid in a small school, and I knew the reputation school lunches had. We’d just moved to Missouri, and I was already self-conscious about how my new classmates would view me, so I decided I’d make my own lunch.
With the exception of pizza or chicken patty days on the school’s menu, I made my lunch every day for 11 school years. My mom says she was surprised that I stuck with it for more than just a few weeks.
With school starting soon for many area students, maybe this is the year your kids start making their own lunch.
Sinda Mitchel’s daughters, Hannah and Hazel, started making their own lunches last year when they were in first and second grades at Austin Montessori School, where Mitchel says the culture encourages kids to do as much for themselves as possible. “Not only are they expected to have good food, but they are expected to be as independent as they can be,” she says. Before each school day, the girls pack a lunch that includes a grain, protein, fruit, vegetable and sometimes dairy, and no prepackaged foods are allowed. But within these rules, she says, anything in the house is fair game.
“It wasn’t hard for me to let it go,” Mitchel says. She says it would be easier to just do it for them, but she’d rather give them the opportunity to build a healthy relationship with food, to learn what they like, how much makes them full and how to prepare it. “The more choices we give them, the better,” she says.
For the first three years I made my own lunch, my choice was turkey and cheese sandwiches (no mayo) or peanut butter and jelly. Then I started to get more creative, packing favorite snacks like cheese quesadillas or cottage cheese and black olives in Tupperware containers.
I learned tricks for packing food to be eaten later. To stop pickles from leaking out of plastic baggies, you have to wrap them in paper towels. Chicken noodle soup stays warm in a Thermos. Crackers stored in the same bag with cheese get soggy by lunchtime.
I had always enjoyed grocery shopping with my mom, but now I had a vested interest in what went in the cart. I learned early not to ask for Lunchables because my mom showed me how many more crackers and cheese you could buy for less per serving. As we strolled the aisles, instead of indulging every gimmicky prepackaged food I reached for, my mom explained how that kind of food is marketed toward children and where to find the better-tasting, more-healthful and less-expensive alternatives. After all, she was making her lunch with what we bought, too.
My mom, who is a guidance counselor now, knew she was empowering my sister and me by not doing everything for us. “Anytime kids have input in what they eat or do with their time or the rules that are made, it makes them more responsible,” she says.
Of course, making my lunch every single day was a bummer sometimes, but once it became routine, I started to look forward to it, especially when I graduated to a cafeteria with a microwave. Hello, leftovers.
In high school, my football player buddies would complain about their mothers, who’d made them another turkey sandwich even though they’d asked for ham. “Make your own damn sandwiches,” I remember thinking to myself as I enjoyed reheated lasagna or Chinese takeout from the night before.
I grew to relish the control over what I ate. I knew how to make what I liked to eat, or at least how to reheat it. As you can imagine, these skills carried me into college: I already knew how to feed myself, which was one less thing to learn when I moved out.
“My ultimate goal was to raise independent daughters,” my mom says.
We got there, one sandwich at a time.
UPDATE: Mitchel says that her daughters, who are a junior and senior in high school, respectively, continued to prepare their own lunched through middle school. When they got to high school, they started to eat the cafeteria food but continued to cook at home. “Hazel cooked fresh lobsters for Thanksgiving a few years ago, and makes the most amazing pavlovas,” her mom writes. “Hannah loves to poach eggs and make scratch dumplings in chicken broth for a midnight snack, so they both have the cooking bug.”
She says that they are both adventurous eaters and afraid to try anything. “They have an appreciation of food. I never have to cater meals or restaurant choices to them, which I appreciate so much.”