Food & dining

Already feeling back-to-school lunchbox angst? You’re not alone.

Eloise and Pierce Brault help their mother, Caitlin McCormick-Brault, make quiche.
Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff
Eloise and Pierce Brault help their mother, Caitlin McCormick-Brault, make quiche.

Quiche: a brunch staple. A pleasant workday potluck offering. Maybe something you bring to a convalescing relative when a flower arrangement just won’t do.

Also, it’s the only dish that 5-year-old Pierce Brault will eat for school lunch. The Brighton tyke takes his with ham and cheese, preferably with a whole grain crust from Whole Foods.

“I’ve become the ‘quiche lady,’ ” says his mother, Caitlin McCormick-Brault. “This summer, we’ve had a respite from quiche, but during the school week, we have to make sure that we have quiche in the house at all times. If we send sandwiches, well, he doesn’t like sandwiches. My husband has been up at 1 a.m. to make a quiche so that it can be cool for the next day.”

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McCormick-Brault is one of countless parents bracing for the start of the school year, not because of busier schedules, sports, or homework — but because of her child’s lunch time desires.

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“My son has been late to school because his quiche has been late. We’ve told his teacher, ‘I’m sorry we’re late, but we had to make the quiche. They call him ‘quiche boy,’ ” she says with a laugh.

Flynn Monks has a similar routine. The Arlington father of two wakes up at 6 a.m. to prepare his son’s lunch. Basically, it’s like “Groundhog Day.”

“I always do the same amount: Yogurt drink from Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods. Little Tupperware cups of sliced-up oranges, apples, strawberries. Trader Joe’s fig bars. A handful of goldfish crackers,” he says. He considers this fair (and rather stress-free), since his wife typically handles dinner.

“It’s harder for me to fully conceptualize a meal,” he says.

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Yes, for every parent who artfully arranges carrot sticks, cucumber origami, and triangular sandwiches into a bento box, it seems there are plenty more who desperately peer into their refrigerator looking for the last log of string cheese or rush into school with hastily baked quiche.

“I’ve had so many parents tell me about lunch issues in conferences. I can do my best to pass messages along to the cafeteria helpers, but there are 120 or more kids there at a time,” says Jaime Church, a kindergarten teacher in Waltham.

Among the complaints: Not enough time to eat, too much time to eat, too many choices, concern over food-sharing and cafeteria noise levels (“It can cause real anxiety for some kids,” says Church), and worries over whether enough food is actually being consumed.

“I also wonder if parents worry about being judged if they didn’t pack fruit or avocado that day,” says Church.

Why is a simple meal so fraught?

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“It’s the Bermuda Triangle of kid pickiness, lack of time, and a lack of good ideas and resources,” sums up Somerville’s Stephanie Toews Moeling, whose 16-year-old daughter sometimes only eats a bag of Fritos for lunch.

“She can be pro-banana one day, then no more bananas for six months,” Toews Moeling laments. “She went on a ham and cheese kick — and then over the course of two to three weeks, the sandwiches began coming home uneaten. These are first-world problems, and I feel guilty even talking about them, but I have completely failed my child in this regard. I’m a good parent in a lot of ways, but I’m getting a D-plus at lunch.”

Lunch is different from other meals, Toews Moeling says, because it’s more open-ended.

“I do all sorts of meal prep for dinners at Market Basket. Breakfast is boxed cereal, oatmeal, or eggs. It’s regimented. But lunch is more grab it as we go,” she says.

Lunch also carries the stress of external influences and other people’s children. Parents of kids with allergies, for instance, suffer a higher level of lunch time loathing. One rogue peanut butter sandwich or hard-boiled egg can lead to danger.

“It stresses me out constantly,” says Dedham mom Christine Stonier, whose 2-year-old son, Chase, attends day care and is allergic to foods including peanuts, eggs, mustard, and sesame.

“It’s a base level of stress all the time. I totally worry about trading lunches,” she says.

Stonier spends roughly eight hours per week cooking and baking safe foods, like mac and cheese blended with white beans and squash. (She keeps a Google document listing food manufacturers and their ingredients to make shopping easier.) In the mornings, she spends a half-hour parceling the food into toddler-size portions. And she has taught Chase that while sharing might be good in other instances, it’s not appropriate for lunch time at school. A teacher monitors him during meal time to prevent accidents, and Stonier has asked teachers to make sure his classmates wash their hands after meals and snacks to prevent cross-contamination.

“I feel like such a helicopter parent. I hate to ask other people to do this,” she says.

She’s justified, though helicopter lunch monitors can complicate things. School lunch serves many crucial needs for families: Many children rely on the nutrition in free or reduced-price school lunches. And when kids repeatedly show up at school with paltry lunches, teachers and administrators can intervene appropriately.

But this can backfire when well-meaning people equate edited lunches with hungry kids, as was the case with Erin McManus’s “super-picky” rising second-grader whose lunch usually consisted of yogurt, hummus, and strawberries. Despite this assortment, he eventually arrived home with a bill in his backpack for hot lunches, which included pizza and chips. This was an unwelcome surprise for McManus, who hovers at the cutoff for a reduced school lunch anyway.

“They meant well. They thought his parents forgot to pack lunch,” she says. “But we can’t afford to be paying for two lunches.”

She met with his teacher, who referred her to the school nurse and principal, and she explained her son’s whims. The kid likes what he likes: Market Basket plain yogurt topped with cinnamon.

“We can’t even get the single-serve ones. We have to get a bigger container and scoop it into smaller Tupperware,” she says. “He says the single servings don’t taste the same.”

Some parents are trying to change this cafeteria culture. Take Enrica Kruse, an Arlington mother who runs a group called Arlington Public Schools: More Time to Eat. Kruse is from Italy and feels that American culture has contributed to unhealthy lunch stress.

“I kept hearing from parents every day the same two complaints: Children don’t have enough time to eat in the public schools in Arlington, and the lunch bags are still full when they come home,” she says.

It’s a vicious cycle.

“Without someone strictly supervising the lunch period, kids become distracted, badly behaved, and only want to eat dessert. Parents then see lunches that come home uneaten, and the schools become convinced that the kids have plenty of time to eat. . . . This leads to a dysfunctional cycle. Parents start packing sugary [things] because they fear their child not eating at all. The schools can see that the kids eat their chocolate and chips in 10 minutes and then become unruly — why not cut the lunch time even shorter, so they can go play or do something else?” she asks.

For some parents, though, school lunch is a stress salvation.

“We don’t like to cook and shop, everyone has different food restrictions, and nobody wants to prepare meals,” says Stephanie Hirsch, whose three children attend Somerville Public Schools and buy lunch every day. “In my opinion, the food is really good in Somerville. . . . Every meal is half fruits and vegetables, [usually] locally sourced. We have a farm-to-school produce program. They get one quarter whole grains and one quarter lean proteins. When our kids are at school, they eat better than they do at our house.”

And for those who can afford it — and for kids with more adventurous palates — lunch time meal-prep services have become a hot commodity. Take Nomsly, a lunch delivery service that launched in June and operates out of Boston’s CommonWealth Kitchen. No soggy jelly sandwiches or crumbled Oreos here.

The service uses cage-, hormone-, and antibiotic-free chicken and turkey, organic chicken apple sausage, and local fruits and vegetables to concoct meals like ginger scallion soba noodle salad and chickpea tikka masala over wild rice. (For finicky kids, there’s familiar stuff like sun butter and jelly.) Parents select a week’s worth of meals for $35, delivered on ice. Chefs consult on every recipe, as does Boston Children’s Hospital nutritionist Skylar Griggs.

Cofounder Christopher Buck, who has two young daughters, launched the service after too many personal lunch time struggles.

“My wife and I were having a hard time putting together stuff to feed them that was healthy, nutritious, and convenient. You’re done working, it might be 8:30 or 9 p.m., and you want to sit down and relax. The last thing you want to do is chop vegetables, to say nothing of trying to plan. We’d draw straws,” he says.

His business plan involved commiserating with similarly woebegone parents.

“We talked to people who said, ‘He gets the same turkey and cheese sandwich and a clementine every single day!’ Someone else said, ‘My kid eats a tuna fish sandwich four to five days per week,’ ” he marvels.

Or, you know, quiche.

“Now we’re a slave to it,” says McCormick-Brault, mom of Pierce, the quiche fan.

On the other hand, there’s a method to Pierce’s madness, she says.

“He told me, ‘I can eat the quiche faster, because it’s kind of mushy, whereas with a sandwich, you have to take time to chew. I can get to recess faster with quiche.’ ”

Kara Baskin can be reached at kara.baskin@globe.com.