Kids may have different opinions about what’s in the lunchbox, but parents speak in nearly one voice: “The worst part of my day is making lunches,” says Colleen Scanlan, of Jamaica Plain, mother of Liam Austin, 10, and David Austin, 5.
Parents complain of picky kids, capricious kids, kids whose tastes are a moving target, ice-pack failures, lost lunchboxes, food that comes home uneaten, food that gets traded, food that ends up in the trash.
It’s a constant struggle, but since most kids would rather bring than buy, it’s an ongoing one as well. According to a recent survey conducted by Annie’s, Honest Tea, Stonyfield, and Organic Valley, 84 percent of schoolchildren prefer to bring lunch from home. The survey also found that 43 percent of kids trade items from their lunches two or three times a week and 39 percent believe their parents are not aware that they throw lunch items away. Perhaps most damning of all, 54 percent of the kids surveyed gave their lunch a grade of C or lower.
But while parents grapple daily with the lunch dilemma, many kids are a bit more lenient in their grading. Shane Pilson, 9, of Jamaica Plain, a fourth-grader at St. Mary of the Assumption School in Brookline, says that overall he’d give the lunchbox packed by mom Kate Pilson a grade of 10 (presumably on a scale of 1 to 10). Nonetheless, Shane does see room for improvement: “I keep on telling her I want a more junky snack, but she just ignores me,” he says.
Pilson says Shane was pretty willing to go the healthy route until recently. “Lately, he’s taken to wanting his lunches to be cool. ‘Don’t just pack the healthy stuff, it’s embarrassing. Can you please pack Oreos and candy — normal stuff?’ ” she says. She has switched from whole-wheat bread to white, and she does throw in the occasional Oreo, “so he’ll fit in and not be scarred for life.”
Christine Corcoran Cox, of Brighton, whose son and daughter attend the Conservatory Lab Charter School, predicted her kids would award her lunches a grade of B. She’ll pack a sandwich or perhaps some leftovers, a fruit, and a vegetable, and she holds a pretty strict line on junk foods, a stance that brings a few complaints. But daughter Olivia Cox, 10, a fifth-grader, gives her lunch an A. Somehow, the message must be getting through. Asked if her lunch might be better if it contained more junk food, Olivia says, “It might taste better, but it wouldn’t be better for me.”
For mom Alice Smythe, of Jamaica Plain, whose son, Rory Zaisser, is a fifth-grader at the Manning School, the hardest part is keeping up with her son’s changing tastes. “He says he likes something, and then it turns out he doesn’t like it after all.” By the end of last school year, she says, “I went to the dark side in desperation and started throwing in bags of chips.” Despite that capitulation, Rory remains underwhelmed. He gives his bag lunch a grade of C and admits that he occasionally buys lunch even when he’s brought one from home.
Thanks to allergy concerns, trading in many school cafeterias is a thing of the past. But not everywhere. Seventh grader Jack Yount, of Sherborn (who gives his own lunch a solid B+), counts among his acquaintances a schoolmate who brings in a chocolate croissant every day. His friend doesn’t eat the croissant; he uses it as a bargaining chip to acquire freshly baked chocolate chip or oatmeal cookies that, in Jack’s school, “are kind of the currency. A pack of six Oreos would be equivalent to a cookie. Cookies are really valuable.” Jack has never found himself with enough leverage to score the croissant. “I’ve tried,” he says, “but everyone wants it.”
Scanlan, whose two sons also attend St. Mary’s in Brookline, says she’s pretty sure some clandestine trading, or at least sharing, goes on. “Sometimes I’ll see my son come home with blue around his lips, and I’ll say, ‘What’s that?’ And I know someone gave him their god-awful juice.” Her son Liam says he’s “satisfied” with his lunchbox, but it only rises to the level of C+.
Pondering what could be done to improve it, he voices a wish that’s probably common among brown baggers of all ages: “Maybe a small slice of cake would be good.”
Jane Dornbusch can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.