Writing about school lunches at the start of term four is a bit off kilter. The timing is off. At the start of the school year, my social media is full of articles about school lunches. Nutrition Australia has some good guidelines. Food and parent bloggers take this to a new level. With tips. So many tips about creating healthy meals that kids will eat. And with gorgeous photos. A few months later, there is a follow up round of writers complaining about the pressure to create perfect lunches.
None of that here. This post is a shot at realism. It might also provide some help for surviving the rest of the school year. This is an outline of how we do school lunches in our house, chaos included. Maybe it will even answer that question that many, many people ask me.
“How do you do it with four kids?”
I usually flippantly answer that we run a military ship and the kids do everything for themselves. Reality isn’t quite like that. A parent at school said to me the other day “I wish I could be as organized as you.” I laughed and said “It’s mostly an illusion of organisation.”
We do have a system – after all, you can’t manage this many people without some sort of system. There is a white board with a list on it and each child is responsible for the items on the list. Rather than following them around the house saying “get dressed, brush your teeth”, I just say “Come on, do your list.”
We also use a time system to keep them focused. If we need to leave at 8.15am, I use 8am as a baseline. At 7am, I say “one hour to go”. Then “half an hour”, “ten minutes – omg, why the hell aren’t you even dressed yet? Come on, do your list.” “Five minutes.”
And finally, “I’m closing the door now, let’s get out of here.” That is usually followed by a mad scramble of people. And complaints “But I haven’t brushed my teeth yet.” “Where is my (insert item; hat, homework, shoes)?”
At 8.15am, we are all outside the house with all the right stuff, and nearly everyone has shoes on. One child is always late, and gets put outside with his bag, hat and shoes and socks. He puts them on while we walk down the street, then comes racing after us with promises “Tomorrow, I’m going to do it in 1 second.” I always shake my head, yeah, you can’t manage it in an hour, keep dreaming kiddo.
We always walk to school, unless it’s raining then we drive or take the bus, and it’s a lovely time of day. They chatter about all sorts of nonsense. One morning, I heard the entire summary of the soccer season; “In the game against Leichhardt, did you see that massive kick I did?” “Yip.” “And then, we played…”
I really enjoy this time. It’s relaxing to just wander along together. It gives some breathing space after the mad morning scramble. I like that they tell me stories about everything. We hear about problems they are having and are able to help them find solutions. We discuss big topics like sex and cancer, but mostly just talk about silly things. The current fad is to quiz me “Who is better? This random sports guy or that one?” It doesn’t seem to matter which one I answer, they always say “No, that guy is better.” “Yeah, ok.” Soon enough, they are all dropped off and I can grab a coffee and go to work.
In amongst the morning chaos is the lunch making. Early in our school adventure, I worked out that if I made them lunch, they often didn’t eat it. It was wasteful, so I started giving them input into the process. Their input made a big difference, and they started eating more of what they packed, until I could hand the process over to them almost exclusively.
After breakfast, they go and get dressed, and I do the lunch station set up. That makes it sound fancy, but it’s not. On a section of bench, I put a loaf of bread, whatever leftovers we have in the fridge, some salad vegetables (lettuce, carrots, etc), and some sauces (tomato, mayonnaise, etc).
They have to make their own lunch, and include a sandwich, a snack and a fruit. At school, they have a set time in the morning for ‘crunch and sip’ where they have to have a drink of water and eat some fruit.
No2 has recently discovered the grating device, so he has grated carrots on bread every day. He grates about twice as much carrot as he needs, but that means that the youngest school kid (No3) gets some as well. The photos I have taken of the lunch making are not pretty, but they are real. No1 is starting to get quite fancy with his sandwiches, and this morning made aioli with lettuce and leftover roast pork. No3 had grated carrot, plain bread, a slice of cheese and the rest of the carrot for his crunch and sip. He also had some plain biscuits for a snack.
Other days, they may just take leftovers in a box with a fork. Sometimes they just take plain bread with nothing – not very healthy or filling. I let them do that occasionally, because I’ve found that they tend to pay more attention in the days following and make something better. We also have boxes of biscuits in the cupboard that they can get snacks from. One box has a selection of savoury biscuits, the other sweet ones. Sometimes we have raisins or dried fruit they can chose from. We also tend to have a few different types of cheese, and I’ll cut some slices for them. Occasionally I boil eggs for them. If they want a jam sandwich every day for a month, then they can have that. They don’t get a drink although they can bring a bottle of tap water if they want. There are bubblers at school, and I remind them to use them.
They pick what they want – within the guidelines of lunch, snack, fruit – and they tend to eat what they’ve chosen. Like most things with children, it requires some supervision. It’s a good system for us that is as low stress as possible.