My 3 Rules of School Lunch Were Born Out of Desperation — But Now They’re So Much More

My daughter started online kindergarten last week. The first thing she learned is the most essential, if depressingly emblematic, classroom skill for these times: how to mute and unmute herself. I worry less about the academic aspects of school than I do the social ones; so much of kindergarten is just learning how to be a classmate, a friend, a person in a world filled with so many different kinds of people. I preemptively mourn the lunches she won’t have: cafeteria pizza, trading snacks with classmates, discovering the new scents of others’ home-cooked food, telling them about longanisa, her favorite Filipino sausage. But like every other parent, child, and educator out there, we are adapting. Making it work. 

This spring, during the four months our family spent sheltering in place, I felt the usual pleasure I take in cooking drain from my body. Creativity became drudgery; meals flattened into cheerless events that seemed only to add pots and pans to the perpetual mountain of dirty dishes in the sink. Out of necessity (and a touch of desperation), I pivoted to viewing lunch as more assignment than elective, a utilitarian assemblage of calories to power us towards the end of each day. I devised rules to limit the effort and energy needed to get food on the table. Once I did, lightness and solace crept back into the kitchen. So this fall, “school” lunch will follow these same rules.

My 3 Rules of School Lunch 2020

1. Little to no heating (reheating leftovers is permissible). The notable exception to this rule is boiling water for instant ramen, but otherwise I’m not turning on the stove. 

2. Minimal chopping. Grating carrots into instant ramen is okay, as is slicing cucumber, fruit, and cold hot dogs (also for ramen, or to be mixed into leftover mac and cheese). Any chopping beyond this scope is done exclusively in service of jazzing up leftovers. 

3. Food that lets my child be as involved as possible in its making. What that looks like, practically, is lots of sandwiches (and sticky counters as she masters the art of spreading peanut butter and jelly) and hard-boiled eggs peeled at a snail’s pace. When I find my patience wearing thin, I will remind myself this is “hands-on learning.” 

I am not great at conducting formal lessons (this is what teachers are for!), but I’ve found I am good at gently steering my daughter towards a basic understanding of subtraction (as in the number of eggs we’ve used from a carton of 12), fractions (in terms of half cups of water, flour, and sugar), and sounding out the letters on labels. She’s a beginning reader, but her growing vocabulary reflects time in the kitchen: butter, kimchi, Best Foods.  

After months of experimenting, the lunch I turn to most often is the ploughman’s platter. I take out our big cutting wooden board and cover it with salami, pickles, olives, nuts, fruit, cheese, Ritz crackers, a tin of smoked oysters. And, because I am a Fun Mom: potato chips, bits of brownies or cake, chocolate chips, sometimes gummy bears and Hi-Chew.

This has become one of my daughter’s favorite meals, no doubt because it gives her some autonomy. She chooses exactly what she eats and how much, returning for a fourth helping of salami, drinking olive juice from the bottom of a dish. I love watching the satisfaction she takes from shelling her own pistachios. Although this meal is more “throwing things together” than cooking, it somehow always manages to feel luxurious. Lip smacking and contented sighs abound. 

I’m reaching, I know, but I like to think that some of the lessons she takes from these lunches might be the same ones she picks up in this first, strange year of school: that obligations can fill you with joy, and that pleasure can be deepened by setting a few boundaries and exercising a little independence. 

Back to School 2020It’s the strangest back-to-school season of our lives, and no matter where your child’s desk is actually located this fall: they have to eat. Every day. What even is school lunch in fall 2020? We’ve compiled stories, commiserations, and hopeful tips from a diverse crew of parents to help us all feel a little less alone in breathing deep, eating well, and unmuting that ever-elusive Zoom button.

Angela Garbes

Contributor

Angela Garbes is the author of Like a Mother, an NPR Best Book of 2018. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Cut, and featured on NPR’s Fresh Air. She is the former staff food writer at Seattle alt-weekly The Stranger.

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