It is lunch time at Lafayette Elementary School.Sensing a certain malaise about the take-out menu in our house--plus envy of more desirable lunches packed by other parents--I am here to research what is in and out in bag lunches.
I alert the clamorous lunchers that I am their pipeline to the adult world of lunch-packers. (Few children pack their own, preferring to grumble about what their parents pack.)
"Are you taking complaints?" asks 8-year-old Jason Swesnik, approaching the lunch table where I am observing sandwich styles. "I don't like getting soap in my milk. My Mom doesn't rinse out the thermos well enough."
In another corner, 5-year-old Norman Suter is throwing away a full can of Del Monte fruit cup, which his mother puts in his lunch often and which he throws away every time.
Standing at the same trash can is 5-year-old Abram Naparstek, discarding his entire cheese sandwich. "I like cheese sandwiches. I threw it out because it has mayonnaise on it. I hate mayonnaise."
Aversion to mayonnaise is common at this age. Parents are either slow to grasp this fact or believe exposure will weaken resistance.
Teachers in the lower grades sometimes insist that children take home the uneaten part of their lunches so that parents can see how much they eat and what they leave untouched. But parents being parents (somnolent, rushed or bored with lunch-packing) and children being children (finicky, opinionated and determined to make life difficult), lunch remains something of an impasse in many homes. Some children throw away what they don't like; others trade food with kids of different tastes. One can't help but wonder what kids would pack themselves.
"Do you have any advice for parents about good lunches?" I ask a group of fourth-grade boys. (There is little mingling of the sexes at this age.)
"Do you mean for a good lunch, or for a lunch kids would eat?" asks 10-year-old Guin Kreisberg, quickly seizing the horns of the dilemma.
In the ensuing conversation, Guin, Michael Campbell, David Weintraub and John Krattenmaker--speaking as if in one voice--announce that:
"Nobody likes things that get smushed, like bananas and eggs. Eggs are also no good because they're not hot and they're not cold."
(Although PBJ--peanut butter and jelly--is a top-favorite sandwich item, virtually everyone detests smushed PBJ, or PBJ when there is jelly all over the sandwich bag. And many kids simply hate PBJ, either because they get it too often or because the jelly soaks into the bread and makes it soggy.)
"Kids throw away a lot more lunch when there is outdoor recess," one fourth-grader went on, "because they want to get outside and claim a place. They also stuff their faces so they won't be last to finish and have to clean the table."
"Little kids are more apt to get sweets and to throw away the healthy stuff like sandwiches. I used to do that when I was little. When you get to the 4th, 5th and 6th grades, a lot of kids take their milk money and stop at the store in the morning to buy candy instead. The part I hate is when you have a few sweets and everybody is begging for them, saying, 'If you give me that, I'll be your best friend.' Sometimes they'll give you money or try to steal it."
For a more definitive study, two classes (a fifth grade at Lafayette and a fourth grade at John Eaton Elementary) were asked to write both their lunch preferences, and what they dislike.
Because it's hardly a secret that no two children like the same food--and a given child may not like the same food two weeks running--the only consensus was predictable: Virtually no child can tolerate liverwurst and almost everyone likes sweets, particularly sodas and candy. The latter are discouraged or forbidden, in many lunchrooms because it is difficult for a child drinking milk not to be envious of a child drinking soda pop.
"I hate coming to get my lunch after a long gym class, and finding a bologna sandwich," wrote fifth-grader Ted Calabria, bemoaning not so much the bologna as the predictability.
No child wants the same food every day, or as fourth-grader Eithne McMenamin put it: "continuous food each week."
Otherwise well-liked sandwiches are often spoiled by being put on bread the kids don't like, or by being spruced up with spreads they hate. Parents would do well to ask their children's views on items such as mustard, mayonnaise, butter, margarine, lettuce and tomatoes.
"I don't want to hear what my daughter wants in the morning," moaned one father. "I barely make it to work on time as it is."
After consenting to an experimental bag-lunch trip through the supermarket, he learned that his daughter, fed up with cheese wedges and PBJ, would like nothing more than a brief fling with bologna sandwiches, bell peppers, grapes and Doritos: about as easy a packing job as he could hope for, and his daughter was thrilled to have a say in her own menu.
One child suggested that kids write daily choices on a special lunch calendar.
As a result of this research, free-lance writer Pat McNees' daughter now packs her own lunch.