It is 11:30 a.m. on a sultry summer day and I am at my son's school snooping. I am with two teachers who are setting out lunches for the children before they come in from their outside play. I am merely an observer, investigating the different offerings. As if by magic, the two women know exactly what is in each container just by the name written on the outside.
"There's Megan's," one says, reaching into a bright blue plastic box decorated with a big picture of Minnie Mouse. "She has a deviled ham sandwich today and some cheese curls. That's pretty standard."
"This one's Matthew's," comments the other matter-of-factly as she opens a can of Chef Boy-ar-dee tomato sauce dinosaurs and efficiently zaps it in the microwave. The rest of the lunches, except for my son's banana bread and cream cheese sandwich, are a collection of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in many guises: on pita, whole wheat and squishy white bread.
It has been six months since I began packing my son's lunch box. As with each new aspect of motherhood, this one has brought its share of anxiety. In the beginning, I worried about what food would transport properly; I agonized over trying to prepare a nutritionally sound meal that he would eat; and I dwelt at length the night before on designing menus with some variety.
Of course, he couldn't make it easy for me. Peanut butter and jelly, I had learned from experience, was totally unacceptable.
His yogurt phase had come and gone, and I could only live with a banana and cream cheese sandwich alternating with macaroni and cheese for so long. After all, I had a reputation to maintain. Somehow the teachers had heard that I was a recognized authority in Chinese cooking, that I've cooked all over the world and written several cookbooks. I could just imagine them opening my son's lunch box, looking for some gourmet tidbit, only to find orange noodles and cheese -- once again. But I was heartened to hear that other famous cooks share my problem.
"At first, I looked forward to it too," recalls Patricia Unterman, restaurant critic for the San Francisco Chronicle and owner of the Hayes Street Grille in California, who packs lunch daily for her 6-year-old son, Harry. "I thought it was really going to be fun. I thought every day I could create a wonderful little lunch with seasonal produce and all the little tidbits that I bring home from the restaurant. But of course it didn't work out that way.
"For the first week I got a full lunch box returned with everything I had packed. He had eaten about one-eighth of it. Finally, I started figuring out what to pack. First of all, he hated sandwiches. Harry wants separate little packages with individual things in them. And he wanted exactly the same foods every day with no deviation. Just one more olive in the little bag -- six instead of five -- he would be angry. And finally, when I thought I had it nailed, he would completely change his mind and say he was sick of it, so we would have to go through a whole procedure to find out what he would eat every day for the next two or three weeks."
In comparison, I guess I am lucky. My son, Jesse, will eat sandwiches, at least one or two varieties, but then he is only 23 months old and probably -- or so it sounds -- things will get more complicated as he gets older.
Steven Damato, who with his brother and wife, Nora Pouillon, owns Nora's Restaurant and City Cafe, confirmed my apprehension. Every morning Damato packs lunch for his daughter Nina, who is 3. "When they're little you can dress them and they'll wear anything you tell them to," he says. "Then all of a sudden they get older and putting their clothes on in the morning is like a battle of wills. You have to negotiate with them. Now, I'm at the point with Nina when she wants to negotiate her lunch. She sits and watches me pack her lunch while she eats breakfast. This morning she suddenly told me that she will not eat green beans, and last week, out of the clear blue, she asked for a sandwich."
Damato has nothing against sandwiches, he explained, but since he and his wife practically live at the restaurant, their home pantry is only stocked with items for their daughter's breakfast. All their other meals are eaten in the restaurant. For Nina's lunch, Damato usually takes home a week's worth of prepared foods culled from the kitchen of one of the restaurants and packs it in plastic containers. Nina, who Damato says is a pretty adventurous eater, has been weaned on homemade ham, steamed and raw vegetables and fruits of all varieties.
I am so envious. If only I had a restaurant kitchen at my disposal from which I could fill plastic take-out containers. More importantly, if only my son would eat some of the wonderful food served at Damato's restaurants. Jesse seems totally uninterested in meat, unless it is barbecued in hoisin sauce, and whenever we are at restaurants, he refuses to try any of our dishes. Inevitably, he tends to end up feasting on one of his favorite foods in the world -- oyster crackers. But then, maybe he would be more open to new foods if he had the run of his parents' restaurant.
Then again, maybe he wouldn't. Michela Larson, who owns the highly-touted Cambridge, Mass., eatery called Michela's and has all of the advantages of the Damatos -- plus some -- doesn't seem to have had it any easier than me as far as her son's lunch box is concerned.
Larson's son Christian, now 5 1/2, was used to eating hot lunches every day that his babysitter prepared for him at home -- roast chicken, carrots, macaroni and cheese, meatloaf. "You know, all this fabulous, wonderful American kid food, of course with ketchup on everything," Larson remembers.
But when Christian was 2 1/2 years old and he started attending day care, things changed. "I used to really worry about him and it was important to me that he had a lovely lunch. I used to send him with lunches that I wanted to eat, but every day his lunch box was returned with all the food uneaten. One day, the only thing left in the fridge was a piece of pizza from a place we go to which Christian calls the 'hole in the wall.' I asked my husband what I should do and he said, 'Stick it in, who cares?' So I did and it didn't come back. So that's what he eats every day, some carrots with the green stem, some fruit and leftover 'hole-in-the-wall' pizza. He loves it."
According to Laura Shapiro, a book and food critic at Newsweek magazine, people in the last century were just as obsessed with feeding their children as we are today. Shapiro, who is also an avid culinary historian, is the author of "Perfection Salad: Women & Cooking at the Turn of the Century" (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1986). She maintains that parents of the last century were extraordinarily conservative about their children's diets, excluding fruit, except for bananas, and including sweet potatoes as one of the staples during the first five years. In her research, Shapiro also discovered lists of suggestions for children's lunches. Printed prominently among the items was a frosting sandwich that consisted of sugar frosting spread generously between two slices of white bread.
I'm sure that my son would adore a frosting sandwich, but being a conscientious mother, I have my morals. I do try to give him good food, but there are fleeting moments, I must admit, when I am sorely tempted to just give up and stick in a little can of dinosaur noodles.
And when I speak to some people who are carrying out their absolute ideals in terms of feeding their children and succeeding, I am in awe.
Take Maureen and Tony Perault, who are the owners and cooks of the Escoffier restaurant in Ann Arbor, Mich. They are vegetarians and their 3 1/2-year-old son, Andrew, who eats tofu burgers on whole wheat buns, sounds like a total angel. Andrew, according to his mother, is a very "explorative eater." "Most kids drive by McDonald's and yell out 'Big Mac,' " she says. "We drive by a Chinese restaurant and Andrew hollers out "moo shu."
I want to order a child just like Andrew the next time around (if there is one), but I am somewhat heartened when I call experts for advice only to find that they too have to endure the same conflicts.
Rena Coyle, who lives in Philadelphia, teaches children's cooking classes, consults with school systems on their menus and writes a syndicated cooking column for children called "Kitchen Kids." Apparently Coyle, a respected authority on feeding kids, also has had her difficulties in the lunch-box department.
"You're always sticking healthy stuff in my lunch box," Coyle says is her 8-year-old daughter Catelyn's most recent battle cry. "I want pure junk just like everybody else."
So I continue to reflect on my son's lunch box, but as with most parents, other more pressing concerns take priority. Like Michela Larson, I have realized a crucial fact: "It's my issue, not his," she says.
So as with everything and everyone else, I am moving into a more philosophical frame of mind. As Steven Damato said, "Nora and I are really into health-conscious types of food, but I really wouldn't be surprised if our Nina goes through a period of her life when she gets really fat, smokes a lot of cigarettes and eats really trashy food. But that's okay. In the end, I think she's just a nice little girl and I'm sure she'll be just fine."
Nina Simonds is a Massachusetts cookbook author; her third book, "China's Food" (Harpercollins), will be published in January.