Recently our oldest child, Solomon, who is a high school senior, turned 18. This was a particularly emotional and perplexing birthday for me. Suddenly Solomon, whom I used to bathe, dress and cuddle, is no longer a child. He can vote, he could go to jail (but I hope he doesn’t), he can go to war and as our daughter Celia pointed out, he can legally order stuff from the Disney Channel.
Everyday things my husband and I did for Solomon, like giving him a curfew and packing his school lunch, suddenly seemed questionable. Was it time for him to start fending for himself more now that he’s officially an adult?
Years ago, I was walking in the woods with my friend Carrie Witkop who has three boys, two of whom are older than Solomon. When she mentioned making their lunches, I remember asking with horror, “Wait, you still pack their lunches even though they’re in high school?” She sheepishly admitted she did.
At the time, we had just entered the realm of our suburban Maryland middle schools, which start earlier in the morning than our elementary schools. As a night owl, I was already exhausted from waking up early, packing lunches, and getting the kids out the door before 7. I couldn’t imagine 6 or 8 more years of doing this, which must have been why I reacted with such dismay.
I’ve reflected on that exchange with Carrie many times as the years have sped along. Even as the start of our days pushed even earlier when Solomon, and then his sister Celia, started high school, the day never arrived when we said, “Okay, we’re done, pack your own dang lunches.” And now that he has just weeks of high school left before he starts a summer job and then college, I have accepted that we will keep packing both kids’ lunches until they graduate high school.
Our teens are able in the kitchen. They could certainly make themselves a sandwich or fresh guacamole and throw in some fruit, chips, and yogurt, as we do. They or we could even pack their lunches the night before and they could grab and go in the morning. Some parents feel that we should give kids responsibilities as soon as they are able in order to teach them life skills, and I do understand that perspective and practice it in many cases.
As one parent put it (not so gently) on my Six O’Clock Scramble Facebook page, “Unless there’s a physical reason (disability) preventing him from being able to make the lunch himself, he needs to make his own lunch! You’re enabling laziness and lack of responsibility. “
I cook, create recipes and help families share healthy meals for a living, and nourishing my own family is central to my identity as a mom. Other parents may nurture their children in ways that are more connected to them, like mending and ironing their clothes or coaching their teams.
I haven’t been able to let this little act of love and care go, groggy as I may feel when our alarm sounds. Solomon says it makes him feel a little “solidarity” with us that we drag ourselves out of bed to see them off in the morning and makes him feel “a little bit of love” later when he digs into his lunch. However, last week, when I woke up early to pack his lunch and he had neglected to tell me his classes started late that day, I was irritated enough to tell him to pack his own lunch the next day. But, this week I’m back at it.
My husband Andrew and I switch off lunch duty each morning, getting out of bed at 6:30 or 6:40 to prepare their lunches before they fly out the door at 6:55. Even though we’re all sleepy, it’s a precious chance for us to check in with them in the morning, pack them something nutritious, and tell them we love them before they start their busy days and we start ours. We split the chore (I mean, the labor of love) equitably — one week Andrew will take Monday-Wednesday-Friday and I’ll take Tuesday-Thursday, and then we’ll switch the next week.
When the kids first started school in kindergarten, I looked at the school menus and thought they sounded decent and that maybe they would just buy the affordable lunches at school. But I quickly learned that the quality of the food was not what we wanted our kids eating. The lunches were highly processed and had too much sugar and salt and not enough wholesome, real food. What’s more, our kids said they tasted awful. So we kept packing.
When the kids started high school, I learned that many kids went off campus and bought lunch at nearby restaurants. When we experimented with that approach, we found that the kids didn’t get enough fruits or vegetables in their meals (okay, pretty much none if I don’t count pizza sauce as a vegetable) and the cost was about double that of packing lunches. So we kept packing.
When each summer arrives, we celebrate the extra hour of sleep for a couple of months. When school starts back up in August, it’s hard to gear up for another year of the early lunch packing shift.
But here’s why we keep packing. Every day, for the brief window of life that our children are ours to care for, we get to express our love for them in the form of a turkey (or Tofurkey) sandwich with a little chubby apple, a cheese stick, and a bit of dessert (hey, a square of dark chocolate never hurt anyone!). We don’t write love notes or pack poems or riddles in their lunches, and I’ve never cut their sandwiches into rocket shapes. But I DO know that our kids feel lucky to open up and dive into our missive of love in the midst of their demanding days at school. And for me, I feel lucky to be preparing that edible missive as long as I can.
10 Healthy Lunch Ideas to Pack for Your Teenager (or that they can pack themselves):
1. Turkey (or Tofurkey) or ham, red bell pepper strips, and cheddar cheese wrapped in a whole wheat tortilla, with mayonnaise, spicy mustard or salsa
2. Fresh mozzarella, basil or pesto and tomato (or tapenade) on a soft baguette
3. Tuna, salmon, chicken or egg salad with whole grain crackers or pita chips or on a bagel-thin with lettuce
4. Leftovers like pasta salad, tortellini with tomato sauce, pizza, chicken, turkey sausage or steak. Save little condiment packages from takeout food to use as dips
5. Trail mix made with whole grain cereal, raisins, lightly salted peanuts, and a few chocolate chips (or your favorite items)
6. Diced tofu drizzled with teriyaki sauce
7. Quesadillas or bean and cheese burritos (warm black beans & cheese on tortilla in microwave & wrap in foil)
8. Greek salad with crunchy lettuce, feta cheese, tomatoes, cucumbers, olives and a Greek dressing or vinaigrette.
9. Edamame in the pod
10. Homemade guacamole and tortilla chips. For guacamole, mash ½ ripe avocado with juice of 1/4 lemon or lime, salt and a sprinkle of cumin, if desired.
Aviva Goldfarb is founder of The Six O’Clock Scramble, an online dinner planning solution for busy parents, a Today Show and Washington Post contributor, and cookbook author.
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