Lunchbox Patrol

Nobody’s lunchbox ever

From time to time, a story pops up about how a childcare centre or kindergarten has taken it upon itself to assess the contents of a child’s lunchbox and found it lacking. A note, commonly pre-printed and often featuring frowny faces, animated fruits and/or other helpful illustrations, is sent home with the child advising that an item or items in the lunchbox is ‘unhealthy’ in some way and that in future a ‘healthier’ option should be chosen. Outrage ensues.

I seldom lend my voice to the chorus, but not because I don’t have an opinion on the subject. In fact, I feel quite strongly about it, although not necessarily for the same reasons that others do. The usual arguments cluster around (a) parental rights; (b) nanny state interference with those rights; and (c) what constitutes ‘healthy’. You may also find discussion of fat-shaming, socio-economic privilege, judgmental attitudes, power-tripping teachers and hyper-competitive parents, depending on the forum. At some point, inevitably, ‘political correctness run mad’ will make an appearance.

My take? Lunchbox monitoring is an exercise of limited utility, because it can only ever be part of a bigger picture which the carer or teacher does not see. Lunchboxes are only part of a whole day’s food, and that day’s food is part of a wider week’s food. Add in variables such as developmental stages, behavioural management strategies, family customs and gatherings, parental working hours and out-of-school activities, and the picture is much more complex than a carer or teacher can hope, or be expected, to be fully across.

My son, for example, went through various lunchbox phases. He first started attending childcare as a toddler, with only three other small children and a carer with access to crockery, cutlery, fridge and microwave. He had a lunchbox which reflected that: foods of varying tastes and textures, things that could be heated or chopped or combined, lots of fresh fruit and vegetables, and certainly nothing packaged. Even his jelly and yoghurt were carefully homemade and minimally sweetened (and only then with fruit and fresh unsweetened fruit juice).

When he started school, things became more challenging. Not for nothing does every school year begin with an explosion of articles about what to pack in your child’s lunchbox (usually illustrated with photos laughably removed from the reality of an actual lunchbox). My son, after a little while at big school, wanted the kinds of treats he saw in other kids’ lunchboxes: chips, tiny teddy biscuits, fruit roll-ups, yoghurt tubes, doughnut holes, chocolate bars. We tussled, and he stopped eating most of his lunch. 1-0 to the kindergartner. I ran the gamut of lunchbox ideas trying to entice him into eating: bentos, skewers, animal shapes, fruit flowers, dips, hot food, cold food, chopped food, whole food. Nothing worked.

Eventually I started making things that looked like the treats he so wanted. I even resorted to using commercial packaging (deliberately purchased and stashed for the purpose) to trick him into eating. I researched cake and biscuit recipes and replaced his grainy slices and muesli bars with chocolate ‘brownies’ and coconut ‘meringues’. These, although stuffed with fibre and protein and as low in fats and sugars as as could make them, would not have passed muster on lunchbox inspection: they looked just like your average cake and biscuits. He was never (and still isn’t) a sandwich-eater, so he had chicken wings, breaded lamb cutlets, mini pizzas – anything that could be eaten quickly with his fingers (he wouldn’t use a fork or spoon) so it didn’t cut into play time. He was not much of an early morning breakfast-eater either, and his lunchbox took account of the fact that he would be ravenous by morning tea time. However, anyone assessing his lunchbox and not knowing his eating habits might assume he was simply being given too much food.

Later, he went through a stage of not eating at school at all. He brought his leftovers home, but he hid them under his bed (to the detriment of his floor) because he didn’t want me to know he wasn’t eating. I found out eventually – but that’s a whole other story. Suffice it to say that there were reasons for this behaviour, and it took us some time to work through it. During that time, his lunchbox consisted almost exclusively of things that would be deemed unhealthy by any lunchbox monitor: small bags of chips or crackers, homemade sausage rolls, slices of cake or biscuits, pikelets, chicken schnitzel, cheese straws, maybe strawberries or watermelon if I was lucky – and nary a vegetable or a yoghurt tub in sight.

During another of his early school years, I spent two weeks every month in another country. I would leave behind pre-packed lunches to make my working partner’s single-parenting job easier during those fortnights. These lunches were big on convenience and geared to what I was confident he would eat: fruit slices & bliss balls (high in sugar); seaweed crackers, pretzels & crispbreads (high in salt); sausage rolls, samosas and chicken schnitzel (high in fat). I shudder to think what a lunchbox inspector would make of them.

I couldn’t expect his teachers to know all these things about my son’s eating habits. I couldn’t expect them to know all the other things going on in his small life that affected what I packed in his lunchbox. I couldn’t expect them to know what he was eating at home in order to put his lunchbox in context. I could, and did, however, expect them not to draw the attention of his classmates to perceived inadequacies in his lunchbox. I could, and did, expect that if they were concerned about his food, they would raise this with me directly and not via a pre-printed note left inside his lunchbox.

It’s tough being a childcarer or teacher. They don’t need the added burden of responsibility for their students’ eating habits. Sure, they can (and arguably should) help to educate kids about health and nutrition, and even encourage students to apply their learnings to their lunchboxes, but teachers and carers should not have to make a judgment, in isolation, about the ‘health’ of a particular lunchbox on a particular day. A pattern, observed over a period of days or even weeks, may generate sufficient concern to justify raising it directly with a child’s parent or other appropriate person, but a generic note inserted in a lunchbox is unlikely, on the whole, to be greeted with an abject ‘mea culpa’ and an immediate overhaul of said lunchbox.

Wound in amongst all this is a pet peeve of mine, and the primary reason why I tend not to engage in the debates which follow each publicized instance of lunchbox inspections: the application of the adjectives ‘healthy’ and ‘unhealthy’ to food. Food is not itself healthy or unhealthy. No food is inherently good or bad; food is just food. It’s people who have health; food merely has nutritional value. The fact that a food is high in sugar, or low in fibre, or packed with Vitamin C, does not make it either healthy or unhealthy; it’s just a food. It’s the combinations and quantities of food that contribute to people’s overall health, not the healthy or unhealthy nature of any single food. To say that a piece of cake in a lunchbox is unhealthy is meaningless. Even to say it is an unhealthy choice is pointless unless you happen to know the entire context of the child’s health, diet, lifestyle and the immediate circumstances surrounding the inclusion of the cake in the lunchbox. And that’s a bit too much to ask of a carer or teacher who is already expected to do a great deal.

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