Give Me a (Lunch) Break

It was a beautiful autumn day for the pumpkin patch field trip. I was volunteering for the first time with my daughter’s kindergarten class. It also happened to be the first time in a while that I’ve been in direct proximity to other parents of young children. Last time I was among this crowd I was in my late 30’s and even then I was one of the elder parents in attendance. Now, nearly ten years later, the age gap is more significant and the discrepancy between nouveau-parents and seasoned veterans is more painfully clear.

A perfect example of this discrepancy was packed in the children’s lunch bags. Mind you now, this was a field trip and specific instructions were given to provide each child with a fully disposable, simple sack lunch. However, the array of selections that emerged from this directive was anything but simple.

First out of the bag was the “snack” course; a sliding scale of acceptable snacks ranging from the clearing unnatural up to the neurotically pretentious. A sample scale that looked something like;

Candy corns: festive yet clearly more candy then corn ->

Gummy bears: potentially made with some measure of fruit juice and ground up horse gelatin ->

Fruit roll ups: random fruit scraps smooshed into shoe leather ->

Fruit cups: random fruit scraps preserved in an inexplicably thick syrup – more corn then fruit->

Fresh fruit: unprocessed apple slices, or grapes sectioned into non-chokey bits ->

Fancy fruit: melons and tropical selections carved into flowers and butterflies reminiscent of an Edible Arrangement mail-order catalog.

The variety of choices is exhaustive, “Let’s see, I could either give Timmy a healthy portion of organic gluten-free rice chips with sea salt or a bag of Cheetos.”

The choices were no easier when it came to the “entrée” or “sandwich” course which, traditionally, had been something standard like a PB&J or a bologna and cheese.  Instead this fanciful lot had elevated the simple sandwich to something far more grandiose. Bread is cut into dinosaur shapes and smiley faces or pressed together to form a sealed pastry. Peanut butter is replaced with Nutella or Almond paste (or similar substitute in the face of potential nut allergies). Jelly is replaced with fruit compote or fresh berries. Some skip the pretense of assembly all together and go with a deconstructed sandwich ensemble as a culinary statement on consumer excess and obesity in American youth.

You begin to wonder what the true motivation behind all of this high-minded high-maintenance preparation is. I understand wanting to feed your child a healthy meal balanced with the proper nutrition, but does that nutrition require custom Tupperware to keep the colorful collection of treats safely segregated? Is there good reason to replace the suggested brown paper bag with a wood inlaid Bento box that transforms into a mini oven to warm your moist towelettes until post-meal cleanup? Are they trying to prove to the world that they are better than their parents by not packing the smelly tuna sandwiches that stunk up their lockers when we were kids? Or do they just have too much sleep-deprived, nervous, parenting energy that they need to burn off with origami cloth napkins and fresh pressed orange juice? Granted I’m not tossing my kids a snicker’s bar and a diet coke for lunch but it doesn’t reach the level of grandeur that I was seeing on display on those rustic picnic benches. There is a reality that sets in over the years. A delicate equilibrium is reached to balances parental controls between hovering helicopter parent and dismissive distracted parent. For example, even in the farm environment I can be content with a simple hand washing with soap and water, rather than a full body dousing with that jumbo sized pump disinfectant strapped to your belt. That spoon that touched the dirt floor will not be scrubbed and sterilized, but rather brushed and dusted, even though I’m well aware the one forceful breath will not sweep away any lingering country germs.

What happened to the good ol’ days when parents would go on and on about the character building hardships of life, walking miles to school in the snow, uphill, both ways? How do we expect these kids to pass the torch of malcontent when the worst they must endure is being forced to eat from a second string Bento box (toilette warmer not included) and endure full sodium soy nuts? I can only imagine that the parents pushing these fanciful lunches are the same people that strap their toddlers to leashes and hand out toothbrushes for Halloween.  Optimistically one can only hope that their kids will one day prevail and go on to tell stories of how they swindled their fellow classmates out of Twinkies by overselling the nutritional properties of kale chips.

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