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For years, we have participated in the school lunch program, figuring that for a few dollars a day it was worth the hassle of not having to prepare lunch. I was reassured by the fact that the schools were offering whole grains, vegetables and fruit at every meal, and that water or milk were the only beverages. Or so I thought. Slower than I should have, I began to realize exactly what the schools were serving their captive audience (i.e. my children). Milk and water were being served, but so were juice and punch. Whole grain is loosely defined, and includes bread and carbohydrates of any type. Protein is heavily fried and/or covered in mayonnaise and/or oil. Fruit can mean sugared fruit cups, and canned peas and corn routinely serve as the vegetable portions. I wasn’t happy when I discovered that, but I still went along with the program. I just couldn’t fathom making lunches for all the children every day, and I rationalized that at least they were eating healthy breakfasts, snacks and dinners.

Then came the clincher. One of our children’s schools sent home a letter saying they would no longer be participating in the government school lunch program and would now use an outside vendor. For the cost of only $4 per meal, my child can eat hot dogs with french fries, pizza with french fries, pizza rolls with french fries, macaroni and cheese, or baked ziti etc. Oh, and they will also serve cottage cheese from time to time.

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I was furious, to say the least. With child obesity at epidemic levels, and experts predicting that today’s youth will be the first generation to die earlier than their parents, due to their likely health problems, this type of administrative irresponsibility seemed to have breached any level of shortsightedness. The food they plan on serving is party food, which should not be eaten more than once a month, not given to children on a daily basis. This type of regular menu destroys people’s ability to self-regulate and utilize appropriate moderation skills, not to mention raising cholesterol, blood sugar, and weight.

Imagine my surprise when discussing this new lunch program with other parents and they informed me the school changed the vendor not because they want the children to be eating fast food every day, but because parents asked for it. Let me repeat: parents of growing children asked the school, the standard of authority in these young children’s lives, to serve their children on a daily basis the absolute worse food-like products possible. To those parents, I have nothing to say. But to my children, I said, “Guess what! We are going to be making our own lunches, and it will be the best ever.”

Believe it or not, at first they were excited when I told them about the cute containters I was going to buy for them, and the yummy food they would get to pick. But as time wore on, they got less excited, and started begging me to let them eat the school lunch. I (so far) have not given up, and we are still chugging along.

Here’s how:

  1. We discussed what their favorite school lunches were and how we could incorporate healthier versions into our menu. One child liked the meatballs. No problem. Meatballs made with a mixture of chicken and beef and whole wheat matza meal in a tomato, zucchini and onion sauce would be a great substation. Another child wanted knishes. That too can be incorporated once in a while, along with healthy sides, and so on. It isn’t perfect, and it isn’t as healthy as I would have preferred, but remember, I am going against pizza parlor lunch every day. I can’t expect my sprouted bread and wild-caught salmon to compete with that (although salmon is a favorite lunch, and sprouted bread is the go-to bread in our house).
  1. I took them to the store and bought them cute lunch boxes and containers, and reviewed with them the importance of washing out their containers right away and putting them into the kitchen sink immediately upon coming home. Don’t make the mistake I did, and forget to label them. It only took one missing lunch bag for me to quickly scribble Baim everywhere.
  1. Each week, we sit down and create a schedule of rotating lunches. Each lunch contains a vegetable (cut-up peppers, cucumbers, grape tomatoes, baby carrots, celery, hearts of palms), a fruit, a sandwich on the children’s favorite whole-wheat breads, with a healthy filling of eggs, tuna, salmon, avocado, chumus, peanut butter (how odd that so many schools do not allow peanut butter in school, but do allow our children to be poisoned by the toxic, processed products they call food). They can also choose a small home-baked good, made with 100% white whole wheat, and moderate amounts of sugar and oil. With the children’s help, I prepare the lunches at night. In the morning, I warm up the lunches while I drink my coffee and pack them into the insulated lunch bags.
  1. Each child receives two dollars once a week to do whatever they want with, including buying junk. I know this doesn’t sound right, that I am paying my children not to eat school lunch, but remember, my children are sitting at a table with other children who are eating carnival food, while my children unwrap their sandwiches. Receiving the two dollars helps the children enjoy the savings of not participating in this lunch program and illustrates that junk food is something to be considered before buying, and perhaps they would rather save the money for a new game or toy.

Although I still hear the occasional complaint, I can report that I am very pleasantly surprised at the success of our home lunch program. Planning and preparing the lunches took less time than I thought and I take great comfort that I am preparing my children for a healthy lifestyle, while saving hundreds of dollars as well. The constant inclusion of my children’s wants and taste help them be involved, not to mention the sweet cash incentive.

I want to encourage everyone to consider making home lunches as well. It’s not as hard as one would think, and the benefits are tremendous.

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