What? Another lunch?

For the love of Pete, if I have to make another ham and cheese sandwich, I’m going to start home-schooling.

With the start of the school year comes the dreaded chore of preparing school lunches. Where lunch once held the dubious honour of Second-Most Important Meal of the Day, school has diminished its status to The Meal Parents Hate.

With the ban on nuts and the general fussiness of today’s children, how can parents beat the tedium of sandwiches for school lunches? A scan of lunch ideas on the internet reveals a dazzling array of carefully chopped carrots and sculpted sandwiches.

Kids’ lunch innovations generally fall into two categories. The first is Sandwich Variations, which consist of sandwiches that are made to look like something other than sandwiches.

Examples include cookie cutout sandwiches (make the sandwich into a puzzle in order to prevent waste) and sandwich kebabs, (cut sandwiches into cubes and thread on a skewer).

Then there’s the inside-out sandwich (ham on outside, bread on inside—might not work so well with peanut butter and jelly).

The other big trend in kids’ lunches is bento boxes. Bento boxes originated in Japan and were convenient meals carried by travellers, just as lunchboxes are today. Bento boxes have come to mean a selection of foods packed creatively into a compartmentalized container.

Bento boxes, or their less convenient cousin the tiffin, can contain elaborate food sculptures, or merely an assortment of leftovers, cut fruit, and the usual kid fare. They are appealing to teachers, who prefer lunches that are easy for children to open and eat independently.

Bento boxes reduce packaging. They also make it likely that there will be at least one item for a fussy eater.

While expensive boxes are available, there are cheaper compartmentalized containers that serve the same function.

The cardinal rule to packing a bento box is to pack the food tightly into the compartments. If food is permitted to slide around within the container, not only will the tomato sculpture become disarranged, it might also become mushy.

Aside from the ideas on the internet, I consulted Andrea Wilson, a Whitehorse mother of three, for some real-life ideas.

If Wilson, known in some social circles as a supermom, struggles with lunches alongside the best of us, it’s only because her standards are higher than so many. She tries to make nearly everything in her kids’ lunches herself.

“I avoid packaged food for so many reasons,” she explains, “but it’s very time-consuming to make my own food.”

The staples of Wilson’s lunches are fruit and vegetables, as well as more ambitious items, such as granola that she makes with her kids and home-baked bread. The trick, she says, is to have a stock of lunch items in the freezer at all times.

“Once a week, I make one thing that can go in lunches, so after a few weeks, I have a good stock of things I can choose from and mix and match.”

Her tried-and-true ideas include pumpkin waffles, made in large batches and used either as snacks on their own, or for sandwiches. Another idea is yoghurt and fruit packed in small jam jars.

Wilson finds it difficult to compete with the convenience foods that other families eat.

“My kids are starting to get lunchbox envy as they get older. They see other kids with pre-packaged snacks and yoghurts and they want them so badly.”

Her kids, by all appearances, are good eaters with a varied diet. Not all children are so agreeable, which brings us to a heart of the lunch issue—how to get kids to eat good food.

Furthermore, why bother? Many adults are happy eating the same thing every day, so why can’t their kids?

If we take a few tips from Karen LeBillon, author of French Kids Eat Everything, our quest should not be to make kids’ lunches more interesting, it should be to create an environment where kids respect and enjoy good food.

Le Billon, a Canadian who has lived in France, observes that children eat well and willingly in France. In her blog about healthy eating, she says there is no such thing as “kids’ food” on French school menus.

School children often eat a common lunch at school, sitting together for at least 30 minutes. The menu is a healthy, balanced three-course meal. A sample school lunch menu includes radish and corn salad, sautéed Provencal vegetables, and roast guinea fowl.

The French see meals as an important time for children to socialize and enjoy food. Wilson agrees with this concept. She’s seen a few fussy eaters, but has also seen them easily won over by the simple act of sharing food together with their peers.

“Whenever we have kids over for lunch, there’s this group thing that happens where we’ll put out something like kale chips and they all go ‘eww’, but then one kid will eat them and pretty soon they’re all happy gobbling them up.”

Wilson herself helps educate her kids about food and build their respect and interest by taking the time to prepare food with them.

“They’re a lot more willing to eat something if they’ve had a hand in getting it ready. There’s a lot more pushback if it’s just presented to them and told ‘this is what you’re going to eat.'”

So maybe we need to focus less on the food and more on the meal as an experience.

But one little panda bear sculpted out of white rice isn’t going to hurt either.