Preparing lunchboxes is the one thing I dislike most about living in the US. I’m not alone: all the French moms I know hate this chore as much as I do. But, in the country of burgers and pizza at school, I don’t have a choice.
First of all, I want to make clear that I really like my life in the States. I’m grateful for the opportunity to live and work here. Just because I rant about the abundance of plastic or preparing lunchboxes before every breakfast doesn’t mean that my life is in America horrible. Pinky promise—next week, I’ll talk about something positive that had a mind-blowing effect on my family.
My blog subscribers and regular readers know that I have five children. Four of them are going to American schools, and the oldest just graduated from the German School. My little ones have a few years left in elementary school (rising 1st and 3rd graders). The middle child is a rising 7th grader, and her brother is going to be a freshman in high school next fall. Every single weekday, my husband or I cook fresh food for all of them to take to school.
Why? The options offered at their schools are just junk food packed with good intentions! I snapped a photo of my children’s elementary school menu during a random week in June. Each day, students can choose between two options.
In the first week of June, the school provided pizza twice, sandwiches twice, chicken in four different forms, and hot dogs once. Theoretically, the kids also can select some fresh fruits and vegetables to go with their lunch. But, I know that my 8-year-old son would never touch a green food item besides pesto or a red food item besides ketchup. So far, I’ve failed completely with his food education.
Preparing lunchboxes in America
Instead of buying cheap meals at the cafeteria ($2.65 per meal), our family cooks every day. We cook during the school year, and we cook during the summer because, of course, no food is provided at summer camps. Even if it were, I suspect it’d be similar to the school cafeteria’s menu.
Let’s look at this week as an example. Today, I prepared chicken breasts (just plain fried in the pan) with roasted potatoes. The kids had a snack (string cheese with a few crackers) and fresh strawberries for dessert. Yesterday, I reheated leftover Bolognese sauce and boiled some pasta. Tomorrow, I plan to make cheese omelets with more strawberries (my picky son could eat them all day, which is a miracle!).
All French parents I know personally prepare their kids’ lunchboxes
We live near the French International School, so many French families have settled in our neighborhood. But, the French school has a problem: none of the three campuses have a cafeteria. Children in the upper school can use microwaves to reheat leftovers, but kids in the elementary school are left with cold lunchboxes only.
Other French parents with children in American public schools have similar feelings about American cafeteria food. Thus, they also prepare lunchboxes day after day.
I truly hate preparing lunchboxes before breakfast
Truly, packing lunchboxes is the most annoying and thankless task I know. If you don’t cook fresh food for lunchboxes, you feel bad because your children’s only options are sandwiches or junk food. However, painstakingly creating the perfect healthy lunch takes precious time in the morning. As all parents know, time is a scarce commodity when you’re coordinating a bunch of children and getting ready for work.
Twice a week, my husband prepares pasta with pesto sauce. In my opinion, that’s just a little better than chicken nuggets with fries. As a result, our oldest children can’t stand pesto and pasta anymore!
When it’s my turn to cook, I try to be more creative; but, honestly, I’m not Wonder Woman! Sometimes, I’m tired. Other days, I just don’t know how to create enticing meals while spending less than 30 minutes in the kitchen.
Then, we have days where all the kids beg to eat at the cafeteria. Sometimes, we just say yes. For dinner, I make sure they have a homemade soup, casserole, or something else with plenty of vitamins.
Preparing lunchboxes is a never ending problem
There’s no solution to the school lunch problem, and that’s why it’s so aggravating. French and American food habits are too different to find a halfway point.
I wouldn’t go so far as to wish for a school cafeteria like the one Michael Moore features in the video below. My experience as a child raised in France was different. The food was not particularly good, but vegetables, fruits, fish, and meat were balanced throughout the week. We had French fries maybe three or four times a year. But pizza? Burgers? Hotdogs? Sandwiches? Never.
A long time ago, my grandmother was responsible for the school’s cafeteria in her little French town. My father often said what a great cook she was. In fact, she was so good that teachers would drive an extra mile to visit her school for lunch. Both my dad’s little sister and her husband were teachers in the same town, and they confirmed the family legend: my grandmother was indeed famous for her excellent food. That’s just anecdotal evidence, but in a way it illustrates how French school cafeterias offer more balanced options.
My final words are dedicated to the German School in Washington. Although this school is smaller than its French counterpart, it has its own cafeteria. Susanne Koehler runs the kitchen with the help of volunteers. Together, they provide healthy, home-cooked meals every day. Susanne greets each child by name, and she also knows which of them follow a special diet. During my first year in DC, I volunteered in the cafeteria, and I know firsthand what is prepared: besides a solid German-style entrée, the school cafeteria offers alternatives for vegetarians as well as fresh salad bowls.
At least during our first year in the US, I had no lunchboxes to prepare. Jasmine was in 9th grade at the German School, Yann was in pre-K, and Pauline was in daycare. My stepchildren were still living in Germany. In some ways, I long for those days, you can’t imagine how much I hate preparing lunchboxes.