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Bag Lunches: Attention, parents!

Kids: Bagging It
Some innocent truths about school lunch
by Pat McNees

(This article first appeared in the Washington Post long ago; the essential truths have not changed. Jason Swesnik, the adorable little boy who as a grammar school student took a starring role in this story died, suddenly, at the age of 32. See separate note with some details, below. I can still picture Jason coming up to me to ask if he can register a complaint about his lunch.). See also The I Hate Mayonnaise Club and more stories about school lunches.

IT IS LUNCH TIME at Lafayette Elementary School. Sensing a certain malaise about the take-out menu in our house — plus envy of more desirable lunches packed by other parents — I am here to research what is in and out in bag lunches.

I alert the clamorous lunchers that I am their pipeline to the adult world of lunch-packers. (Few children pack their own, preferring to grumble about what their parents pack.)

“Are you taking complaints?” asks 8-year-old Jason Swesnik, approaching the lunch table where I am observing sandwich styles. “I don’t like getting soap in my milk. My Mom doesn’t rinse out the thermos well enough.”

In another corner, 5-year-old Norman Suter is throwing away a full can of Del Monte fruit cup, which his mother puts in his lunch often and which he throws away every time.

Standing at the same trash can is 5-year-old Abram Naparstek, discarding his entire cheese sandwich. “I like cheese sandwiches. I threw it out because it has mayonnaise on it. I hate mayonnaise.”

Aversion to mayonnaise is common at this age. Parents are either slow to grasp this fact or believe exposure will weaken resistance.

Teachers in the lower grades sometimes insist that children take home the uneaten part of their lunches so that parents can see how much they eat and what they leave untouched. But parents being parents (somnolent, rushed, or bored with lunch-packing) and children being children (finicky, opinionated, and determined to make life difficult), lunch remains something of an impasse in many homes. Some children throw away what they don’t like; others trade food with kids of different tastes. One can’t help but wonder what kids would pack themselves.

“Do you have any advice for parents about good lunches?” I ask a group of fourth-grade boys. (There is little mingling of the sexes at this age.)

“Do you mean for a good lunch, or for a lunch kids would eat?” asks 10-year-old Guin Kreisberg, quickly seizing the horns of the dilemma.

In the ensuing conversation, Guin, Michael Campbell, David Weintraub, and John Krattenmaker—speaking as if in one voice—announce that:

“Nobody likes things that get smushed, like bananas and eggs. Eggs are also no good because they’re not hot and they’re not cold.”(Although PBJ—peanut butter and jelly—is a top-favorite sandwich item, virtually everyone detests smushed PBJ, or PBJ when there is jelly all over the sandwich bag. And many kids simply hate PBJ, either because they get it too often or because the jelly soaks into the bread and makes it soggy.)

“Kids throw away a lot more lunch when there is outdoor recess,” one fourth-grader went on, “because they want to get outside and claim a place. They also stuff their faces so they won’t be last to finish and have to clean the table.”

“Little kids are more apt to get sweets and to throw away the healthy stuff like sandwiches. I used to do that when I was little. When you get to the 4th, 5th, and 6th grades, a lot of kids take their milk money and stop at the store in the morning to buy candy instead. The part I hate is when you have a few sweets and everybody is begging for them, saying, ‘If you give me that, I’ll be your best friend.’ Sometimes they’ll give you money or try to steal it.”

For a more definitive study, two classes (a fifth grade at Lafayette and a fourth grade at John Eaton Elementary) were asked to write both their lunch preferences, and what they dislike. Because it’s hardly a secret that no two children like the same food — and a given child may not like the same food two weeks running — the only consensus was predictable: Virtually no child can tolerate liverwurst and almost everyone likes sweets, particularly sodas and candy. The latter are discouraged or forbidden in many lunchrooms because it is difficult for a child drinking milk not to be envious of a child drinking soda pop.

“I hate coming to get my lunch after a long gym class, and finding a bologna sandwich,” wrote fifth-grader Ted Calabria, bemoaning not so much the bologna as the predictability.

No child wants the same food every day, or as fourth-grader Eithne McMenamin put it: “continuous food each week.”

Otherwise well-liked sandwiches are often spoiled by being put on bread the kids don’t like, or by being spruced up with spreads they hate. Parents would do well to ask their children’s views on items such as mustard, mayonnaise, butter, margarine, lettuce, and tomatoes.

“I don’t want to hear what my daughter wants in the morning,” moaned one father. “I barely make it to work on time as it is.”

After consenting to an experimental bag-lunch trip through the supermarket, he learned that his daughter, fed up with cheese wedges and PBJ, would like nothing more than a brief fling with bologna sandwiches, bell peppers, grapes, and Doritos: about as easy a packing job as he could hope for, and his daughter was thrilled to have a say in her own menu. One child suggested that kids write daily choices on a special lunch calendar.

As a result of this research, Pat’s daughter began to pack her own lunch. Jason Swesnik's mother also turned over that job to her son.

Here are the items mentioned most often in an informal survey of about 70 bag-lunchers at Lafayette and John Eaton elementary schools:

Most popular sandwiches: PBJ, roast beef, bologna, ham, tuna, and heroes (roughly: ham, cheese, lettuce, optional tomatoes, on French bread or roll, butter or mustard optional).
Not-as-popular: Plain peanut butter, turkey, salami, chicken, egg salad, hot dogs, cheese and crackers, bagels and cream cheese, cheese sandwich.
Popular “main-course” alternatives: Pizza (even cold, and including muffin pizza), hot soup, ravioli, Spaghettios or leftover dinner pasta, fried or barbecued chicken (especially legs), salad.
Also mentioned: Chinese food, yogurt, turkey or chicken pot pie, steak.
Popular snack items: Doritos way ahead, potato chips trailing far behind.
Also mentioned: Potato sticks, popcorn, Cheetos, salted and shelled peanuts, raisins.
Fruit: Apples the clear winner, but not all pass muster. Frequent qualifiers: “cold,” “crisp,” “plump,” “juicy,” “red,” “without bruises,” “Granny Smith.”
Oranges in second place, often rejected as “messy.” Qualifiers: “peeled,” “unpeeled,” “whole,” “halved,” “quartered,” “sliced,” “sectioned,” and “don’t forget the napkin.”
Also mentioned: plums, strawberries, cherries, pears, pineapple, peaches, grapes, and tangerines. Few children expressed a desire for bananas, though many children got them. Several objected to canned fruit as having “a funny taste.”
Desserts: Cookies (especially chocolate chip) and candy, followed by cake, chocolate pudding, Granola bars, Jell-O, brownies, cupcakes, donuts, Twinkies, chocolate mousse, and chocolate croissants.
Drinks: Soda the popular fantasy choice, but milk a close second, followed closely by chocolate milk and less closely by apple juice.
Also mentioned: Hawaiian Punch, orange juice, hot cocoa, grape juice, fruit punch, and lemonade.

Yuck list: Foods mentioned fairly frequently with revulsion: liverwurst, mayonnaise, fat on meat, bell peppers, meat loaf, smushed PBJ and smushed bananas, eggs, pears, etc., chicken sandwiches (they’re dry or fall apart), cold soup, warm milk, spoiled orange juice, warm or soft apples, any kind of fish, untoasted whole-wheat bread, canned meat or fruit, cold green beans or peas, tomatoes, celery, and cold chicken.
Popular items that also made the most-disliked list: milk, salami, bologna, and oranges.

Fantasies: One child skipped everything and went right for peanut-butter-and-sugar sandwiches. Other fantasy menus: “a small submarine sandwich filled with tuna and roast beef, with tomatoes and mustard on an onion roll;” “dried ham and cream-cheese sandwich, a carrot, milk and butterscotch cookies;” “a club sandwich, strawberries dipped in sugar, and cake;” for dessert, “Oreos, plain, or with double stuff.”

Copyright © Pat McNees. Do not reprint in any medium without permission.

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With thanks to the Washington Post, here is the death notice for JASON S. SWESNIK (Age 32)

Of New Orleans, LA, suddenly on October 31, 2005. Son of Heidi and Marc Yacker of Washington, DC and the late Bruce Swesnik; brother of Deidre Swesnik (Nate Trail) of Washington and Vanessa Swesnik of Austin, TX; grandson of Sylvia Swesnik of Boca Raton, FL and Gus Yacker of Toms River, NJ. He was a graduate of Edmund Burke High School in Washington, DC and the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY. Jason was a friend to all and will be missed. A Celebration of His Life [was] held from 4 to 7 p.m. on Saturday, November 19 at Heidi and Marc Yacker's home. In lieu of flowers, contributions may be made to The Humane Society of the US Disaster Relief Fund, 2100 L St., NW, Washington, DC 20037 or the Second Harvest Food Bank of Greater New Orleans and Acadiana, 1201 Sams Ave., New Orleans, LA 70123.

Reader Michael Wall wrote: “You know, I really connect with little 5 year old Abram Naparstek. Mayonnaise is totally gross. I hate mayonnaise. And a jillion other people out there do as well. I actually found your article by doing a google search on the phrase "I hate mayonnaise". Some of the sites are pretty funny... I really loved your article and it hit home with me. I'm 34, but I remember the thousands of lunches my parents packed me like it was yesterday. We didn't have a lot of money growing up, but we made enough so that we didn't qualify for free lunch... so I brown bagged it every day until I was in tenth grade. I hated it, even though I realized a few years later all the love that my mom put into those lunches.”

I checked out some of the many “I hate mayonnaise” links and found this explanation in 1996 from Charles Memminger, president and founder of the worldwide I Hate Mayonnaise Club: “Restaurants have a way of slipping mayo, in all its guises, onto all sorts of food. And that, after all, is the basis for the Worldwide I Hate Mayonnaise Club: the fact that mayo is one of the few substances people will automatically put on your food. (I've often had people come up and say, "I hate liver. I think I'll start a Worldwide I Hate Liver Club." And I have to point out that when you order a cheeseburger, it rarely comes topped with a hunk of liver. But it always comes slathered with the dreaded white gunk.)”

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Kids Who Are Time-Crunched At School Lunch Toss More And Eat Less (Maria Godoy and Allison Aubrey, The Salt, NPR, 9-24-15) Longer lines in the cafeteria and shorter lunch periods mean many public school students get just 15 minutes to eat. Yet researchers say when kids get less than 20 minutes for lunch, they eat less of everything on their tray.
D.C.’s Public Schools Select New Lunch Providers (Jeffrey Anderson on Kojo Nnandi Show, guest host Michaelk Schaffer, 5-25-16) Fascinating discussion. In the summer of 2015, District of Columbia Public Schools’ food provider Chartwells agreed to pay the city $19 million over allegations of poor food quality and fraud. Almost a year later, the school system says it’s picked Chartwells’ replacements — but questions remain about how the vendors were chosen and what future oversight will look like. Anderson has been following this story. It answers a lot of questions I've had about school lunches and raises some others.
School Lunch or Brown Bag: Which Is Right for Your Kid? (Elizabeth Renter, US News, 4-14-15) With the new nutrition guidelines, the cafeteria line may be the healthier choice.
Kids Eat Free: School Lunch Program Combats Hunger, Stigma (Patti Daniels, Vermont Public Radio, 10-14-15) Johnson Elementary School saw an increase in meal participation, with a rise from 60% of students eating hot meals to over 80% students eating hot meals after the launch of the program. In Johnson, all elementary students can get free breakfast and lunch in the school cafeteria through the Community Eligibility Provision. VPR's Patti Daniels met up with Johnson Elementary School Principal David Manning at lunch time to learn more. "It means that regardless of income level, regardless of if a parent has filled out an application or not filled out an application, every kid gets access to our full meals," says Manning. "That's the purpose of the program is to make sure that kids are fed before school when they come for breakfast and fed at lunchtime." To qualify for the program, 40 percent of the student population must already be receiving services for low-income families
Keeping "Bag" Lunches Safe (US Dept of Agriculture) How to prevent foodborne illness.
Packing a Balanced Lunch... That Your Kid Will Eat (Jenny Favret, Bull City Fit)
School Lunch in New Hampshire: The Challenges of Getting Healthy Food in Front of Kids (Allison Aubrey, NPR, 1-28-16) As stricter nutrition regulations go into their fifth year, some New Hampshire students and schools, continue to push back against these federal guidelines to make meals healthier. But the rules have many supporters too who say that serving food with less sodium, fat, and calories is a necessity in an era of childhood obesity. Listen to several stories on school lunch from NH Public Radio.
The Lunch Box Blues (Rick Ganley, Morning Edition, 8-27-13) Associated Press Food Editor and Concord resident J.M. Hirsch talks with Morning Edition about packing quick and easy school lunches that are healthy- and that kids will actually want to eat.


This next one is about adults:
The People Who Eat the Same Meal Every Day (Joe Pinsker, The Atlantic, 3-7-19) “Variety doesn’t really matter to me. I would be perfectly happy to eat the same Caesar salad or peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich every day.”But what does bringing the same foods each day for lunch each day say about your personality? And by the way, most of the world eats the same food every day. Food-studies scholar Krishnendu Ray says “Newness or difference from the norm is a very urban, almost postmodern, quest. It is recent. It is class-based.”

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