Mouths to Feed: The Lunch-Bag Puzzle

By Celia Barbour

So the kids are back in school, and I am back into the familiar cadence of intense morning chaos followed by uncanny calm. This, in turn, ends sometime after 3:00 each day, when the three of them return home buzzing with inchoate needs and monstrous cravings.

The other afternoon, amid the snacks and homework, I asked my son George, 12, what kinds of lunches his friends bring to school. He replied that one, H—, has peanut butter and jelly.

“Every day?”

“Yeah. Last year too. And A— has ham sandwiches.”

“With cheese or anything?”

“Nope, just ham and mayo. I don’t get how he doesn’t get bored.”

“Some people are creatures of habit,” I said. “Familiarity makes them happy.” It made me happy, too, to hear about it. Most mornings, I am not creative with the kids’ lunches. At least once a week, I send them off with thermoses of macaroni and cheese. Often, they get peanut butter and jelly, sometimes ham sandwiches. By October, they’ll be complaining about the monotony.

I decided long ago, before my kids had much say in the matter, that I was not going to get worked up about what they ate at school. They eat well enough at home to cover their nutritional needs. For lunch, they can eat whatever makes them happy.

But my low-stress strategy did not exactly pan out. For one thing, even the simplest ham sandwiches are not so simple when one child likes mayonnaise but no mustard, the second likes mustard but no mayonnaise, the third likes both. Moreover, all three like lettuce, but only two of them also like cheese. And none of them likes to see the same sandwich more than once a week. Sometimes I feel like I’m packing up lunches for that proverbial farmer who’s trying to get a fox, a goose, and a sack of grain across a river in a rowboat.

Asian chicken with rice in thermoses make exotic hot lunches. Photo by C. Barbour

Last year, my friend Panni told me she buys baguettes at the farmers’ market, cuts them into wedges, and freezes them. Each morning, she pulls one out for her son’s sandwich, and spreads it, European-style, with butter. I liked the sound of this, and now it’s what I do, too — luckily, both boys like butter on their sandwiches.

They also like pickles, which is why I recently found myself slicing tiny cornichons into even tinier slices and laying them atop the ham and cheese, like miniature green tiles. What I thought as I did this was: If it’s delicious, I’m happy.

That evening, George told me that, yes, his sandwich was delicious, and also that one of his friends had venison stew for lunch that day. Uh oh.

So I hauled out the Asian chicken recipe I developed last year when I was captain of a hot-lunch team. It had been a great hit with the students and staff. The recipe was calculated to serve 160, so I divided all measurements by 20. I was amazed to discover how easy this meal is to cook in small quantities. I scooped it into their thermoses, with rice. Into each lunch bag I also put a cluster of grapes and a granola bar for a snack. And, thus equipped, my three very different children went off to school carrying, for once, the exact same lunch.

Hot lunch Asian chicken

1 tablespoon fresh ginger, peeled and chopped

1 onion cut into medium chunks

3 cloves garlic

1 cup soy sauce

Juice of 1 lemon or lime

1 tablespoon sugar

2 tablespoons sesame oil

4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts

2 cups cooked rice

1. Put everything but the chicken in a blender and blend until smooth. Cut the chicken into bite-size pieces. Place in a bowl along with the marinade and refrigerate for 15 minutes to 1 hour.

2. Heat a wok or skillet over medium-high heat about 1 minute. Add the chicken and cook until cooked through, about 3 – 5 minutes, depending on the size of the pieces. Discard extra marinade, or add it to the pan for the last 2 minutes of cooking, making sure it boils. Serve over rice.

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