It hasn’t escaped my notice that the internet is buzzing right now with back-to-school wisdom, especially in the realm of lunch packing.  Some school districts began the new academic year as early as last week; many others, today; and still others, like ours, will wait another week before kicking off the 2011-2012 year.  And amidst all the pressing concerns most of us probably have about things like the quality of the academic and extracurricular programs offered to our kids; the social and emotional components of a new school year; and the back-to-school shopping lists; amidst all these, is the very real question: How and what am I going to feed them?

I’ll tackle the “what,” I promise, later this week.  But urgently, I think, we need to tackle the “how.”  Because it’s the “how” that trips us up, more than anything.  I mean, for heaven’s sake, we all know enough to recognize that Twinkies, Cheetos, a Yoo-hoo, and some string cheese does not a school lunch make (or, at least, I hope we know that.  Quick, somebody reassure me that people do know that!).  But I think in packing school lunches, as with any other task of feeding our families WELL and properly, we tend to get mired in the details and worry too much about the little things, and we paralyze ourselves with good intentions.

I used to do it, too.  You know, I stopped to think about this the other day, as I was writing a lunch-packing post for another site (yes, I’ll share that link when it’s live), and I realized that I’ve been packing lunches for five years now.  Five years.  And my oldest child isn’t even in Kindergarten yet.  But even after five years, I don’t, frankly, get stressed out by any aspect of the lunch-packing ritual; I can very matter-of-factly accept that it will be a major part of my routine for the next sixteen years or so.  It wasn’t always this way, but a shift in my attitude helped me to feel more, well, zen about lunch.

What I mean is this: all over the world of lunch-packing wisdom, wonderful lunchbox gurus who send children to school with sparkling examples of school food wizardry sagely nod at their followers and say things like, “Just shoot for balance.  A protein, a carbohydrate, a fruit, a vegetable, and a dairy product; that’s all you need to pack every day!”  Oh, sure, simple.  If it were that easy for all of us to eat by the food groups, the USDA wouldn’t feel the need to revamp the (now-defunct) Food Pyramid/MyPlate/Platinum Spork every few years.

But I used to do the “food groups” thing, too, and I was determined to get it right.  The lunch-packing OCD would kick in, and I’d have to make sure there were neat little attractive portions of each group.  Preferably — me being who I am — INTERESTING portions as well.  I spent a lot of time cooking/preparing extra tidbits for lunchboxes.  And you know what?  L. was no better fed at that point in his life than he is now; in fact, he’s probably better off now, when I’m putting less energy into his school lunches and just focusing on whole, real, foods.

The epiphany I’ve come to, in the past five years, is that as far as kids and food go…you can lead a child to the green beans, but you can’t make him eat.  (This, by the way, applies not only to packed lunches; it’s been a major argument in the movement to reform school food, since people who oppose drastic changes to school lunch often point out that much of the lovingly prepared fresh produce ends up in the trash.)  Since most kids need fewer servings of protein than produce, for example, but are apt to gravitate towards anything BUT the produce, if given the chance,the concept of just serving up every food group at every meal really doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.  Very few children are truly suffering from a lack of protein or carbohydrates; almost all of them, however, could use more fruits and vegetables. 

Here’s the real news: Lunch-packing isn’t about food groups and how much of which items the kids eat.  Lunch-packing is about providing OPPORTUNITY.

I don’t always know that my kids are going to eat everything I send with them; I don’t always know WHAT they’ll eat, out of the lunchbox I’ve packed.  P., in particular, tends to surprise me on the what-he-actually-consumed front.  What I do know is that while they’re at school, nobody is going to provide them with the opportunity to eat lots of fruits and vegetables — nobody but me.

Nobody is going to provide them with the opportunity to look at the food in front of them and have the “teachable moment” — however dimly they may process it at any given point in time — about colors, textures, and variety in a meal.  Nobody but me.

There won’t be fanfare, and lecture, and one-on-one relating about the reasons fruits and vegetables and whole grains and fresh foods belong in their meals; but I guarantee you that in leading by daily example, by giving your kids the opportunity to open their lunchboxes every day and see a proper meal, you’ll have taught them something just the same.  Whether they eat, and how much, and what, is much less important than the fact that you’ve provided them with a PLATFORM for eating.  And truly, I promise you — despite the horror stories we’ve all heard about trading lunches or throwing away something healthy to buy a cupcake from the vending machine — if you just provide your children with smart nutritional opportunities from Day One,  they will more often than not oblige you by eating well.  Not everything.  Not all the time.  But that’s not the point.

When I look at my kids’ lunchboxes, I have one rule of thumb: Whatever I pack must provide them with more than two opportunities to make a decent choice.  That’s it.  I do make some fun and interesting food, but it’s not often that I really go out of my way to try to do anything particularly special or splashy or enticing, because that’s not how the world will feed them, as they grow.  What the world WILL do is offer them choices about what to eat, and so should their lunchboxes.  Will he eat the bananas or the applesauce?  The green beans or the dates?  Both?  Neither?  It’s up to them, but I’ve stacked the deck to give them the opportunity to choose successfully. 

There are two rewards to packing lunch on an “opportunity” basis.  One is that I’m less worried about whether or not their meal is “balanced” — I can take the broader view and decide whether or not their DAY or their WEEK is balanced.  The other is that, almost no matter how little they choose to eat of what I’ve packed on any given day, they’ll have gotten in at least a small serving of something really good.  I can shrug off the uneaten green beans when the containers from two servings of fruit come home clean, far more than I’d be able to excuse the same untouched vegetable in the face of, say, a cupcake wrapper and an empty bag of pretzels.

Lunchboxes are not different from the other meals we feed our children; they have their own challenges, certainly, but when it comes right down to it, they’re just another meal.  Just one more time in the day to plunk down some nourishment in front of the kids, and hopefully, give them a carefully veiled lesson or two in the food values our individual families try to uphold.  Sometimes I think we talk so much about wasting food, money, and time at school lunch, that we don’t talk enough about the wasted opportunities to help our kids become the conscious eaters we want them to be.