L. and P. are in a Maurice Sendak phase right now.  They’re generally found, these days, jumping around the house with “claws” bared as they enact the Wild Things’ rumpus; trying to stand on their heads like the contrary Pierre; or humming along incessantly to our Scholastic Books Maurice Sendak DVD, on which Carole King sings about Chicken Soup with Rice.  Which, of course, prompted the literate five-year-old foodie of the household to proclaim, “Mommy, I want you to make chicken soup with rice for my lunch at school.”

I agreed to his request, and then got thinking about all the lunch-packing conversations we’ve had on RRG lately.  Some of you have seemed interested in soup recipes for your kids’ thermoses; L. was interested in soup for his thermos; and it seemed like a good time to really ponder the whole question of making something just especially for a hot lunch item.  Typically, when I send my kids with a Thermos of something, it’s leftovers of a dinner we’ve had and therefore doesn’t require much of me in the morning.  But here was L. asking for a hot lunch item I wasn’t planning to put on the dinner menu; and here were you, readers, looking for inspiration.

I had plans for that chicken soup with rice, which I quickly reconsidered in the name of making things as easy as possible for all the lunch-packers in the world.  And I invented a concept I plan to test with many other soup and stew recipes, this fall — the overnight thermos lunch.  Well, technically, I likely did NOT invent this idea.  Someone else has surely been smart enough to think of it before.  But not many people seem to be talking about it, so I will.

With just a few minutes of effort last night and about the same expenditure this morning, I was able to make a totally from-scratch chicken soup with rice in my slow cooker and send it to school in the kids’ lunchboxes.  The advantages were clear — for about $12 worth of raw ingredients, almost all organic, I got about 10 servings of soup, so it was economical.  It was also easy, since it cooked while I was sleeping and required only a bare minimum of skill in the kitchen, and it was lovely and hot when the time came to fill up the thermos containers and send them off to school.  It was also REAL FOOD.  Healthy, real food.  And these days, I feel like that counts even more than it used to.

If I had bought a can of chicken soup with rice, heated it up, and put it in L. and P.’s thermoses, I would likely have been feeding them something that contained, among other lovely ingredients, mechanically separated chicken and MSG.  Now, my particular feelings about those quasi-edible items aside, I also must point out that I have a new reason for wanting to avoid a chemical stew in the boys’ lunchboxes: something is making P. sick.

A few times recently, he has had uncontrollable and violent GI symptoms, as well as troubled sleep, not long after eating a processed snack or treat at school — something we didn’t pack for him.  Ordinarily I’m fine with the boys eating whatever they’re served, because, among other reasons, I feel like they need to experience moderation and live in the “real” world, not be sheltered from the existence of the things I choose not to bring into our house.  But now I’m a little more wary, because we’re about 99% sure that P.’s symptoms were related to something he ate…and we didn’t give him anything he hadn’t eaten before. 

What could it be?  We asked the school if we could see the ingredient labels for the foods he’d been given, which they of course were happy to provide.  Froot Loops, “golden” vanilla ice cream, packaged brownie bites, Oreos.  Just trying to decipher the list of complex chemical names on those labels will make your eyes cross, if you’re looking at them all together.  I think I may have found some common themes, as well as some things that can be ruled out, but I’m not totally confident yet without a little trial and error.  (Not looking forward to that, certainly.) 

Here’s the thing, though — I’ve heard a couple of reactions to this tale of mysterious food-related woe.  One of them goes something like this: “Well, you know, you don’t give him enough REGULAR food, like the other kids get.  Maybe his system just isn’t used to that kind of thing.  Maybe he’d tolerate it better if you let him have more of that stuff on a regular basis.”  The other is along these lines: “Whew.  Well, that’s rough, but good for you.  Most parents wouldn’t figure out that those kinds of tummy troubles and the sleep problems were connected to something in the food.”

Both of these ideas disturb me.  The first is bothersome because, as I remarked to J., I can’t figure out when plain old food became “not regular food.”  When did we get to the point where something had to be processed to be considered a “normal” part of the American child’s diet?  The second is more problematic, though, because I suspect it may be true.  Certainly any parent would be concerned about an upset stomach, but honestly, how many of us chalk up things like poor sleeping habits, extremes of behavior, or mood swings to the stuff our kids are eating?

Probably not many.  Oh, maybe you, readers of this blog…but I am really starting to see how rare it is for American parents to really study and understand the effects of our food supply on our health and our children’s health.  How many children out there are eating that so-called “regular” food and suffering some kind of side effect as a result, without anyone realizing that the two things are connected? 

Going back to the soup, now: How many kids are eating a supposedly “healthy” lunch of canned soup, without their parents really knowing that it’s full of MSG and phosphates and preservatives of every possible variety?  How many thermoses in the lunchroom are filled with chemical cocktails that may actually affect the health, mood, behavior, and learning of some of the kids consuming them?  I don’t know.  And while many members of the population are probably somewhat immune to the possible side effects of different food additives, our experience with P. is making me wonder whether the number of people who DO suffer some sort of ill effect from these things might be higher than any of us think. 

The bottom line here is that, hopefully, taking a few extra minutes here and there to put together a soup that literally makes itself overnight will be the kind of thing that ends up being worth it to a number of families.  Hopefully these kinds of shortcuts, tips, tricks, and easy recipes will keep the chemicals out of at least a few lunchboxes, and start turning the tide back towards Real Lunch for Real Kids — real food, not “regular” food, whatever that means.  I’m aiming to normalize FOOD again, in all its unfancy, unfussy, homespun glory.