Welcome to Week Two of our Menu Mondays Lunchbox series!  By now, if your kids are not actually back at school yet, the day must be drawing very, very near.  I know L.’s practically too excited to sleep these days, knowing that his very last day at his beloved preschool is imminent (just two more days to go…snif), and actual KINDERGARTEN STATUS is a mere week away!

Of course, older kids may not be quite so thrilled about the prospect of giving up the last vestiges of their summer vacation.  And certainly, for us parents, the whole thing is like an emotional trail mix.  A little angst here…a little excitement there…and a few pieces of candy-coated nostalgia as we look forward to another year of watching them grow into something that resembles REAL PEOPLE.  This primordial soup of feelings is precisely WHY having a great lunch plan is so important.  Let’s face it – a good school lunch can actually make or break a kid’s day.  For the excited new kindergartener, opening a fabulous lunchbox is like a reaffirmation that THIS IS HUGE.  For the reluctant returning students, a great lunch may be one of the brighter spots in their day.   And for us parents, let me venture a theory about lunch-packing that goes beyond our usual assumptions.

I think packing a really, really good lunch for our kids shows them how much we value their educations.  It’s a way of putting emphasis on the vital importance of what happens each day when they step through the doors of their school and move from being “our kids” to being “students.”  Part of having kids who do well in school, I think – and I don’t mean necessarily straight-A students, but kids who are at least trying hard and engaging in the process, no matter what their academic aptitude – is having a home environment that prioritizes education and values the learning process.

When I was a kid, my parents were very clear with us that going to school was no less a job than any of the things they did during the day to keep our household functioning.  Our lives were structured in a way that put school and homework FIRST – no playing with friends, no TV, no leisure activities until we’d had a chance to tell Mom about our day, hand over any important notices, and get our assignments done.  (Obviously, this model shifted somewhat as we grew into middle and high school – but the point is, by then, our priorities were set.)  Back-to-school shopping was an event in our house, with a trip to the store for new clothes, a special lunch out with Mom, and an end-of-day scavenger hunt through Staples to find all the required supplies on our teachers’ lists.  There were rules, expectations, and yes, an air of pomp and circumstance around the whole school experience.  And I’d say it worked pretty well.

Of course, those weren’t the ONLY things my parents did that showed us how invested they were in our educational lives; but you get my point.  Right now, at this very moment, as we poise for back-to-school time, it’s precisely those kinds of preparatory gestures that will show our kids how much we care – and subsequently, how much they ought to care – about their educations.   Treating the shopping for back-to-school gear as a special ritual is one way to get kids in the mindset that school is a big deal, but even better than that is treating the stuff that’s IN that gear every day of the school year as if it’s worth our time and attention.

Certainly, the quality and variety of packed lunches will vary day to day – we’re only human, after all, and life happens.  There will be days when we have colds and headaches and early morning meetings and when the fridge is emptier than it ought to be and everyone has overslept and the dog barfed on the carpet.  Lunches won’t always be perfect.  But throwing a couple of pre-packaged processed food items into a paper sack and shoving it at your kid on his way out the door sets one tone for his school day; taking the time and effort, when you can muster it, to put an array of fresh, nutritious foods into containers, fill up a water bottle, and pack it all in a way that will keep it relatively attractive until lunchtime sets another tone entirely.

My friend B.W. once said to me of the uniforms L.’s new school requires: “I wore a uniform as a kid, and then changed schools and didn’t have to anymore.  I like the uniform better.  It gives you a sense of purpose and makes school seem more serious.  You’re going off to do a particular job, and you’re dressed for the part.”  I like her thinking, and I’d venture to say that the same applies to lunches.  A well-packed lunchbox says that the seriousness of your kid’s job as a student warrants some serious fuel.  For their efforts at school, you’ll offer your own efforts at keeping them well-fed and focused and happy.  And that is a lunch-packing motivation that will get me out of bed to pack on even the darkest and coldest of mornings.

Today’s lunch theme is “Mini Meals.”  Making food that’s scaled down in size for lunches helps kids not only feel as if you’ve really made a lunch that’s just for them, but also keeps them focused and engaged in the eating process.  Little bites of food are often easier to handle, especially in a short lunch period.  Some of these mini meals will also be great for older kids who feel self-conscious about packed lunches – teenaged boys, for example, might score “cool” points for having chicken wings in their lunch, while older girls might like the appearance of delicacy that comes with popping open a container of neat little rice cakes or veggie wraps.

Nut-free Thai-Style Chicken Dippers
L.’s Favorite Honey Wings
Meatloaf Muffins
Salad Spears
Veggie Wraps
Arancini Cakes