See? I don't have anything against turkey, I swear.

See? I don’t have anything against turkey, I swear.

Every year.  Every single year.  It happens every darned year, and you’d think I’d know by now not to expect that it’ll get better, but I can’t help it.  I’m an optimist.  I keep thinking that THIS year will be different.  This year, by golly, we’ll get some back-to-school lunch segments in the mainstream media that don’t make me feel like every parent in America is a functional food illiterate who needs to be talked down to in order to pack lunches for their kids.

This is a lunchbox!  And THIS is a sandwich!  And did you know there’s something called fruit, too?  Fruit is a wonderful thing for children, AND you can pack it in a lunchbox!

Cue appreciative oohs and aahs from the audience.

Sorry for the snark, everyone, but on Friday I happened to catch an episode of The “Today” Show, on which a supposed lunchbox expert (I think she was a chef and mom) was offering her best super-creative, super-healthy lunch ideas for back-to school.  And the segment, in all of its maybe 3 minutes on the air, made me crazy enough to take to the RRG Facebook page and rant about it.   But the rant wasn’t REALLY about this particular lunchbox segment, if I’m honest.  It was more about ALL the lunchbox segments.  All the ones that show up every year, online, in parenting magazines, and on TV.  All the ones that follow the same general formula:

Step One. Make some inane pseudo-scientific commentary about something that you appear to think “most parents” are concerned about, but which in fact is far from top-of-mind for “most parents.”  Examples: Temperature of lunchbox food vs. salmonella risk, or, in the case of this “Today” segment, optimal caloric intake for a grade-school child’s lunchbox.  (I know.  I can’t even.)  Cite some sort of expert or data point so you sound really official.  That will be sure to worry the parents who are watching.

Step Two.  Refer — several times, preferably — to the known pickiness of child eaters, and how children “don’t,” “won’t,” or “can’t” eat various perfectly normal healthy foods.  Make sure you laugh about how appalling it would be to try to give kids something more creative than carrot sticks or a banana.  Bonus points if you, like the “Today” contributor last week, try to rectify this by whipping up a kale smoothie that looks like ectoplasm, and then fail miserably on national television when you try to get one of the adorable kid testers to taste the thing, and she proudly and loudly refuses. Because, hey, you’ve just SAID that kids don’t like stuff, and then you presented the “stuff” in as repulsive-looking a form as possible.  Well played.

Step Three.  Make sure, for the love of all that is holy, to trot out the TURKEY SANDWICH.  As we know, the turkey sandwich is the only healthy lunchbox item children will eat.  But obviously, you have to make it “creative” for the masses, so you need to either A) Use a cookie cutter to make it look like a dinosaur-fairy-astronaut; B) Roll it up in a tortilla to make pinwheels; or C) Desperately shove a few shreds of carrot, lettuce, or cucumber into it and use it as a “talking point” for how kids need a serving of vegetables at lunch and will never notice if you just mash some bunny chow in between the turkey and cheese.

Step Four.  Help parents get out of their “healthy snack rut” by presenting them with a fun option that’s neither particularly healthy, nor a snack (discuss).  You may, for example, distract them with something like a banana (ooh!  fruit!  healthy!), then smother it in marshmallows and chocolate to make it palatable for the children (refer to Step Two).  Clearly the addition of marshmallows and chocolate doesn’t make it a dessert.  No, that’s just window dressing so the little dears can choke down the horrible fruit you’re trying to force upon them.

Step Five.  This is optional, but highly recommended if you want to achieve lunch-packing expert stardom: Use lots of peanut butter and nut products in your segment, without ONCE mentioning the words “allergy,” “anaphylaxis,” or “nut-free schools,” and CERTAINLY without daring to bring up perfectly agreeable safe substitutions like sunbutter and pumpkin seeds.  Just assume that every school allows nuts and every kid can eat peanut butter, ‘kay?  What could go wrong?

But seriously.  Is there anything wrong with packing a turkey sandwich filled with shredded vegetables for your kid’s school lunch?  Not at all.  I’ve done it myself.  And if we’re being honest here — which we always are — that type of lunch would be a huge improvement from the overly processed Lunchables and Capri Suns many kids take to school routinely.  So my qualms are not necessarily about the turkey sandwich (though really, every year I wait for the deluge of “creative” turkey sandwich take-offs to come, and I’m never disappointed).  My  qualms are more about the way it all just seems so dumbed-down.  And so patronizing — both to parents AND to children.  And the way that it feeds all the lousy cultural stereotypes we Americans seem to hold dear about “kid food” for kids.

Sure, there’s a segment of the population for whom the banana with chocolate and the carrots in the turkey sandwich are a downright revelation, and a step up — after all, the “Today” Show is smart.  They know there are people who love that sort of lunchbox tutorial.  But here’s what’s kind of dangerous about it, I think: It’s the spreading of a particular message, a particular way of thinking — heck, practically a parent GOSPEL — on a platform that has the opportunity to do much better for its wide and captive audience.

But can’t people get their lunchbox wisdom elsewhere, if they don’t like the endless turkey-sandwich parade?  Certainly they could.  After all, we live in the Internet Age.  Nobody listens to just one source anymore, not with so much information available out there.  Except…

Has anyone else noticed that with so much noise around, it can be easier to just pick a select few sources, whether internet, radio, or TV?  That too much information is, in fact, too much, and that if a source you might see as trustworthy is talking about the topic that’s on your mind, you might just be willing to listen to their coverage and not go beyond that?  Yeah.  That’s human nature.

So in fact, when the “Today” Show or any other major media outlet chooses their lunch packing “experts,” and they choose the people who will carry the same messages forward year after year — Kids are picky, parents are too busy to make good lunches, and turkey sandwiches are the fount from which all life-giving goodness flows — guess what message gets heard and carried loud and clear, year after year?  Major media outlets like “Today” have a tendency to go with the popular, status-quo message; they don’t want to challenge parents’ thinking on lunch-packing, so they actually reinforce it, while disguising that reinforcement as “expert advice.”  So people walk away from a trusted source of information feeling calmly reassured in their beliefs that they are under no obligation to offer new, interesting, and even occasionally semi-challenging items to their kids, and that the solution to life’s problems is to dip them in chocolate and marshmallows.

Just once, I’d love to see the mainstream media, in its prime programming hours, trot out some new messaging on this subject.  Challenge us to do better.  Tell us that a turkey sandwich and some carrots are not the only solution to healthy lunches, and that a lunchbox full of interesting colors, textures, and flavors is far more important for our kids’ long-term health and development than counting the calories in that lunch.  I’d love to see a mainstream media outlet take up the challenge of looking America’s parents in the eye and telling them that while we’re on the subject of that turkey sandwich, you’re not doing your kids any favors if the turkey is that slimy, preservative-filled pressmeat most of us remember from childhood, and that Kraft singles aren’t labeled “cheese” for a reason.  That Go-gurt isn’t the devil, but it is dessert.  And that if you have to hide a couple of shreds of vegetables in a sandwich and dip your kids’ fruit in chocolate, you may be either creating or reinforcing a major problem that will not just magically go away when those kids become teenagers, because there’s no magic age at which people decide all on their own to start eating the healthy, unadulterated foods they were never exposed to before.  Raising great eaters with lifelong healthy habits is a continual process and it’s not always a matter of steady forward progress, but it IS a matter of steady and concerted effort.

I know, I know.  I’ll have to wait a long time to see that sort of segment in the mainstream media.  But at least I have this to cling to: When you know better, you do better.  And we all know better.  So let’s go out there and continue to provide a strong example to others, and support to one another.  It’s the only way these lunchbox segments will ever change.