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Packing a Simple Lunch

Stop it, please, just stop it with the creative lunches already.

Every time I turn around, someone else is waxing eloquently about the beautiful, complex lunches that you can make to ensure your children get their recommended daily allowance of whimsy. Pinwheel sandwiches. Flower-shaped sandwiches. Sandwiches with cartoon faces made out of olives and raisins, with sprouts for hair.

The ideas are endless. They’re everywhere. They’re cute and interesting and look lovely in photographs. They’re almost guaranteed to win you a Mother of the Year award. They’ll make your child break out into song at the lunch table.

These same people assure me that children get bored with sandwiches. I’m told it’s awful to open up that Pottery Barn Kids lunchbox and find a plain old boring turkey sandwich and a banana. The horror! Where’s the fun in that? Where is the excitement? No, no, it’s better that I tap into my inner artist and make something that will be the envy of all my son’s classmates, who will be left in a terrible funk with their PB&Js and pretzels.

But I’m telling you this: plain old boring turkey sandwiches were fine when I was a kid in 1981, and they’re fine for my son nearly 30 years later.

Raise your hand if you’re up at dawn, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed with nothing else on earth to do but concoct an elaborate little lunch sculpture for your offspring. Anyone? Hello?

That’s what I thought. You’re up at dawn because the baby was crying and wouldn’t go back to sleep, or the four-year-old burst into your room screaming that his nose is bleeding, and his sheets are all bloody, or the six-year-old had a bad dream and can she pleeeease get in bed with you and Daddy? And once you’re up, you might as well throw another load of laundry in, or no one is going to have clean socks to wear the rest of the week. (And you just can’t wear sandals in December. Well:at least not without a little tiny bit of guilt.) And – oh God, is there something wrong with the toilet? Why is it making that horrible squealing sound? And aren’t you supposed to send something with one of the kids to school today? What on earth was it? Here, kid, have a turkey sandwich.

Or maybe you’re one of those athletic types who gets up in the dark to squeeze in a run before the kids get up. In that case, your biggest priority is probably rushing around, dripping sweat, trying to get into the shower without a bunch of small people all waking up and popping in on you, so you can run over your thoughts for that presentation you have to give at work in a few hours. An audience-free shower. Ah. Bliss.

Either way, are you really standing at your kitchen counter at 6:30 a.m. wielding a dinosaur-shaped cookie cutter?

Of course, you could always be a little better organized and prepare your child’s lunch at night. After all, experts are always telling us to get a head start on our day by starting to get things ready the night before.

And I’m totally on board with that. In fact, I often do make my son’s lunch at night before I go to bed. I make a turkey-and-cheese sandwich on wheat bread, add a side of applesauce and some carrot sticks, and I put it all in his Spider-Man lunchbox, which then goes into the fridge. Done. Nothing fancy, but a nice healthy lunch that I know my son will like. Off to bed with me.

See, at 10 p.m., I don’t feel much like wielding a dinosaur-shaped cookie cutter, either. At that point, I’m exhausted from surviving a full day and getting both kids bathed and in bed. I’m trying to slap together something reasonably healthy and tasty that won’t come back home in the lunchbox tomorrow afternoon, smushed and uneaten.

Because let’s face it. Children like simple food. They like predictability. They like plain turkey sandwiches. They like apples. They like grapes. They like yogurt. They like having food that’s just like the food that their friends are eating. And simple doesn’t necessarily equal unhealthy. Actually, it’s quite the opposite: sometimes simple food is healthier, without a bunch of sauces or unnecessary extra flavorings.

My elder son is a great eater for a little kid. He loves broccoli, tomatoes, and all sorts of other foods that lots of others his age won’t even touch. But he’s still a kid. He’s not expecting a gourmet meal where the perfectly sliced food is stacked, layer upon layer, in a feat of culinary and architectural skill that might win someone a Michelin star. I don’t know any kids who are. They’re not poring over the Zagat guide or reading Bon Appetit. They just want to eat something that tastes good and fills them up so they can make it through the rest of the day without their stomachs growling.

Undoubtedly, there are kids out there who want nothing more than an organic wheat tortilla roll-up filled with low-fat cream cheese, shredded carrot, golden raisins, and freshly grated nutmeg – preferably with a face on it. But I’d hazard a guess that most of our kids don’t fall into that category.

And that’s okay. They have years to develop and expand their palates. If you’re worried that your child isn’t getting enough variety in their diet, work on that at home when you can personally coax them along into trying roasted asparagus with pine nuts. Encourage them to try one new thing each week at dinner. Visit the farmer’s market on the weekend and ask them to pick something out.

And if your kid adores her fancy lunch with the dips and sauces and special containers and shapes and garnishes and what-have-you, and you don’t mind indulging her, hey, that’s fine. Just don’t try to convince me to forsake the tried-and-true when it comes to my son’s lunchbox. He likes turkey sandwiches – plain old turkey sandwiches that are shaped : like a piece of bread.

With the crusts on.

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