Education & Family

Packed lunches: The pain and perils for parents

Packed lunch
Image caption It's healthy - but would you eat it every day?

As teachers are given the nod by an official review of school dinners to snoop in pupils' packed lunches, education reporter and mother-of-two Hannah Richardson shares some guilty secrets.

It's the third day in a row that an apple has returned untouched in my son's packed lunch.

Still rosy red, but increasingly sticky and lightly bruised from its travels, I wonder whether to send it back a fourth time with a Post-it note saying, 'Eat me or else!' in the vain hope that he might actually munch it.

"Why would I eat something that's been in my lunch box for four days, Mum?" the seven-year-old says in genuine puzzlement.

Too tired to argue, I accept he has a point, and replace it with a fresh plum and some cherries, knowing full well they will return in a mushy mess tonight.

Why does this boomeranging buffet make me feel like such a failure as a parent? And why is the simple task of packing my children off with a box full of grub such a painful one?

When animals feed their young, it seems such an uncomplicated transaction.

And yet for we grown-ups, with all our human intelligence and fistfuls of nutritional guidelines, it is extraordinarily tricky. Perhaps that's it - parents and schools' well-intentioned packed-lunch policies are over-complicating it.

There can be a fine line between healthy eating and eating disorders, in my view, and sometimes the disorder is a group malaise rather than one belonging to an individual.

And it seems I am not alone in torturing myself over my children's packed lunches. Mother-of-three Olivia says: "I must be ridiculous to the extreme, as all three of mine have packed lunches, and I am not one that will prepare the night before, as I like the thought that their sandwiches are as fresh as possible.

"One has the crusts cut off. James cried so much about not wanting to eat the crusts that his teacher suggested cutting them off... not done at home.

"The other two want only half a sandwich because they are incredibly slow eaters and if they don't finish quickly enough it cuts into their precious playtime!"

She adds: "Recently my husband sent me an article highlighting the evils of processed meats so for a while I was cooking roasts for cold cuts. I soon reverted to type and bought the processed once again."

Guilty secret

We all try as parents to do our best, and keep it homemade. There are certainly enough celebrity chefs telling us how easy it is to combine cooking from scratch with busy working and family lives - with just a tiny bit of preparation. What they forget is that they cook for a living.

In reality, not all of us can manage it, nor, perhaps, should we feel obliged to when a nice, shiny machine in a factory can do just as good a job.

Nonetheless, my guiltiest packed lunch secret is sending my son to school with a supermarket-made item, such as a cheese and pasta salad. For some reason it goes down better than a homemade one.

Maybe it's the vast quantities of artificial flavourings and Xanthum gum that give it the edge.

But I am too embarrassed to leave it in its original packaging, in case it gets out that I am a bit lazy, and so transfer it into plastic box to pass it off as my own.

Even when we do cook it all from scratch, our valiant efforts can end up in a ticking-off from the school support staff - or even our own children.

Rachel's well-meaning attempt at something new and healthy says it all.

Choc-chip contraband

"I once packed the girls off with a Tupperware full of pasta and pesto (freshly made!) - thinking I was giving them a nice change - only to be read the riot act when they got back as it contained nuts!"

She says her two daughters reacted differently.

"One was traumatised by the episode and was concerned she would be labelled for life - particularly given a girl in her class has an extreme nut allergy. While the other seemed to enjoy the illicitness of eating the forbidden food."

Image caption Peanut butter - the ultimate evil?

And she's not the first mother to be sent crazy by nuts.

Mother-of-one and college lecturer Julie received an urgent summons while at work one day from her daughter's school, saying: "You've sent her to school with peanut butter sandwiches. Do you realise what you have done?"

Mother-of-one Ruth wonders whether school rules about healthy eating are more about testing the parents' stamina. She says: "Sometimes all you want to do is send your child to school with a massive triple-tiered chocolate fudge cake in their lunch box to share with all their friends before the dinner police can drag it away!"

The truth is we all wander the shopping aisles in search of inspiration, but many of us end up with the same old familiar items.

Image caption Schools should remember some parents are chocoholics too

And while it may fuel parents' guilt because we feel we are not offering the most nutritionally varied diet, for many children that familiarity breeds contentment.

Helen says: "Maddie seems to have the same thing day in, day out. She should be bored senseless but is adamant it's fine.

"She steadfastly refuses to have anything naughty, in case she gets told off. I've tried to put a choc-chip biscuit or jam sandwiches in but she tells me off."

If only things were as simple in my home, where my son launches nightly raids on the treats cupboard while I am bathing his sister.

After all, the packed lunch is surely an extension of the family dinner table where today's battles-of-will can end in the fussy eating of tomorrow.

As Dr Christopher Green, author of parent handbook Toddler Taming writes: "We can choose the healthiest designer diet, put it on a plate, even get it into the toddler's mouth, but if they decide that's as far as it is going - checkmate - game over."

Although experience has taught me there is no point in forcing it, I just can't help myself.

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