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The Homework That
the Student Ate

By Matt Lee and Ted Lee

Along with ashtrays in the teachers lounge and dodge ball, the days of the homemade bag lunch seem to be numbered, as school cafeteria meals become more sophisticated and as pressure on working moms and dads cuts into precious morning hours.

At the same time, ready-to-eat meals with slick packaging beckon from grocery store shelves, as irresistible to youngsters as an astronaut's dinner designed by Willy Wonka. Even the bag-lunch-child's best friend the peanut butter and jelly sandwich is on the decline, as many American schools move to ban peanut products, out of concern for the nut-allergic.

But as the members of Generation X deliver their firstborn children into the school system, some resourceful parents as well as a few countervailing trends have conspired to keep the bag lunch on the school grounds. And in a few precincts, the old school lunchbox especially if it's an original from the 70's or 80's is kitsch-cool. (Stay tuned, however: that might change next week.)

An unscientific survey of parents and youngsters across the country turned up a range of great ideas for stuffing the school lunchbox, among them simple innovations like adding a bag of fiery wasabi-coated dried peas or wholesale re-engineering of lunch-box icons like ham-and-cheese and turkey sandwiches. The parents strongly resisted the notion that a well-composed bag lunch cannot be simultaneously nutritious, easy to prepare and irresistibly tasty.

Perishability is the most basic challenge to a bag lunch, which may spend hours in a stifling locker. So sending sushi or leftover steak sandwiches dressed with mayonnaise to school is ill advised, at best.

Textural perishability may be less obvious to the parent, but it is no less pressing. "Turkey and wheat bread becomes the same limp, soggy texture by lunchtime," said Brian Brooks, 34, remembering the turkey sandwiches his mother packed for him in Pueblo, Colo. Mr. Brooks's son Henry, a second grader in Washington, rarely has that problem. His current favorite item for lunch is Mr. Brooks's riff on ham and cheese: a split ciabatta roll that he (or his wife, Virginia Navarrete-Brooks) layers with sliced prosciutto, havarti cheese and Fuji apple, then briefly grills in a skillet.

"A grilled sandwich retains its crunchiness, and the layer of apple slices gives it even more crunch," Mr. Brooks said. "The sandwich tastes terrific cold and travels really well." And Mr. Brooks knows his son loves it, judging from the empty lunchbox he carries home.

Nutritionally, the prosciutto-havarti-apple sandwich passes muster, combining the grain in the bread with meat, dairy and fruit. But Mr. Brooks acknowledges that the salty prosciutto may fall short of nutritional nirvana. "My boys are salt fiends, to tell the truth," he said, including Henry's little brother, Thomas, 4.

Composing a nutritious lunch with the widest array of food groups seems to be the first concern for most bag-lunch parents.

"It's a constant struggle trying to balance healthy foods with foods that kids like," said Virginia Deerin of Sullivans Island, S.C. who packs a brown-bag lunch for her 15-year-old daughter, Lucy Wethers, every morning.

To gain ground, parents have learned that they must give a little. Ms. Deerin includes snacks like nuts mixed with chocolate chips, or sliced kiwi fruit (sprinkled with a little sugar if it's not ripe enough) and grapes. Several parents we spoke to mentioned the banana as a breakthrough fruit, one that children find almost appealing enough to eat every day, all by itself. Sneaking a leaf of lettuce into an otherwise luscious sandwich is the oldest trick in the book, but spreading celery ribs with peanut butter is also a way to entice children to eat their vegetables.

For years, Terry Jo Bichell, a geneticist at Children's Hospital and Health Center, San Diego, and her husband, David, made bag lunches for their four children (the oldest of whom, Rae Ellen, is now 14). The day we spoke to her, her youngsters were spending their first day at a private school where hot meals are included with tuition.

"I can only talk to you this morning because I'm not making the kids' lunches," she said. In the old days, she and her husband had to wake up at 4 a.m. if they wanted to pack lunches, make breakfast and get everyone dressed and out the door. Ms. Bichell's inspiration was to make quick "roll ups," assembly line fashion, by setting a couple of slices of turkey and Swiss cheese on flour tortillas that had been smeared with tartar sauce, then rolling them into tubes and fixing them with foil wrap.

"The tartar sauce has pickle in it, which adds variety to the usual turkey club, and if I was clever, I put a few green beans in there before rolling it up," she said. "They probably tossed the green beans on the ground, but at least I could go to work without guilt."

Catherine Eng, 34, a Web site designer in Los Angeles, avoids the sandwich route altogether. Her son Henry Helmuth, who will be 4 at the end of this month, attends the Canyon School Cooperative Nursery School in Hollywood, where parents of the 40 students take turns teaching, cleaning the classrooms and making lunch four days a week. On Fridays, however, the pupils carry in their own lunches, and for Henry, that usually means noodles.

"Working at a cooperative school, you learn what kids like," Ms. Eng said. "They like to slurp noodles, they crave the texture of pasta and they like savory sauces." For Henry, she prepares thick udon noodles cooked in a soy-bonito broth like Kikkoman Hon Tsuyu, and adds carrots, an egg and shredded nori (toasted seaweed).

"I've got it down to a science, so it only takes me 10 or 15 minutes," she said. "And I can be sure he gets his carbs and protein."

Of course, parents who don't attend school with their children soon learn that their best lunchtime intentions become mere wishes once the child steps onto the school bus. Whole wheat bread returns jammed into pants pockets; pears end up at the bottom of the book bag. And as children age, they may tend to avoid nonconforming foods for social reasons.

"The girls used to love little packets of nori until they got older and realized the other kids weren't eating them," Ms. Bichell said. She pointed out that rejecting a bagged lunch is also a powerful statement of self-determination. At schools that don't prohibit it, a vigorous swap meet occurs at the lunch bell, with students trading what they can do without for treats they truly want.

At the Potomac School in McLean, Va., all students from kindergarten through ninth grade are required to take bag lunches, and the rules prohibit candy and trading, primarily as a way to deal with allergy issues. Charlotte Nelsen, the director of admissions, sees a few raised eyebrows when prospective parents learn about the requirement.

"It's an imposition for some families in terms of time," she said, "but in the long run they come to realize that they are saving money and the kids are eating better, and that's powerful."

Ms. Nelsen sends her own daughter, Maggie, 13, to Potomac, and said that she keeps food warm during the day by putting things like leftover pot roast in a wide-mouth thermos.

Over the last decade, many schools have outsourced their cafeteria operations to sophisticated food-service businesses that convene focus groups and hire nutritional consultants to fine-tune menus with broad appeal. Other schools, like Bishop England High School in Daniel Island, S.C., have brought fast-food chains onto their campuses. At the opening of this school year, Lucy Wethers, a sophomore, learned that Chick-fil-A, a national chain, would provide food for students who didn't bring lunches, but that didn't change her own lunch habits.

"Chick-fil-A's expensive," she said. "And it's fast food eating it every day would be kind of gross."

Another sign of hope for the bag lunch: in places like New York City, where lunchtime can last less than an hour, eating a lunch brought from home is quicker than waiting in line at the cafeteria. By that calculation, lunchtime is a form of recess, and the cafeteria line cuts into that precious time. Just don't tell Mom and Dad.

Recipe: Prosciutto, Havarti and Apple Sandwich
Recipe: Cold Udon Noodles With Carrots and Egg


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