When School Lunches Go Bad

This year, for the first time, my child had forms come home to pre-order lunches for every day of the week. (At the last school, the most my child could order was a pizza “lunch” twice a month. That lunch consisted of a slice or more of pizza, a fruit cup packed in fruit juice, and a carton of milk.) This year, my child could order pizza, subs and pitas. The profits would go to various school projects. Wow! My child wouldn’t have to pack a lunch all year! Sounds great, right?

Not to me.

Bad Idea 1: Nutritional Numbers Don’t Add Up for School Lunches

The first thing I noticed was that even the minor attempt made at providing a nutritious lunch had evaporated. Gone was the included serving of fruit and dairy products. If you bought these lunches they consisted of the “entrée” so to speak and nothing else. So you could get a slice of pizza but it didn’t come with any carrot sticks, an apple or a glass of milk.

The “entrées” themselves wouldn’t score well on a test, either. I’m sure if the Toronto Star column The Dish investigated they would find the offerings high in fat, salt and calories but otherwise low in food value. The pizza offered, for instance, is cheese or pepperoni. I suppose if the USDA could try to count ketchup as a serving of a vegetable, someone could try to count the pizza sauce as one. I don’t. In fact I wouldn’t even give it part marks.

What do nutritionists usually recommend about these kinds of foods? Round them out with nearly naked salads and milk and don’t indulge in them too often. Is 20+ days a month too often? Can you guess my answer?

Bad Idea 2: Paying for Something You Don’t Want to Support a Worthy Cause

I like the things the school was doing with the money raised by selling these meals. That doesn’t make it a good way to contribute, however. If I bought 10 boxes of chocolate almonds from every cause I believed in I would be roughly three times larger than I am now. Eating too much of the wrong food just to support a project or charity is silly. I sent a cheque in to the school instead.

Bad Idea 3: Not Teaching my Child about Budgeting and Saving

The worst part of this lunch program from my viewpoint, however, was what it was going to teach my child subconsciously. To wit: “When you go to work, buy lunch every day. Don’t even try to buy a nutritious lunch. Buy something tasty and frivolous.”

I want my child to know how to pack a lunch. I want my child to experiment with different kinds of foods and find things that taste good, are nutritious, and make eating lunch feel rewarding and fun. My child should see that it is cheaper to pack a lunch than to buy one. Getting my child to help grocery shop for lunch items teaches my child about how to get the most for a limited amount of money.

Good Idea! How to Buy Lunch at School and Learn Something Useful

Now you’re probably thinking I’m one of those people who sprouts beans between paper towels pilfered from the workplace washroom on the air vents near the windows and who grows yoghurt in an old margarine tub in the back of the fridge in the break room. Ok, maybe I do. Could be. [Whistles off key and tries to look innocent.]


I do understand that one of the simple joys that makes work (including school) bearable is to have food that’s fun to eat and, when applicable, to go out to eat it with some friends. It’s a great idea. It just shouldn’t happen every day. That just makes it routine and half or more of the enjoyment is lost.

So I gave my child a budget. The monthly money could be divied up and spent on any of the lunch offerings. For example, my child could buy one (large) slice of pizza 4 days a month. Or two slices, twice a month. Or a pita, a sub and two slices of pizza. You get the idea.

We also made plans (that worked) for my child to take the rest of the missing parts of that lunch from home. Including, yes, some homemade chocolate chip cookies or butterscotch squares. (I’m interested in nutrition but I also understand the joy of sugar!)

Valuable Lessons Learned from a School Lunch Program

So my child learned some valuable lessons from a simple school lunch program

  • give directly to charity if you don’t want or need the gimmick
  • budget some enjoyment into your week
  • eat out when you plan to, and as you like to, to maximize the feeling of getting a treat
  • add extra nutrition to your day affordably by packing stuff from home
  • bagging a lunch does not have to be boring if you explore for things you really enjoy

PS Yes I know that when grown up my child will probably eat out every lunch because of me. Probably every supper too.

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Have you accidentally trained your child to always buy a lunch when they start work? Or did this happen to you when you were growing up? What other lessons are we overlooking when we send our kids off to school? Please share your experiences with a comment.

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