The Parental Calculus of School Lunch

How to navigate the time and effort spent on your child's midday meals.

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Parent putting lunch box in child's backpack
Photo: SeventyFour (Shutterstock)

In 2020, Jennifer Gaddis, school lunch expert and author of The Labor of Lunch: Why We Need Real Food and Real Jobs in American Public Schools, penned an opinion piece for The New York Times arguing against parents packing their child’s school lunches. According to Gaddis, parents, especially upper middle class women, feel the pressure to pack the most nutritious lunch for their child. “Women spend more than twice as much time per day preparing family meals as men,” she wrote. “Preparing school lunches cuts into their already limited leisure time and adds to the mental load they disproportionately shoulder.”

I’ve never met Gaddis, but I already idolize her, for she has spoken a common truth. As a parent of two elementary-school-aged children, I can attest that the task of feeding them breakfast and dinner and an after-school snack is enough to make my hair stand up sometimes; I don’t want to have to think about lunch too. Which is why I am so grateful for the lunch program at their school. All I have to do is load a certain amount of money in their lunch account and they get lunch every day. When the balance is low, I get an email reminder. Easy as pie.

Homemade vs. school-provided lunch

Unfortunately, social media projects a different kind of image. On Instagram, there’s no shortage of adorable bento box accounts—there’s even a famous mom who makes bento-style lunches for her kids. There are Pinterest boards and blogs and books. Aside from drawing you into your screen even more, all of these sources of “inspiration” also perpetuate the ideal of the easygoing, creative mom with plenty of time on her hands. That kind of mom does not exist in my world.

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Look, everyone’s busy. With jobs and pets and other obligations, do parents really have time to pack their kids’ lunch anymore? To find out, I surveyed a number of parents at a local park on a recent afternoon. Talking to them was a delight, but their answers were even more delightful.

School lunch is no match for picky eaters

Terry, father of eight-year-old twin boys, told me that one of his sons is a picky eater, while the other one isn’t.

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“By picky, I mean he only likes one type of sandwich—peanut butter and jelly,” Terry said. So unless the school cafeteria is serving peanut butter and jelly that day, he won’t eat lunch there.

Depending on who’s available, either Terry or his wife, Jen, will pack lunch for their picky eater. But what about the other child? I asked.

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“Oh, he’ll eat dirt if it’s available,” Terry said.Seriously, he loves all kinds of foods and doesn’t mind what’s served to him at school.” Boy, I wish that were my kid.

Lunch is homemade, but not by parents

Terry and his wife were the only ones I surveyed who actually pack school lunches on a regular basis; most of the parents I spoke to did not.

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Dani and her husband Jeff are both engineers, and they both work hectic schedules. As a result, they rely on their nanny to make and pack the children’s lunches.

“When we interviewed her, we told her one of the many duties she’ll have is making my kids lunch every day,” Dani told me. This is because one of the kids has severe allergies, and they have to monitor his foods more closely. Luckily, the nanny doesn’t mind.

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“She even cuts the food into fun little shapes,” Dani added.

Want lunch? Pack it yourself

Like Dani and Jeff, many couples I spoke with are busy professionals. Emily and her partner Sarah both work for a local university at the administrative level. Emily does get to work from home, but she’s always in a meeting or two. Thus, Sarah used to make lunches for their two kids, who are now preteens, until one day they realized that their kids are old enough to simply do it themselves.

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“If they want to eat lunch at school, that’s fine—we have an account for that,” said Emily. “But if they want to bring food from home, it’s their job to pack their own lunch.” Once she and Sarah relieved themselves of this burden, Emily explained, life became much easier.

Absolutely not

“Hahaha! Are you kidding me?”

This was the response I got from Vivian when I asked her whether she packs her child’s lunches every day. Vivian is a single mom of a ten-year-old daughter, and she works night shifts as an RN at a local hospital. She explained that she shares equal custody with her ex.

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“I don’t know what he does while my daughter is over at his place, but whenever she’s with me, I give her a few bucks and tell her to eat the school lunch,” Vivian said. So far, her daughter doesn’t mind. She doesn’t like the school food very much, but she does like eating with her friends, so that works out.