My sister has tightened the strings on her violin bow and is rosining its length. I am twisting the bell onto the base of my clarinet. We have 15 minutes to eat our lunch before our school orchestra rehearsal starts.
‘So turd, what do you have for lunch?’ I ask as the loving older sister.
‘Not sure…but it looks green…what about you, Gizzard?’ She replies.
‘Same. Is Mum trying to get creative with our sandwiches again?’
‘Probably. You’d think she have learnt from the grated carrot, cream cheese and sultana attempt last week.’
‘Why can’t she just give me cheese or Vegemite and you peanut butter? That always works.’
‘I don’t know…’ My sister opens up her white sandwich (thank God we’d finally won the war for the Abolishment of Brown Bread from our household. Dad was a staunch and overt supporter of our cause.) Sure enough, the sandwich is green, with green pieces stuck onto a slice of plastic cheese.
‘You try it.’
‘Why do I have to try it first?’
‘Because you are the younger sister and I don’t want green stuff down my Clarinet.’
My sister took a bite, and her eyes lit up. ‘It’s gherkin! I love gherkin!’ I’ll say she did. My sister would eat them straight from the jar as a snack. I on the other hand loathed gherkin and spent the next few minutes trying to scrape the spread off the cheese to return it to its natural and rightful state of a cheese sandwich in my lunchbox. Nope. Still green.
‘Trade you- sandwich for apple.’
When we returned home I begged for no more gherkin and cheese sandwiches, especially in the Australian Summer. Back then lunch boxes were plastic, warmed quickly and there was no such thing as an insulated lunch box bag. I begged for weeks for the green horrors to cease. Yet they kept coming. I exchanged a lot of apples…not my favourite fruit then or now.
And then, 25 years later…it was my turn to make school lunches for my daughter. Karma is a bitch.
To prepare for this new Motherhood duty, I poured over the school’s ‘Nutritional policy.’ Aka ‘What not to pack in their lunchboxes.’ There was a table outlining acceptable and unacceptable foods. Most were based on common sense – no cakes, chocolate, lollies. That was ok – my kids get very limited amounts of those… Sugar High Hell is real and horrific. But you were allowed piklets, low fat popcorn and ‘home made’ muffins. And then it suddenly dawned on me…Oh crap…I have to bake? I took a deep breath. It was ok, I heard Fluffy say, You Got This. So I googled ‘healthy lunch box meals’ for inspiration. The first hit was ‘peanut butter and jelly sushi rolls.’ WTF? A potential anaphylactic shock roll was considered HEALTHY?
I also had to familiarise myself with the ‘school waste policy’. In theory, this meant no plastic wrap or bags for school meals. But I knew the reality would be that many Mums would take the frozen sandwiches/snacks out of the freezer, (oh the horror!), unwrap them from their plastic covers… and then place them in their BPA free lunchboxes and insulated named lunch bags. A week on and I’m guilty of both charges…freezing sandwiches and wrapping them in Glad Wrap. I’m a Lunch Box Rebel Without A Clue.
‘So how do you feel about making lunches 5 days a week my love?’ My husband not-so-innocently asked.
Two simultaneous emotions…panic and annoyance. Panic…because I’d have to make nutritionally diverse and, from what I’d googled, also visually entertaining, morning teas and lunches in the cut out shapes of butterflies, hearts, stars, dinosaurs (you know, exactly what fruit and bread looks like au naturale) for 5 days a week…for the next 13 years. And that was only for one child. Add my son… I’ll be doing it for more than 15 years.
Annoyance…because, all teasing aside, it was instantly assumed that I, as the Mum, would be doing the lunches. For almost a sixth of my life. And not during that early sixth when I had both imagination and energy. Oh no, the later half when you are perpetually tired because you haven’t had 8 hours sleep in God-knows-how-long and gravity is reminding you that all that expensive face cream you could afford pre-children really didn’t help much. Conversely, I also knew I would ‘guide’ my husband so closely when making any lunches that in the end it would just be easier to do them myself. Please note, this just means I acknowledge he needs to be educated and I need to let go a little… I’m not making approximately 20,800 morning teas and lunches over the next 15 years.
Yep. You read that right. Two kids equals approximately 20,800 morning teas and lunches over 15 years. Suddenly the dreaded gherkin spread didn’t just look like an option…I was considering it as a pantry staple.
Of course these figures assume a 100% school attendance rate and don’t factor occurrences such as school camps, sick days or canteen lunches. I dare say my daughter won’t find heart and star sandwiches appealing as a teenager. The figures also don’t consider that when my kids reach a certain age I’ll probably get them to make their own lunches, just like I did – NOT. And yet, it’s still a formidable amount. How do you feel reading that? A bit overwhelmed? Yeah, me too.
And I also know the lunchbox parameters will change over time. For example in my teenage years I grew out of sandwiches and poor Mum had to make salads. One week I wanted her delicious homemade chocolate cake… and the next I was a teenager worrying about putting on even 250 grams. Of course Mum didn’t get any advance notice of my change of heart. She was supposed to just KNOW when I started worrying about my weight. And when I stopped worrying. Perfectly reasonable.
The positive of this was that I knew that by making my daughter’s lunches, I’d save money and eat healthier myself. If you are making one lunch, you can make two/three without much extra effort. My husband and I wouldn’t be spending $30 daily at the cafeteria. (That’s approximately $1200 a year.) On my day ‘off’ from work I would often skip lunch to try and get jobs done, which inevitably resulted in a sugar crash and me reaching for chocolate by the afternoon. But by having a roll (cheese of course) and fruit salad ready made the night before, well, my waistline and my wallet were both grateful in just a week.
But I still wanted to offer some lunchbox variety. I chatted to a Mummy friend, one of my MILTB (Mothers I’d Like To Be), about my concerns. She suggested I join one of the Facebook lunchbox groups to get further inspiration. Ok… but did I really need more Mummy guilt? Would the annoyance factor of having to deal with the dietary SanctiMummies outweigh the benefit of any lunch box inspiration? I guess that would be up to me.
So I joined…and yes, there was a divide between the ‘we are all time poor so here are a few quick and healthy options that work for us’ and those who I call ‘the Lunchbox Ladies’. The women who make everything from scratch, use organic produce and bake daily. Which is fine-unless it is accompanied by judgement. When one poor lady commented that she had finally found a snack the whole family enjoyed… vegetable chips, she was quickly attacked for buying ‘processed’ foods with a high Sodium content. ‘I would never give my family that to eat.’ You could almost hear the sniff of derision through the fibre optic cable. Yep, the SanctiMummies had a new platform on which to boast.
But I was reassured by how quickly other Mummies came to her defence. ‘She didn’t say they were HEALTHY, she said her family all liked them’ was one retort. I sympathised. Finding a snack the whole family loves is one of a Mothers’ greatest challenges. And these Mummies recognised we were all doing the best we could with what we had in our pantry, calendar and budget.
At the end of the first school week I asked my daughter what her favourite lunchbox was. Her response was ‘A cheese sandwich. And grapes.’ I thought of my two…and only…attempts to make her lunches visually appealing. The cut-out Vegemite love hearts I’d made on the first day and my attempt to make sandwich ham and cheese stars for the second. The cutter slipped on the ham and cut my finger. Hence, for day two in her lunchbox she received this:
Yep, only one star. I wasn’t game to try again after my first attempt resulted in an injury and I didn’t think her teachers would appreciate blood splattered sandwiches. But what did my daughter remember? Not the cut out shapes…just the cheese sandwich and grapes. I asked her was there anything else she REALLY liked. She paused, and then replied. ‘The Vegemite sandwiches’. Yep, the same sandwich favourites her mother had throughout school. At least they were ok frozen. Hopefully the gherkin spread wouldn’t be necessary after all.
Never forget, or doubt, that you know your child better than anyone. This means you CAN make morning teas and lunches they will enjoy. And as long as we talk to other lunch box Mummies for inspiration, not comparison, the dialogue we are having is informative and can make our lives easier. Mummy win. And no child has to endure a warm gherkin and cheese sandwich. Child win.
Now if you make little animals out of sandwiches and imprint faces on boiled eggs I do applaud you, well done for that time and effort. Some of those lunchboxes are sheer genius and I know some Mum’s get a great deal of pleasure out of doing it for their children. But it is clear to me I’m not suited to that level of creativity… it results in injuries and my audience really doesn’t appreciate my efforts. So now I have only two lunchbox criteria I try to meet, healthy and no gherkin and cheese sandwich. The Gherkin Sandwich Revolution continues. It will continue for the next 15 years.
At the end of the first school week of making my daughter’s sandwiches I called my Mum.
‘Hi Mum, I just wanted to say a belated thank you. Even if it’s a quarter of a century late.’
‘What for sweetheart?’
‘Oh, for making 13 years worth of school lunches that I didn’t appreciate at the time. While working full time and running a household.’
‘Even the gherkin and cheese sandwiches?’ She laughed, ‘You know I used to make those because they could be frozen?’
I get that now. I really do. But I’ll never eat, or serve, gherkin and cheese sandwiches. Ever. I’ve revolted against the revolting. And I’ve learnt my lunchbox limitations.