I peel oranges for my 8-year-old’s lunchbox, even though she could do it herself. It’s a practical tactic rather than an indulgence: School lunchtimes are so short that the 60 seconds we save through advance work matters.
The lunchtime crunch causes well-documented problems for student health and learning. A group of Seattle parents drew attention to the issue with a “Lunch and Recess Matter” Facebook group in 2014, and last year parents formed a statewide nonprofit to work on it. Teachers successfully pushed for longer recess times in contract negotiations a few years back, and the current lunch policy calls for 20 minutes to eat with extra time provided for lines and passing time – though this 2015 University of Washington study found students had, on average, less than 13 minutes to eat despite a similar policy.
Clearly, good intentions – and official guidelines – don’t always translate to the table.
Nicole Flateboe of Seattle’s Lunch and Recess Matters said the group is working on an audit plan to gauge whether students are getting the required 20 minutes of eating time. (Anecdotally, she and others hear of some that work hard on it and some that don’t.)
There’s some hope for longer-term solutions. The Washington state PTA will vote in October on taking up lunch and recess as a legislative priority, which Seattle’s group supports. But for day-to-day reality right now, we’re left with literally making the most of every minute. Here are some tips we’ve gathered on helping kids eat good food fast.
Little things matter: Melissa Westbrook of Save Seattle Schools, a parent of grown kids and an elementary school volunteer, points out that learning to open a small milk carton is a valuable skill for school lunch. The same holds true for unscrewing thermos lids or any other task where youngsters might lose time raising their hands and waiting for a lunchroom monitor to help.
Advance work: Like my orange peeling, colleague Rebecca Mongrain, mom of two, pre-opens anything that needs it. (I confess, I’ve also been known to slice the corner off my daughter’s pack of Trader Joe’s trail mix before putting it in her bag.) Mongrain also tries not to pack anything that requires opening in the first place, relying on basics like mini-bagels with spreads or hummus with carrots. Author and mom Vanessa McGrady cuts up fruit rather than packing it whole, and packs yogurt drinks for extra protein.
Dense and meaningful calories: Cheese (cut into bite-size pieces!), nuts (if your school allows), slices of salami. If the kids don’t have time for many bites, every bite counts more. Keren Brown, author of “The Food-Lover’s Guide to Seattle” and mom of 3, packs boiled edamame (podless is quickest, natch) and oven-roasted crunchy chickpeas.
Finger foods: Searching for lost utensils or waiting for replacements takes up a lot of time. (Yes, this is how Go-gurt took over the universe.)
Limited choices, if that works for your kid: Cookbook author and teacher Hsiao-Ching Chou makes one-pot lunches, “anything that hits multiple food groups that can also go in a thermos, e.g. stir-fries with proteins and vegetables over rice.” She likes to have a main dish kids can focus on rather than munching on peripheral snacks. Nutrition expert Cynthia Lair, author of “Feeding the Whole Family,” similarly recommends “layered” meals of noodles or brown rice plus veggies and protein. (Add a little sauce or salsa to put on top.)
Or expanded choices, if that works for your kid: Kids may appreciate a bento-box-style where they can enjoy a variety of easy eats. They may not finish every bite, but it increases the odds they’ll stay engaged with their meal rather than turning their full attention to socializing. On this theme, Nancy Leson, food writer and KNKX radio host, used to pack her now-college-age-son a selection of good deli meats and cheeses with some La Panzanella crackers on the side. “A kid’s charcuterie board!…Kind of like what you get on Alaska Airlines, only better!”
Because, above all, as parenting coach Sarina Behar Natkin put it, a lot depends on what works for your individual children – and it’s important to come up with a plan that involves them. “Help them learn which foods are most nutrient dense and eat those first. Then what things will hold for snack …” she suggested. “And we have to as parents (and parent educators) continue to advocate for the importance of adequate lunch time — school is a waste of time if kids are not physically ready to learn.”
Related: More tips for taking the monotony out of school-lunch packing.