Balancing Act

Daily drama of school lunch: This mom is ready to pack it in

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Chicago Tribune reporter Sally Ho discusses recent changes to school lunch.

Fifty more to go.

One hundred and seventy six school days multiplied by two kids equals 352 lunches to pack, which means a whole lot of mornings spent wallowing in defeat. We're in the home stretch now, with a mere five weeks of school left.

I may survive yet.

I'm not the nostalgic type, and most "Why, when I was a kid, we (never wore helmets, didn't use car seats, knew right from wrong)" musings strike me as overly sentimental and pointless.

But on school lunches, I truly yearn for simpler times.

Times before my daughter decided she was gluten-intolerant for two months, only to reverse course and request plain pasta, two King's Hawaiian rolls and a side of Keebler Club crackers five days a week. Times before my son's dessert-free school sent home notes scolding parents for packing fruit snacks, even as the school cafeteria drowned in canned peaches.

Times when Colonial Americans ate leftover meat pudding and cabbage for lunch and their children happily, quietly ate the same.

Every single lunch is an exercise in frustration and self-loathing. Carrots and celery? Just carrots? Carrots and hummus? Carrots and Ranch? Why won't you eat carrots? And, finally, always, to myself, What kind of mother raises children who won't eat carrots?

I could skip the whole charade and send them with a few bucks to buy school lunches, but the options are so very dismal. The nachos, the beef crumbles, the rectangular pizza. It took a Freedom of Information Act request from a WBEZ reporter to get Chicago Public Schools (which my children attend) to divulge their chicken nugget ingredients.

A new National School Lunch Program, set to take effect July 1, aims to improve the choices a bit. New standards, according to today's Tribune story call for snacks and a la carte lunch items to contain fewer than 200 calories and no more than 230 milligrams of sodium. They have to be either "whole grain-rich" or primarily made of fruits or vegetables and contain 10 percent of the recommended daily value of calcium, potassium, vitamin D or dietary fiber.

Will my kids eat them? Who knows? I'll probably still send them to school with packed lunches in the interest of saving money and because I'm a masochist.

But the standards are good news. I feel like there's a better chance they'll actually eat the carrots I sneak in if they don't have the option of tossing them in the trash and grabbing a bag of Cheetos when they're hungry later.

Meanwhile, I selected a summer camp based almost entirely on the fact that it serves my kids lunch. My hope is they try — through a combination of peer-pressure and sheer starvation — new foods and bring home ideas for next year's school lunches.

Which, sadly, I have to start packing in 117 days.

Not that I'm counting.

hstevens@tribune.com

Twitter @heidistevens13

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