a peek inside the fishbowl

29 Apr, 2010

Packed lunch

Posted by andrea tomkins in: Misc. life

I was at the grocery store with one of the girls last night and she told me that she’s the only person in her class who doesn’t get a pre-packaged granola bar in her lunch. (That is, her and the guy who has gluten issues.)

She also told me about a conversation she had with a classmate. She told her that we don’t buy individually-wrapped lunch items… no yogurts, or pudding or fruit cups. No little bags of crackers or chips or lunchables. The lack of storebought granola bars got the biggest reaction.

“She was suprised, but then I told her that you bake your own granola bars,” said my daughter.
“But I haven’t made those for ages…”
“I know,” she said with a shrug.

Mental note.

I’ve written about litterless lunches before. The goal here is zero garbage. Each of the girls’ schools has a litterless lunch policy. From a parental perspective, it might sound daunting but it’s not impossible. Foods from big packages can be transferred to small containers, like yogurt. It means ditching the Zip-loc baggies and organizing your containers, that’s about it. But the really great benefit here is that the girls don’t wind up eating very much processed food.

This was the lunch I packed for the girls earlier this week.

Today's packed lunch

It might look kinda boring to you, but this is a very typical school lunch for us. The girls aren’t into pasta salads or cold chicken or anything of that sort. It has to be sandwich, fruit, veg, milk. 

We don’t often pack dessert in their lunches. Dessert isn’t a required part of any meal, and if I pack something sweet we run the risk of them kids not eating the healthy parts of their lunch. And just so you don’t think I’m a total hardass, they do sometimes get a cookie or leftover slice of cake if we have celebratory leftovers. :)

Note the presence of the knife. I had to laugh out loud during that Food Revolution episode in which Jamie Oliver unexpectedly found himself debating the merits of cutlery with the lunch ladies. And then they were left scrounging around for knives. Oh my.

FYI, this knife is for spreading the cream cheese on the bagel. :)

The girls both have two “nutrition breaks” during the day (no big long lunch in the middle of the day anymore) and it’s up to them how they divvy up their meal. It almost always comes home eaten. Orange and banana peels and apple cores come home to be composted.

I would have liked for the bagel (above) to be of the whole-grain variety, but I don’t actually like them very much (that is, from the place we get them from… otherwise we eat whole-grain breads all the time). I don’t give them juice for lunch, ever. Juice is reserved for breakfast only.

Healthy “extras” I have packed lately have included things like cheese curds, sliced cheddar, a small container of multigrain Cheerios etc.

Anyway, that’s a peek inside our lunchbags!

This post is part of Scattered Mom’s Food Revolution Friday Lunch Challenge! Check it out and play along!

40 Responses to "Packed lunch"

1 | Lee

April 29th, 2010 at 8:42 am


Terrific post and a nice reminder that school lunches need not be complicated, difficult to make, exotic affairs.

I’m curious, how do you keep the milk cold until the girls are ready to consume it? (Ice pack? Frozen? Or do they just drink it room temperature?)

I’m also curious if you or any of your readers have found a kid-sized, wide mouth thermos that actually keeps things warm / cold until lunch time.

And the Jamie Oliver episode that Scattered Mom wrote about in her post (kid was sent to school with jelly beans and chips for lunch), made me feel infinitely better about the food I serve!

2 | andrea

April 29th, 2010 at 8:47 am


re: milk
They sell these small “hard” icepacks that are the same size as the drink containers. Mark figured out that if you use an elastic to attach the ice pack to the milk, the milk stays icy cold.

I should mention that the bagel (above) is frozen! They’re Montreal-style bagels, made in a wood-burning oven. We buy them fresh, slice them up and freeze them. They defrost by meal time.

3 | bushidoka

April 29th, 2010 at 8:56 am


Very well done! I was going to comment on the bagel but you beat me to it :-)

4 | bushidoka

April 29th, 2010 at 8:59 am


p.s. sadly, the parents sending the granola bars probably think it is healthy

5 | Pauline

April 29th, 2010 at 9:05 am


“Orange and banana peels and apple cores come home to be composted.”

That’s great that they do that and I applaud your efforts at reducing trash. I often have trouble deciding what to pack for my own lunch, but I should try and implement more containers and less throaway trash!

6 | Jay

April 29th, 2010 at 9:25 am


I love that everyone loves this idea that’s posted so far! We also have litterless lunches and boomerang lunches (all leftovers and food wraps come home). I was shocked at how many of our parents thought it was irresponsible of the school to send home the uneaten food and wrappings! I love to see what my kids eat.

Our lunches (also have 2 nutrition breaks) also are packed without foodwrappings. When I decide to send a treat in – it’s a prepackaged granola bar! lol Which doesn’t happen all that often.

A typical school lunch in this house is yogurt (put in a container from lrg container), 1 fruit – usually cut up strawberries, pears or apple in a container (always send a container so they leftovers can go back in!), and sort of a sandwich depending on the day – either wholewheat toritillas with meat or cheese on the side or an actual cheese or meatloaf sandwich. On occasion, and as a treat, I’ve sent in “noodles” in a thermos. And water with ice. We put a small ice pack in to keep food cool. My daughter is also part of the milk program at school so I pay the few cents a day for her to get fresh, cold milk. These cartons are now rinsed and recyled at the school – but they used to be rinsed and sent home to be recycled.

7 | Bob LeDrew

April 29th, 2010 at 9:38 am


Try the Mueslix bagels at Kettleman’s. They’re made with white flour but have lots of muesli as well.

8 | Betsy Mae

April 29th, 2010 at 9:59 am


Our school implemented litterless lunches this year and it’s really not that big of a deal to send a litterless lunch now that we are ‘set up’ with containers. When the kids come home I wash everything, dry it and repack it all for the next day.

I use a cloth napkin which was YOUR idea…where’s your cloth napkin Andrea??? lol!

Only one of my girls stay for lunch and she likes a hot lunch most days so I send her with a thermos of soup, chili, etc etc (oh even tacos). Popcorn is a common snack (air popped), veggies with dip or without dip.

The school recently started a green bin program so the kids compost at school now. I did like when they brought home everything so I could see what they ate/didn’t eat but generally my kids both ate what I sent so I hope that is still the case.

Both girls get ‘love notes’ a few times each week. I write a note, make a car or draw a picture. When I forget to send a love note during the week they are sure to ask me about it so I know they love it. Occassionally they find a new pencil, eraser, or some lip balm.

BTW, I occassionally sent ‘treats’ including granola bars which don’t fall into the litterless lunch category and I know they are junk but it’s once in a while and considered a treat. Even less often are the really junky stuff like fruit roll ups etc but they have been surprised by these junkie things on occassion.

9 | karen

April 29th, 2010 at 10:20 am


The only wrapped food I send my son is a fruit-to-go. He usually only eats it once a week. He never asks for granola bars because he doesn’t like them. He does however come home with fruit rollups at least twice a week. It is really starting to get on my nerves. We have 3 of them sitting on our counter right now.

My daughters gym teacher gives them a regular size chocolate bar when the get the basketball in from half court. I send her with homemade goods made with whole wheat flour and then gym teacher of all people gives her a chocolate bar. It sort of makes me wish she were not all that good at basketball.

10 | andrea

April 29th, 2010 at 10:24 am


Karen, omg, I’m shocked. You can’t let it continue. That’s just totally insane.

11 | Stephanie

April 29th, 2010 at 11:10 am


Karen, that’s INSANE!! I would address that with the school. Chocolate bars from the GYM TEACHER?! In this climate of overprocessed foods and kids’ weight being on the rise?! Not acceptable.

12 | Stefania (Ingredients for Life)

April 29th, 2010 at 11:40 am


One of my biggest beefs is the amount of treats that these kids get for good behaviour such as gummi bears, etc. The Pea tells her teacher that she doesn’t eat those (gelatin) so she gets stickers instead. I applaud my daughter for standing up for herself.
Speaking of Jamie Oliver’s program, did you see the clip where the kid came to school with candy and chips for lunch? Various bags of each item! Shocking! What parents thinks that’s a lunch?!
I think the lunch that you packed for your daughter is great. Simple foods are often the best foods. The Pea is more likely to eat her lunch if there’s a little bit of a few different foods.

13 | Loukia

April 29th, 2010 at 12:07 pm


Yum! And healthy. You could also spread the cream cheese on before hand, though, and then they wouldn’t need to bring the knife with them! :)
Right now my son is only in half days JK, so for his snack, it’s in his lunch box, in invididual blue containers – one always has cheese/crackers, one is a fruit (cut up strawberry, apple slices, grapes, or 1/2 banana with peel on) and carrots/tomato/cucumber. Oh and apple juice in a box. (Oops!) And yes, sometimes granola bars pre-packaged. This is a big snack, isn’t it? No wonder he doesn’t eat a huge lunch after school! ;)

14 | Jennifer

April 29th, 2010 at 1:43 pm


WTF??!!!! Teachers giving candy bars and gummy bears? That’s not right.

15 | BeachMama

April 29th, 2010 at 2:05 pm


We have litterless lunches, but it only means they have to bring the trash home. We also have a Balanced School day so it means two lunches or enough to split between two lunch periods. J gets a bit more in his lunch than that, but we also buy bulk and pour it into containers.

16 | Meghan

April 29th, 2010 at 2:08 pm


I have gone down the thermos road many times. The ones that cost $15.00 usually end up spilling, leave the food cold or require a trip to the janitor for opening!

Recently I splurged and bought $30.00 ones in a gift shop in china town. They are wide mouthed, keep everything hot and are easy to open so say my 8 and 11 year olds. I told them not to come home without them! They now take leftovers regularly and are enjoying the break from sandwiches.

17 | Christine

April 29th, 2010 at 2:17 pm


I just went to the bulk barn for all the ingredients to your Granola bar recipe!

18 | Stefania (Ingredients for Life)

April 29th, 2010 at 2:43 pm


Awesome tip to keep foods hot in a Thermos — pour boiling water in the Thermos and let it sit for a few minutes. Empty and pour the food in.

Yes, gummi bears and other junk food.

19 | Ginger

April 29th, 2010 at 2:47 pm


I have to say that I am quite jealous of the system you have there. I know for a fact that NONE of the schools in the district where I taught/my husband currently teaches/ and the boys will probably go in a few years, have litterless lunches. The waste in the schools here is beyond horrible. I can’t speak for the elementary schools because I didn’t teach in them. But at the middle school level (grades 6-8 ages 11-14) almost no child brings a lunch. They eat the horrible junk that the cafeteria offers or they buy junk from the machines. Although I think my last year teaching the junk machines were off at lunch and the soda machine was removed altogether.

Those “lunches” that you saw on the Jamie Oliver show I think are VERY typical of what you would see in the average U.S. school. I plan on making the boys’ lunches when they go to school and I also plan for them to be litterless. I do worry if we will struggle with it since their lunches will be so very different from what most kids are taking.

Also! I have never heard of the school not having one big lunch but 2 nutrition breaks. That is completely genius! I was just talking with my friend last night. Her little girl is in her first year of public school. She was lamenting the struggle to keep her from getting to hungry. She gives her protein in the morning and that mostly holds her until her lunch time around 11:30 or so but the hard part is the long afternoons. Her little girl is only 6 and it is hard to go long periods without food at that age. I wonder if the schools around here would ever do that? I am thinking they can’t because of the Free/Reduced lunch program that so many kids are on.

Anyway, I am going to focus on making myself as littlerless as possible and worry about school lunches in about 5 years!

20 | andrea

April 29th, 2010 at 3:08 pm


re: granola bars.
I hope it doesn’t sound like I’m wagging my finger at the granola bar eaters out there because that wasn’t my intent. I do hope those who are buying the granola bars (1) are reading the ingredients and (2) are mindful of the fact that – depending on the bar – they’re giving their kids the equivalent of a candy bar in their lunchbox. If they’re ok with that, well, go for it.

And, know that just because it says “granola” doesn’t mean it’s healthy.

re: thermos
I don’t have a good reco, but I’m looking for one too. Like you Meghan, I also have learned that you need to spend more on things like thermoses (thermii?) and water bottles. Otherwise they just end up in the garbage.

Awhile back I was in a situation in which I was able to observe a group of elementary-age schoolchildren eating their packed lunches. I watched as one young student unpacked and ate an electric-blue Jello cup (presumably one of several items in the lunchbag). But that’s all the lunch that got eaten that day.

This is part of the reason I don’t pack sweets in my kids lunches. Kids are kids, and they eat the treats first and then don’t eat the other stuff (which they WOULD eat otherwise).

The kids who are just eating their jello have nothing but refined sugar and food colouring in their tummies all day. How does that affect growth? And learning? And behaviour issues? I get that some kids are picky, but there are better “fun” food choices out there: veggies and dip, fruit kebabs, pita and hummus, crackers and cheese … I can go on all day!

21 | andrea

April 29th, 2010 at 3:11 pm


Beachmama, at our schools the term “litterless lunch” means that the kids have to bring their garbage home too, but it also means much more! All the parents are encouraged to find ways to cut down on the lunchtime garbage, and that includes finding alternatives for things like sandwich bags, juice boxes etc. It’s definitely doable!

I would love for our school to have a “make no garbage competition.” Imagine each class getting their own clear plastic bag at the start the month. And every day their wrappers and non-recyclable items have to go into the bag! Who has the most garbage at the end of the month? The least? Heh. It wouldn’t fly at my school, but I sure can picture it. :)

22 | bushidoka

April 29th, 2010 at 4:20 pm


Since everyone is talking granola bars I’m going to put in a shameless plug for my recipe. It is not too different from Andrea’s but no processed sugar and less oil. It is one I’ve developed myself over the last 20 years or so, and in its current form is extremely flexible as you will see. Lots of room for your own preferences and creativity, yet easy as pie to make if you don’t want to have to make those kinds of decisions your first time out :-) And I’ve got a video for it to boot :-)

23 | Lee

April 29th, 2010 at 5:03 pm


Meghan: Would you be so kind as to post the brand name of the thermos that you like?

24 | Scatteredmom

April 29th, 2010 at 6:32 pm


Food Revolution Friday is LIVE over at http://notesfromthecookiejar.com! I wasn’t thinking of the time difference when I decided to post later today Andrea…next week I’ll schedule it for earlier in the day!

I don’t like the idea of the gym teacher handing out chocolate bars. However in BC, teachers are not allowed to give kids candy. Period. We have healthy living guidelines that we have to follow.

25 | Carrie C

April 29th, 2010 at 6:57 pm


@ Lee: We really like the Thermos brand Funtainer line.

They are all stainless steel and BPA free. The food jars are easy to clean and little hands can still open them. The flip top lid on the drinking thermos is great, and doesn’t leak. The straw is silicone, so it doesn’t get brittle, and comes out for easy washing. (Hand wash for all!)

The bottle keeps things cold for 12 hours, the food jar cold for 7 and hot for 5. We watched the sales and managed to get them on sale 40% off. Back to school, and right after back to school are a good time to watch for these.

My daughter attends a 1 day a week program that requires 2 snacks and a lunch, and another preschool program that requires a snack. While it’s a bit more work to pack litterless, it makes more sense to do so. Cheaper in the long run and way less food and packaging waste.

26 | Rebecca

April 29th, 2010 at 7:16 pm


Only dh takes a full packed lunch (ds still only has snack) but in both cases we use reusable packaging as much as we can – litter less etc.

I am not looking forward to school lunches – I find even at home or for school snacks I’m trying to find different things, continue a healthy balance and ensure he’ll eat it (though snacks – apples, cheese, fruit etc. are easy!)

Karen, that the gym teacher is giving out candy as reward for gym is appalling! It must be so hard for you to deal with that! that’s terrible!

27 | Rebecca

April 29th, 2010 at 7:21 pm


I wanted to add that we have the thermos Foogoo straw cups/Funtainers and I find they keep his drink very cold. I don’t send juice, but if I did it would freeze and stay cool.

I also got a Lunch Bot – one that has a divider and I love it for him. He can lift the lid off himself and it’s a perfect size. I need to get more for my husband to use too.

28 | Jenny

April 29th, 2010 at 8:02 pm


Our lunches here look similar – or did before I went back to work. Since I have, there have been prepackaged items put in there, but there is always at least one fruit and/or vegetable in it.

29 | Lee

April 29th, 2010 at 9:19 pm


Carrie C and Rebecca: thanks for your tips!

30 | mrsgryphon

April 30th, 2010 at 12:52 am


Just this week I decided that I had to start making my own granola bars because my daughter would eat Quaker chocolate chip bars 3 meals a day if I let her! :) I’ll have to look up your recipe, Andrea, and try yours too Bushidoka!!

31 | Stefania (Ingredients for Life)

April 30th, 2010 at 6:29 am


My oldest is in SK and she has lunch at 11:00 so that means she hasn’t eaten since breakfast. They have snack around 2. When I volunteer I often hear kids complaining that they’re hungry around 10 am. Far too long for kids to go without food.

32 | Amy Dawson

April 30th, 2010 at 8:19 am


Our lunches are similar to yours. And, our kids are some of the few that have food that isn’t pre-packaged. We just started using the easy lunchbox system and wrote about it in our blog section of our site. It makes clean-up easier for us and we’re having a blast with it. http://www.lunchtaker.com/blog/
I love the idea of nutrition breaks instead of a lunch setting. What a nice idea that is!! Our kids’ school composts all food and other compostable items, so that is a good step too. If you go to lunchtaker, check out the lunch ideas – you can search by color, nutrition, and more. You can add your own lunch items to the site too and let us calculate nutrition for you.

33 | Liisa

April 30th, 2010 at 9:10 am


So, I must confess that I do put packaged granola bars in the lunches sometimes. But that’s about it for the little packaged stuff. I have to say that my motivation is usually less about the garbage in the case of those little single serving packages, and more with the amount of cupboard/fridge space and cost vs. quantity of food you’re actually getting.

That being said, I do make my own granola bars and I just happened to write a post about this a few minutes ago! These banana oatmeal granola bars were so well-received and so easy, made with ingredients we always have on hand.

34 | marianne

April 30th, 2010 at 9:42 am


I’m appalled at the gym teacher giving full-size chocolate bars as treats! That DEFINITELY needs to be stopped. I suggest contacting the school about it.

The school in which I teach has a general healthy eating policy. Students are not allowed to bring candy, chips, or soft drinks. This still leaves lots of room for junk, but cuts out the worst offenders. The staff has discussed further restrictions, but due to the demographics of our school, it would be very difficult to adequately educate the parents. We also face the reality that many of our students families are accessing the food bank on a regular basis, and if fruit roll-ups and dunkaroos are what you’re provided, who are we to say they can’t bring them? We also often provide sandwiches for kids without lunches, or supplement meager lunches with extra granola bars, cheese and crackers, applejuice, or drink boxes (enough so that each teacher has a back-pack of these emergency lunch foods right in the class, because the office couldn’t handle the volume.

Our school has partnered up with a local grocer and is holding a “fruit day” about ever 3 weeks, when every child in the school receives a piece of fruit to eat. We have started with common fruits (bananas, apples and oranges so far) but hope to try a wider variety betwen now and the end of the year.

For special occasions in my class we generally try to have healthy snacks such as popcorn, fruit, veggies and dip, pita and hummus.

Homeroom teachers in the primary grades teach the little ones at the start of the school year that they are expected to eat the “main” part of their meal (sandwich, bael, noodles, hot dog) first at each nurtition break, followed by snacks that will spoil (yogourt or cheese) and finally treats such as cookies, granola bars, dunkaroos that can always go home to be eaten another day if they don’t get to them. The kids don’t always follow this, but the lunch supervision teachers do try to keep them on track as much as possible. The kids are required to take any un-eaten or half-eaten food home, so their families see how much they have eaten, and what heir child doesn’t like (so when the baloney sandwich comes home for the 4th day in a row, it’s a sign to mom & dad that they shouldn’t waster their time and money on baloney anymore!)

35 | marianne

April 30th, 2010 at 9:42 am


Yikes, sorry for writing such a novel!

36 | Betsy Mae

April 30th, 2010 at 11:28 am


Our school does do the competition you mentioned Andrea. One day a week the classes (the 2 same grade classes) compete to see which class was able to produce the least amount of waste.

We also use the Funtainers that Thermos makes. It’s the smallest one they have (that I could find) and it’s stainless steel. Unfortunately, it has characters on it, I would prefer to buy a plain thermos, and if the characters are important then I should warn you that the images wear off easily which might be disappointing too. I boil water, fill the thermos and put the lid on while I warm up the soup or leftovers. I heat the food very hot (much hotter than my kids could eat it) and put it into the Thermos. My daughter has complained that it’s been too hot on occassion, they eat lunch at 1130am and I prepare the food at 7am. That said, she has complained that the food has gone cold if I pack an ice pack (to keep the other food cold) anywhere close to the Thermos. So if I send yogurt or something that must be kept cold I have to seperate it in order to keep the hot food hot and the cold, cold!

I wanted to mention one more thing. Our school has two snacks and a lunch break. When my daughter entered grade one and was in school all day (and for lunch), we noticed that her table manners were suddenly terrible! After volunteering during the lunch hour a few times I realized why, they don’t get very much time to eat at all and they can either inhale their food or they go without. Many parents complain that their kids come home with most of their lunch uneaten. I don’t know what the solution is but I would be very unhappy if my kids weren’t eating all day!

37 | cgb

May 1st, 2010 at 8:10 am


Ok, I’m sure this won’t be the most popular opinion, and I’m always a few posts behind on this blog so maybe nobody will read this anyways – but I think we all need to take a collective deep breath on this chocolate bar thing.

A teacher who is trying to motivate their students through treats isn’t “appalling”. Appalling is a teacher who doesn’t give two hoots about their students, or a teacher who doesn’t take the time to volunteer on extracurricular activities. I agree that a full sized chocolate bar isn’t the healthiest treat – but how often is this actually happening? Are the students scoring baskets from half court every day? Every week? They give out big dollar prizes at NBA games if someone from the crowd can score from half court. I’m guessing school aged kids don’t do it that often.

And if, in fact, you kid is a basketball star and does this often… Or if you don’t want you kid getting the occasional chocolate bar – don’t get worked into a tizzy, just talk to the teacher! They’re just regular people, and I’m sure will completely understand. But really, most parents probably don’t mind if their kid gets the occasional chocolate bar… so the teacher probably doesn’t realize this is a problem unless you *tell* them!

And to the original topic – we also try our best to be litterless, though my son isn’t at school yet so I’m sure it’ll be more of a challenge once he starts taking a lunch. I made your granola bars this week too – and they are *so* yummy! I was really skeptical at first, but am so glad I gave them a try. My next step is to try all the suggestions on modifications in the comments. Yum – thanks for the recipe!

38 | andrea

May 1st, 2010 at 8:26 am


cgb – I read all the comments, no matter when they’re posted. :)

I think we have to agree to disagree! :) I don’t think that teachers should be giving treats as a reward for anything, no matter how infrequent the occasion might be. The kids get enough crap as it is. Do they need to get it from school too?

I DO agree however that prizes are a powerful motivator for kids. When I was in grade four I “won” a pretty necklace from a teacher for a great math result. And you know what, I still have it.

One of my daughters got a special green pen for helping the teacher last week. She was thrilled, and that thrill will last longer than a chocolate bar.

The prize truly doesn’t have to be food-based.

And I’m glad you tried the recipe! It is so easy, and wonderfully customizable! Add carob or chocolate chips! Apricots! Coconut! Whatever! The recipe happily accommodates any favourites. :)

39 | cgb

May 1st, 2010 at 8:27 am


I wanted to add that I don’t think the original poster, Karen, was getting worked up about it – she just said she wished it weren’t happening. My comments are more directed to the reactions of everyone to her situation. Though maybe I take the word “appalling” to be more harsh than others. Gosh, its hard to have discussions online!

40 | Lee

July 18th, 2010 at 6:26 pm


I recently got the Thermos Funtainer food jar and water bottle and love them both!

Thanks to you, Andrea and your commenters!

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My name is Andrea and I live in the Westboro area of Ottawa with my husband Mark and our dog Piper who is kind of a big deal on Instagram. We also have two human offspring: Emma (23) and Sarah (21). During the day I work as a writer at The Royal Ottawa Mental Health Centre. I am a longtime Ottawa blogger and I've occupied this little corner of the WWW since 1999. The Fishbowl is my whiteboard, water cooler, and journal, all rolled into one. I'm passionate about healthy living, arts and culture, travel, great gear, good food, and sharing the best of Ottawa. I also love vegetables, photography, gadgets, and great design.

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