One afternoon during Xavier’s first week of kindergarten, he had no sooner hopped off the bus before he announced, “I have something very important for you to read. It’s in my backpack.” After we made it up the street and through the door, he immediately took his backpack off, swung it around, took out his lunch box, and dug his hand into the bottom (reiterating as he dug, “This is really important”). He pulled his hand out, magician style, and proudly produced a sad looking crumpled sheet of paper. It announced that the next two weeks of school would be “color days” for the kindergarten students. Each day, the students should try to wear the color of the day. “How fun!” I told Xavier, trying to match his enthusiasm. He was already plotting where we should hang the list so we wouldn’t forget.
This kid’s excitement about all things school-related is really contagious. Since he was so eager for the upcoming color days, I suggested we try out integrating the colors into his daily lunch and snack. “What kinds of food are red?” I asked him, proud of myself for being so clever. Little did I realize that by the end of the two-week period, when forced to come up with food options for brown, black, and white day, I would be just as eager to be done with this whole color day thing once and for all.
All in all, though, it was a useful exercise. The colors forced me (and Xavier) to try some foods we may not have considered. (On the other hand, were those chocolate chips for black day and vegan marshmallows for white day really necessary? Probably not.) Packing a lunch and a snack everyday is a new experience for both Xavier and I, and since I took photos of each of them every day for two weeks to document the project, I ended up with a record of ten school lunches and snacks. Since parenthood has absolutely destroyed my memory, the record was a kind of revelation.
Looking over the lunches and snacks, I can pause and take an accounting of some lessons learned thus far.
1. One thing I learned last year during Xavier’s last year of preschool but made a special effort to continue this year was to always have him practice opening the containers I use to pack his food. I’ve found that even when I use the same brand of containers, some are trickier than others. And since Xavier’s on the shy side, he would actually go without snack before he asked for help, even from his peers. Also, some kids are better at certain containers than others and having them practice in front of you at home is really the only way you’ll know if they’ve mastered it. I’ve heard plenty of comments from other parents and teachers about what they feel is too tricky for kids to open, but even they are often surprised at what is easier than they expected and what is more difficult. Xavier can open plastic containers with tight clips on each side that need to be flipped open, but he sometimes has trouble with a zip lock bag. Quinn can actually peel a clementine by himself, start to finish, but he has a lot of trouble with snack bags with ready-made slits on the side for easy opening.
2. Every parent has their standbys, the foods you know your child will eat if all else fails. Mine are peanut butter and hummus (close seconds are grapes, baby carrots, and steamed broccoli). After looking over the lunches and snacks for the last two weeks, I was pleasantly surprised that I don’t rely on the two major standbys as much as I thought I would. The two of them were each featured in the lunches only half or less than half of the time. However, I imagine this will get more difficult as the year goes on, particularly since Xavier is a healthy eater but not as adventurous as I’d like. And I’d really like to try not to lean too much on the processed and convenience foods that I tend to turn to just because I know they will be eaten. I’m going to try to make an effort as the year goes on to be careful not to become too reliant on the same foods over and over again.
3. One thing I’ve discovered as I’ve packed Xavier’s lunches is just how much I’ve relied on hot foods for lunch until now. Since the kids have only been in half day preschool and have only rarely brought a packed lunch for a special activity, picnic, or camp, I’ve come to rely on foods like pasta, ravioli, veggie nuggets, pierogies, and other hot meals for lunch. The packed lunch really rules a lot of this stuff out. Or so I thought. On green day, I took a gamble and packed some Soy Boy brand ravioli. To my surprise (and delight), Xavier devoured them. Lesson learned: don’t be afraid to convert a hot dish into a cold lunch.
4. I am a big believer in exposing my kids to a lot of different foods–even if they’ve tried and rejected them before. They may never develop a taste for certain foods. But there are some foods that they may need to be exposed to ten or twenty times before they develop a taste for them. I tend to push a little harder at dinnertime, and boy, would I have loved to include leftovers from some of the more interesting and diverse meals I serve up then, when I tend to rely less on processed foods and can be a bit more encouraging in person. But I do feel like I know Xavier’s limits, and I’m trying to avoid challenging him too much when he’s already adjusting to being at school all day. A few times during this two week period, though, I packed things I didn’t expect him to love right away–the oatmeal/peanut butter/agave nectar roll ups (he hates tortillas), the pasta salad (he is averse to any kind of unfamiliar dressing or sauce), the dried edamame (which he alternately loves and hates). And when these things returned home half-eaten or ignored, I was ready to accept that my assumptions were correct and these foods would be rejected again and again. But then, I had a revelation when the peanut butter and jelly sandwich came home with two bites taken out of it, there was still watermelon left over from snack, the raisins were still languishing in their container. These were foods Xavier loved and often asked for more of. It dawned on me that I shouldn’t assume that my child won’t ever eat a certain food just because he doesn’t finish it one day. Things happen. Maybe he got distracted by something at lunch or he ate a huge breakfast and wasn’t really hungry at snack. Maybe someone had a birthday and brought in apple slices for everyone to share. While it may very well be that Xavier will never be a fan of tortillas, I shouldn’t assume that is the case after just one try.
5. As a vegan parent of vegan kids, I am hyper aware that people will pay attention to what my kids eat more than they might pay attention to the foods other kids are eating. And I often pack foods for my kids (and for adults at pot lucks, parties, etc.) as if it is my job to prove to them that vegan food can be attractive, delicious, and varied. But when I am packing lunches and snacks for my kids, I need to remember that it’s most important that they are eating healthful food. Just like many other young kids I know, mine often prefer one or two ingredient dishes (peanut butter sandwiches, grapes, tomatoes, etc.). All three of my children will eat cold slices of firm tofu, uncooked and unflavored. This is like the vegan kid equivalent of plain pasta. It makes a lot of sense when you consider that the texture is accessible and the flavor is extremely bland–two things little kids often gravitate towards. In my mind, eating plain tofu is like eating a spoonful of flour right out of the bin. It is also my worst nightmare of what non-vegans think vegans eat. However, I need to get over my gripes if it means a healthful lunch of plain tofu and steamed unflavored broccoli that my son will eat (note the ghost shaped plain tofu for white day, above). The lesson here? Don’t be afraid of packing nutritionally dense bland food that your kids like.
So what do vegan kids eat for lunch? I imagine the answer to that question varies widely. And even around here, we are still working it out. I’m hoping to have a much better answer to that question by the end of the year (and then learn an entirely new one when Quinn begins kindergarten with new tastes, new habits, and new opinions).
So what, exactly, is in these lunches? If you’re curious, you can check out the contents below. (Note that this is to the best of my recollection. I took the photos each day, but didn’t record the contents as I went, so my descriptions may be slightly off.)
Red lunch: Grape tomatoes, peanut butter/granola/agave nectar roll ups, raisins, strawberries
Red snack: Red peppers
Orange lunch: Hummus sandwich, clementine, orange pepper
Orange snack: Baby carrots, crackers, hummus
Yellow lunch: Peanut butter and jelly sandwich, banana, 2 lemon slices to add to the water bottle (This was a big hit, to my surprise!)
Yellow snack: Unsweetened apple sauce, popcorn
Green lunch: Soy Boy ravioli, cucumber slices, shelled edamame
Green snack: Cucumber slices and green hummus (colored using food coloring, but you could just as easily use a food processor to blend in spinach or kale–when totally processed, the texture doesn’t change at all and, especially in the case of spinach, neither does the taste)
Blue lunch: Chunky peanut butter and banana sandwich, blueberries, dried plum
Blue snack: Grapes
Purple lunch: Pasta salad with balsamic vinegar/Braggs based dressing and purple tomatoes and steamed broccoli, blueberries and dates, figs
Purple snack: Pack of dry roasted almonds, purple grapes
Pink lunch: Dried cranberries and plums, a couple of chocolate covered cranberries, heart-shaped sandwich with rhubarb and strawberry jam (and possibly peanut butter–I can’t recall), grapes, raspberries, steamed broccoli
Pink snack: Watermelon chunks
Brown lunch: Star-shaped peanut butter sandwiches on a bed of peanuts, dates, a couple of chocolate covered cranberries, raisins, soy hot dog (Tofu Pups brand, I believe)
Brown snack: Whole wheat mini pitas, hummus
Black lunch: Tofurky and Vegenaise sandwich, black olives, dried edamame, raisins and a few chocolate chips (There may also be some applesauce ‘hiding’ in the closed compartment.)
Black snack: grapes
White lunch: Extra-firm tofu “ghosts,” unsweetened applesauce, peanuts and Dandies (vegan marshmallows)
White snack: Crackers and hummus, Silk Very Vanilla soy milk (Sweetened soy milk and juice are special treats in our house. Xavier brings a water bottle to school each day and it is his only drink for lunch and snack most days.)
P.S. If you’re wondering, I did make the reusable snack bags featured in the photos above. I tried a handful of tutorials to make a few bags of various styles and sizes. I’ll let you know later in the school year what seems to be working the best.
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