This post was first published as a column in Practical Parenting Magazine, June 2012
The other week, I was walking my three-year-old son T-Bone into day-care when I realised I had forgotten his lunch-box. His little face was stricken. ‘My lunch, Mama!’ he wailed. ‘No my lunch! ’ I told T-bone I’d bring it later, but he was inconsolable. At first, I thought his reaction was because he really, really loves to eat. This boy is what the Italians would call ‘a good fork.’ But even so, it seemed excessive. I comforted him, fetched his lunch, and all was well.
But it got me thinking. Pre-school, day-care, school – these are long days for small children to be without mum and dad. They are stimulated and cared for, and they are often treated with great affection by their teachers. They have fun. But they are also following different rules than normal, lumped in with lots of other kids, who are sometimes mean, and away from the frequent kisses and cuddles that are scattered throughout a day at home with the family.
In the middle of this day away from home comes lunchtime. It’s a pause, a time to stop and sit and open a box of food packed by Mum or Dad. Everything in this box says ‘I know you.’ You love ham but not bread with bits. You like very small, whole apples. As a treat you really love the princess yoghurt, and sometimes you like a box of the fruit-and-nut mix that you helped Mummy make up on the weekend.
For T-bone, at three, this lunchbox is more than just food. It’s a tangible reminder of home, where he belongs, and where he’ll be going in just a few hours. It’s a hug and a kiss from Mummy in the middle of a long day without her.
I debated the politics of lunchboxes with my husband Keith. We decided that if he packed the school lunches, the children would have the same menu every day for thirteen years: a vegemite sandwich, an apple and a muesli bar. His aim would be to refine and simplify the packing routine over the years until it was streamlined to absolute efficiency. There would never be any drama, but there would never be any excitement.
On the other hand, if Mum took on the role, lunches would change according to her whims of diet and interest. They would be delicious and intricate and every once in a while, Mum would have a massive meltdown over the pressure of packing lunchboxes every day for thirteen years. Dad would try and be sympathetic. He appreciates the good food too. But also, he thinks she should just pack a vegemite sandwich, an apple and a muesli bar.
I like to put a note in T-Bone’s lunch every once in a while to tell him I love him. He can't read it yet, but it's a reminder:: You’re in the world, my little one. It’s tough and wonderful and you’re in it on your own. But home is waiting and Mummy is there. In the meantime, eat this.