School Lunches for Distance Learning

Like many other school districts in the United States, Pittsburgh Public Schools is keeping school buildings closed through at least the first quarter of the 2020-2021 school year.  Our first-grader and tenth-grader will be logging into distance learning and completing assignments at home.

You might think that would mean they don’t need “school lunches” because they can just eat the way their father and I do when working from home: Sometime around noon, wander into the kitchen, look into the refrigerator to see what leftovers we have, and warm up something–or, if that doesn’t work, cook some pasta, make a salad, fry an egg, whatever.

But that approach didn’t work so well last spring after the schools closed, and it hasn’t worked so well during this unusual summer when all four of us were home almost all day almost every day.  Here are a few reasons why “winging it” might not work out:

  • A hodgepodge of available foods doesn’t necessarily turn into a balanced or satisfying meal.
  • The schedule of distance learning (or working from home) may not allow time to cook as well as eat, or lunch break may not come until you’re so hungry you want food to be ready immediately.
  • If the schedule is not tightly structured, kids may forget to eat until late afternoon, throwing off their metabolic clocks so that they don’t eat much at dinner, stay up late snacking, and don’t sleep well.
  • Kids who’ve been staring at a screen all morning may need outdoor time at lunch.  Some kinds of food make better picnics than others!
  • Figuring out what to eat from too wide an array of options can be challenging.  After using their brains all morning, some kids don’t want to think about what to eat but would rather just be told what’s for lunch!
  • Younger children can be annoyingly indecisive when parents ask, “What do you want for lunch?”–and that open-ended question can lead to demanding foods that aren’t available.

Our 15-year-old Nicholas has been talking about this all summer: “It’s not like the school food was so delicious, but it was obvious: Now it’s lunchtime, and here’s what’s for lunch.  I need that at home so I can just have lunch and go on to my next class.”  I hear that…yet I also hear Nicholas often complaining that we have “no food in the house” when the refrigerator and pantry are overflowing!  Sometimes the food we have is not the food he wants….

Meanwhile, 6-year-old Lydia has drifted into a pattern of not caring to eat lunch or not eating much until late afternoon, when she starts asking for snacks and, if allowed, will drift along until bedtime snacking occasionally but never getting around to a proper meal.  We need to serve lunches, not just say, “Hey, I’m heating up some food; you want something?”

We’re working on a plan to get everyone properly lunched when the school days begin, three weeks from today.  We don’t yet know what either student’s daily routine will be–how much of the day will be online events at specific times vs. working on assignments to be turned in anytime before the due date.  I’m starting work as a Census enumerator, so I’ll be out of the house some of the day, more days than not, but I won’t know each day’s working hours until that morning.  Meanwhile, Daniel will be supervising the kids’ learning and lunches at home.

While still working out the details, we know we need three main things:

  1. A menu that tells us what’s for lunch each day.
  2. Ingredients for all the lunches purchased in one weekly shopping trip.  We want to avoid unpredictable demand for specific ingredients so that we don’t have to make extra trips to the store.
  3. Food partially prepared in advance so that lunchtime is more about eating than cooking.

None of this is really new to us.  We started meal planning a decade ago and have kept on planning our dinner menu pretty consistently since then.  We have a long history of purposely cooking or chopping more food than we’re going to eat at one meal so that we have planned leftovers or prepped ingredients for future meals.

Furthermore, Nicholas can cook a full meal from scratch all by himself!  He just doesn’t want to do it in the middle of a school day.  He could cook on the weekend and pack individual portions for easy reheating.

Every new school year is an opportunity to start a new system of managing daily life so everyone gets through the day smoothly, ready to learn!  This year is not like other years.  Despite the worries of avoiding the virus and meeting social needs and trying to make “virtual education” effective, this year gives us an unusual amount of freedom to reinvent our routines and figure out what suits us best in our unique household.

Pictures of kids eating from plastic boxes, and of a lunch packed in disposable bags, with text, "Back-to-school Lunch During the COVID Pandemic"What if your kids are going to school in person? There might be changes in how lunch is done. That’s the topic of my new article at Kitchen Stewardship: Do Disposable Lunches Keep Kids Safe?

I finished writing that article on July 31 and was working on the last section, thinking, “What will the conclusion be?” when the telephone rang.  It was the school district robo-call informing us that the school board had decided the first quarter would be distance learning only.  So that is my conclusion: “There are ways to follow your school’s rules with a minimum of single-use plastic . . . but hey, it might be a while before you have to work that out!”

Instead, I’m working out how to apply what I learned from researching this article by packing Lydia three lunches in three types of packaging and bringing home grab-and-go meals for both kids: They like to know what’s for lunch, and Lydia likes to have a picnic lunch!  Maybe we’ll make our school-day routine one in which Daddy packs her lunchbox and water bottle just for her to carry out onto our porch.  Fresh air, sunshine, and an organized meal all in one!

Child eating from a stainless-steel lunchbox and reusable water bottle positioned on a small calico mat on a concrete outdoor floor.

Visit Hearth & Soul for timely tips from others passing through this strange season on Earth!

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