5 Reasons Why I’m Excited for My Kids to Order Hot Lunch This Year

published Aug 9, 2021
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African American school girl holding lunch on a tray
Credit: JGI/Jamie Grill/Getty Images

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I recently learned about the USDA’s extension on their free school lunch program, which was adopted during the pandemic to help ease strain on families. My kids are both in public elementary school and I plan for both to take advantage of the program, for a few reasons.

Packing lunch is a chore for me.

First and foremost: I really don’t love packing lunch. I hate food waste, and I particularly hate food waste combined with wasted effort. When I’ve taken time out of my evening to put together a balanced, healthy meal for my kids to bring my lunch and they don’t eat it, it’s frustrating. 

At this point, with my kids now in third and first grade, I’ve tried it all — from classic PB&J (or more often, sun butter and jelly) to Bento-style crudité to Lunchables and all its imitators. I’ve packed for my kids, I’ve had them weigh in, and I’ve had them pack their own lunches. My kids have broad tastes, generally — when it comes to dinner, they’ll eat things like oysters and artichokes and quinoa. (I’ll also note here that my kids don’t have any allergies or dietary needs.)

Still, they often come home from school with a picked-over lunchbox. It frustrates me to dump those perfectly sized containers of carrots and hummus I packed the night before, tepid and untouched, straight into the compost at the end of the day.  

But beyond my own selfish reasons for not liking to pack lunch, I think there are some great reasons to opt in to school lunch.

Choosing their own lunch lunch gives kids agency.

When I asked my third grader if she liked cafeteria lunch, she said it depended on the day. What she likes about traditional hot lunch, buffet-style is that she gets to make her own choices. I’ve been through the line with her at the cafeteria, and there aren’t too many choices, but being asked makes her more invested in her meal. More invested means she’s more likely to eat it, and choosing between various nutritious options — this protein or that protein, this veggie or that veggie — reinforces the good decision-making she’ll need to keep eating healthfully later in life. 

Kids get more variety and exposure to foods.

In addition to having some choice in what she eats, she’s being offered a variety of foods that I’m unlikely to present to her in whatever we bring out of our home, particularly if I’m trying to streamline the lunch-making and putting the same things in her lunch box every day. I’m not saying cafeteria food is all very inspiring, but we did start doing Taco Tuesday dinners at home because she liked the taco bar at school, and there are foods she’ll eat at school (steamed spinach comes to mind) that she might opt out of at home.

Free lunch programs are more equitable for kids in our community.

In many public schools, free and reduced price lunch is a key for making sure all children are getting adequate nutrition, regardless of their circumstances at home. But if only kids who rely on school lunch are in that cafeteria line, there’s a risk of there being a stigma associated with opting in for hot lunch. In our school, just under half of the kids qualify for free and reduced price lunch. We don’t qualify, but if my daughters are in that lunch line, they’re not differentiating between the haves and have-nots, which, I hope, reduces the chance of the hot lunch eaters being stigmatized in our school — or by my own kids.

Free lunch programs cut down on red tape.

A corollary to that is access and ease of use. Before the free lunch, maintaining my daughter’s lunch account was, if not a challenge, then at least an inconvenience. It was administered through a private program contracted through the school, and it was up to me to monitor her balance, set spending limits (so she didn’t load up on junky extras every day), and absorb a convenience fee to re-up her credits. A couple times, she came home with warnings that her balance was in the red. And if I can’t keep up when I have a desk job where I can monitor my email all day, I can imagine how much harder it is if internet access or finances are an issue. Universal free lunch eliminates this bureaucracy completely, and limits the paperwork needed to enroll in the free and reduced price lunch programs, as well. There is already so much to keep track of for school that I’m happy for any opportunity to simplify and streamline.

For the last year, school lunch has been different with the COVID-19 protocols. Instead of walking through the hot lunch line, the kids are handed brown-bag lunches inside their classrooms. Neither of my girls likes it as much, but it’s still easy for me, and equitable for the students. 

I hope they’ll get back to “regular” meals soon. But unless or until that happens, I’m happy to opt in for hot lunch at school, and grateful for the extra ease of free lunches for all students. It’s good for my kids, and it’s good for lots of other kids, too.