I’m a little choked up this morning, so forgive me — today is the first time that the “First Day of School” has meant anything in our little household. Although we walked through the doors of the same building that we’ve entered for the past 2 years, L. is now officially in Pre-K…which meant that we were walking in, giving hugs to all his favorite nursery teachers, and then proceeding down the stairs to the BIG ROOM where he will be getting ready for Kindergarten. New teachers. New room. New cubby. New routine. New fridge for his lunch, which was safe and secure in his new Backyardigans backpack.
Coupled with that milestone was the fact that, while we’ve spent the past eighteen months walking out the door with P. in tow, then driving across town to take him to his own little daycare, P. is now old enough to attend L.’s school. So we brought P. into the Toddler area for the first time today too. New teacher for him. New routine. New cubby. New nap cot. New little bin in the fridge for his lunch.
It’s an emotional day, this First Day of School, and it comes with a tangle of nerves, excitement, anxiety, curiosity…for both us parents AND our offspring. And of course, me being the neurotic foodie mom that I am, I had to think seriously about how to feed my little men for this big adventure. Beyond the tucking of a note of encouragement into L.’s backpack, replete with heart stickers, exclamation points, and 25 cents taped into the corner (L.’s got a new obsession with filling up his piggy bank)…beyond making sure both boys had their security blankets at the ready…beyond reassuring ourselves that P. would have ample outdoor playtime today, and that his new classroom has some of his favorite storybooks…there’s a comfort factor and mood of celebration that, in my humble opinion, is sorely needed at lunchtime on the Big First Day.
Of course, the First Day being right after the Labor Day weekend was not helpful to me with regard to lunches. We ended up trekking to Upstate New York, where I grew up and where my folks still live, to spend a few days splashing in their pool and letting Mom and Dad spoil their only grandchildren rotten. Obviously, I didn’t get to make my weekly pilgrimage to the Saturday morning Farmer’s Market, so we’re not currently in possession of a fridge full of interesting produce to use creatively in lunchbox packing. We’re not bare, though — far from it. As always, Mom sent us home with a cooler full of leftovers to work with. And she and I did take L. to the farmstand up there, which is at a cider mill, so we bought tons of tomatoes for this week’s cooking; a half-bushel of apples; two small spaghetti squash (which L. picked out himself); and, of course, a half-gallon of freshly pressed cider.
While at Mom and Dad’s, I also used some of the downtime to enlist L.’s help in making banana cookies. I haven’t made them in a few weeks, which is fine with me — I like the variety — but is apparently NOT fine with my elder son, who nearly every night has asked whether I’m putting banana cookies into his lunchbox. So, thinking ahead to this Big First Day, I decided that they’d be a good addition to today’s menu for both boys, filling the bill for both comfort (they’re familiar and favored) and celebration (they’re cookies). We came home thus armed with dessert, if nothing else, and I knew I’d have to contemplate the rest when the time came.
When the time did come, I mused that with days like the Big First One, the best course of action is probably to let the kids have their say. I mean, I generally do involve L. in the packing of his lunch, but it’s usually with two choices in mind: “L., do you want a salmon-avocado wrap, or a turkey burger with avocado?” And P., of course, is too small to really get involved with the lunch packing, so he gets what he gets (sorry, P.!). But for the Big First Day, I left things open-ended, and just asked, “L., what do you think you might want to eat tomorrow?”
This course of action is how it came to pass that my child brought the following sandwich to school today: Ham. And Cheese. AND CHICKEN. On an Everything bagel. The thing, even made with modest amounts of all ingredients, is bigger, perhaps, than his brother’s head. L. is thrilled. I’m secretly sort of impressed with his ability to mastermind this creation. But I complied, even though it was a bit ridiculous, because there’s nothing on this sandwich that is actually heinous for him, and frankly, I’m just relieved that he is wise enough to have chosen an actual lunch entree — I suspect many children his age would have gone straight to sweets and snacks. And in the spirit of wanting to please their children at lunchtime today, I bet many parents would want to cave in just a bit, offering extra “goodies,” packing pudding cups alongside fruit snacks alongside chips and whatever other brightly packaged creations their little ones crave.
But feeding the milestones — mood of celebration or not — does, I think, still involve feeding the growth and development that we wish to see in our children when these moments in their lives arrive. I know my boys will be playing and learning today, and they’ll be enduring a bit of stress and anxiety in their small worlds as they encounter new, possibly exciting, possibly scary people and things and routines and activities. They need FOOD for that — not adulterated with tons of sugar, not salted and fried and pumped full of chemicals — but FOOD. So both children have the requisite fruits and veggies in their lunchboxes, but for today, I packed the favorites. They both have dessert, but the cookies are homemade. And L. has his unusual sandwich, while for P., we’re trying something new: a toddler-sized version of his brother’s choice, made with just cheese and ham (no chicken!) on a whole wheat English muffin. I was inspired to try him out on his first ham sandwich by the fact that, over the weekend, my mainly vegetarian child took a shine to — of all things — bacon. I hadn’t considered giving P. much Pig before, but maybe he and his brother aren’t so different, after all. And for the little guy, we sent his usual milk, but I also filled up a cup with apple cider, which was another weekend discovery of his; juice of any kind is extremely rare in P.’s life, but after all, this is the Big First Day.
It’s a balancing act, as always, trying to be a reasonable, fun, cool Mommy while adhering to some semblance of the food values we seek to uphold in our house. And as usual, I don’t know if I’m doing the “Right Thing,” whatever that right thing is. But I send them off, their little backpacks bobbing as they enter a new phase, hoping that the choices J. and I make for their lunches — and their lives — are the ones that will keep them healthy and smart and funny and growing. Just not growing too fast.