Overnight Soup, or Why Real Lunch is Important

L. and P. are in a Maurice Sendak phase right now.  They’re generally found, these days, jumping around the house with “claws” bared as they enact the Wild Things’ rumpus; trying to stand on their heads like the contrary Pierre; or humming along incessantly to our Scholastic Books Maurice Sendak DVD, on which Carole King sings about Chicken Soup with Rice.  Which, of course, prompted the literate five-year-old foodie of the household to proclaim, “Mommy, I want you to make chicken soup with rice for my lunch at school.”

I agreed to his request, and then got thinking about all the lunch-packing conversations we’ve had on RRG lately.  Some of you have seemed interested in soup recipes for your kids’ thermoses; L. was interested in soup for his thermos; and it seemed like a good time to really ponder the whole question of making something just especially for a hot lunch item.  Typically, when I send my kids with a Thermos of something, it’s leftovers of a dinner we’ve had and therefore doesn’t require much of me in the morning.  But here was L. asking for a hot lunch item I wasn’t planning to put on the dinner menu; and here were you, readers, looking for inspiration.

I had plans for that chicken soup with rice, which I quickly reconsidered in the name of making things as easy as possible for all the lunch-packers in the world.  And I invented a concept I plan to test with many other soup and stew recipes, this fall — the overnight thermos lunch.  Well, technically, I likely did NOT invent this idea.  Someone else has surely been smart enough to think of it before.  But not many people seem to be talking about it, so I will.

With just a few minutes of effort last night and about the same expenditure this morning, I was able to make a totally from-scratch chicken soup with rice in my slow cooker and send it to school in the kids’ lunchboxes.  The advantages were clear — for about $12 worth of raw ingredients, almost all organic, I got about 10 servings of soup, so it was economical.  It was also easy, since it cooked while I was sleeping and required only a bare minimum of skill in the kitchen, and it was lovely and hot when the time came to fill up the thermos containers and send them off to school.  It was also REAL FOOD.  Healthy, real food.  And these days, I feel like that counts even more than it used to.

If I had bought a can of chicken soup with rice, heated it up, and put it in L. and P.’s thermoses, I would likely have been feeding them something that contained, among other lovely ingredients, mechanically separated chicken and MSG.  Now, my particular feelings about those quasi-edible items aside, I also must point out that I have a new reason for wanting to avoid a chemical stew in the boys’ lunchboxes: something is making P. sick.

A few times recently, he has had uncontrollable and violent GI symptoms, as well as troubled sleep, not long after eating a processed snack or treat at school — something we didn’t pack for him.  Ordinarily I’m fine with the boys eating whatever they’re served, because, among other reasons, I feel like they need to experience moderation and live in the “real” world, not be sheltered from the existence of the things I choose not to bring into our house.  But now I’m a little more wary, because we’re about 99% sure that P.’s symptoms were related to something he ate…and we didn’t give him anything he hadn’t eaten before. 

What could it be?  We asked the school if we could see the ingredient labels for the foods he’d been given, which they of course were happy to provide.  Froot Loops, “golden” vanilla ice cream, packaged brownie bites, Oreos.  Just trying to decipher the list of complex chemical names on those labels will make your eyes cross, if you’re looking at them all together.  I think I may have found some common themes, as well as some things that can be ruled out, but I’m not totally confident yet without a little trial and error.  (Not looking forward to that, certainly.) 

Here’s the thing, though — I’ve heard a couple of reactions to this tale of mysterious food-related woe.  One of them goes something like this: “Well, you know, you don’t give him enough REGULAR food, like the other kids get.  Maybe his system just isn’t used to that kind of thing.  Maybe he’d tolerate it better if you let him have more of that stuff on a regular basis.”  The other is along these lines: “Whew.  Well, that’s rough, but good for you.  Most parents wouldn’t figure out that those kinds of tummy troubles and the sleep problems were connected to something in the food.”

Both of these ideas disturb me.  The first is bothersome because, as I remarked to J., I can’t figure out when plain old food became “not regular food.”  When did we get to the point where something had to be processed to be considered a “normal” part of the American child’s diet?  The second is more problematic, though, because I suspect it may be true.  Certainly any parent would be concerned about an upset stomach, but honestly, how many of us chalk up things like poor sleeping habits, extremes of behavior, or mood swings to the stuff our kids are eating?

Probably not many.  Oh, maybe you, readers of this blog…but I am really starting to see how rare it is for American parents to really study and understand the effects of our food supply on our health and our children’s health.  How many children out there are eating that so-called “regular” food and suffering some kind of side effect as a result, without anyone realizing that the two things are connected? 

Going back to the soup, now: How many kids are eating a supposedly “healthy” lunch of canned soup, without their parents really knowing that it’s full of MSG and phosphates and preservatives of every possible variety?  How many thermoses in the lunchroom are filled with chemical cocktails that may actually affect the health, mood, behavior, and learning of some of the kids consuming them?  I don’t know.  And while many members of the population are probably somewhat immune to the possible side effects of different food additives, our experience with P. is making me wonder whether the number of people who DO suffer some sort of ill effect from these things might be higher than any of us think. 

The bottom line here is that, hopefully, taking a few extra minutes here and there to put together a soup that literally makes itself overnight will be the kind of thing that ends up being worth it to a number of families.  Hopefully these kinds of shortcuts, tips, tricks, and easy recipes will keep the chemicals out of at least a few lunchboxes, and start turning the tide back towards Real Lunch for Real Kids — real food, not “regular” food, whatever that means.  I’m aiming to normalize FOOD again, in all its unfancy, unfussy, homespun glory.

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10 Responses to Overnight Soup, or Why Real Lunch is Important

  1. Pingback: Gourds in Odd Places | Red, Round, or Green

  2. Uly says:

    *That’d be pasteurized, homogenized cow’s milk. Raw milk, low-temperature pasteurized milk, unhomogenized milk MIGHT be different, I don’t know. Non-cow milk is a little better, and yogurts and cheese aren’t as bad as milk for my mood swing issues, which make me suspect it’s a whey issue instead of a casein one, but who knows? It could be both but the whey is worse or something.

  3. Uly says:

    “Certainly any parent would be concerned about an upset stomach, but honestly, how many of us chalk up things like poor sleeping habits, extremes of behavior, or mood swings to the stuff our kids are eating?”

    Very few.

    My parents were on the ball, and realized when I was young that cow’s milk* gives me massive, massive mood swings. (This combined with being autistic and puberty led to such things as half an hour of hyper, hysterical laughter followed by half an hour of equally frantic sobbing followed by an hour or more of lying still exhausted. That’s not counting the meltdowns…!). To an extent, this is true of all dairy, and though I certainly CAN eat the stuff, it’s best if I use moderation and am aware of its effects on my ability to function.

    So because of this, I know a lot about dairy and its potential effects. (No, you don’t need dairy to survive. No, those Got Milk ads are paid for BY THE PEOPLE WHO SELL MILK, they’re not government sponsored. And you don’t want to hear my calcium rant!) And I have had several friends who would moan and whine about: eczema, asthma, gas, diarrhea, bloating, mood swings in them or their kids, and eventually I’d say something like “You know, all that can be linked to dairy. It doesn’t have to be, but why not go off dairy for a few weeks and see if you get better?” (For that matter, I knew one girl who had panic attacks after having too much milk, but I’ve never heard of that from anybody but her.)

    “Oh, no, that’s impossible, we eat SO MUCH cheese, I don’t see how it could be giving me eczema, I never heard of that, and we couldn’t possibly do that anyway.”

    And they’d keep complaining, and I’d keep my mouth shut and sooner or later – it’s at least six different people who went through this same exact process – they’d finally try the dairy-free diet thing. AND IT WOULD WORK.

    And then the next time I saw them they’d go “Oh, I tried going off milk, wow, it worked great, why didn’t anybody ever tell me this?”

    “Uh, I told you that.”

    “No, I think I read it somewhere….”

    Which would be funnier if it weren’t so annoying. But here’s the thing. Dairy consumption IS well linked to a host of physical problems (including osteoporosis, and there’s that calcium rant coming…!), some of which are obviously food related, like the gas and the runs. And even then, a lot of people don’t see it as a possibility! Heck, many of them don’t even really grasp that digestive issues are caused by something you eat, or anything to be concerned about! They think it’s NORMAL to have loose stools or to have really stinky farts, they think it’s NORMAL that when you go to the bathroom it stinks for an hour instead of just a few minutes.

    Asking them to see that mental issues a. aren’t normal and b. are caused by diet? Close to impossible.

    • Wow, it sounds like your parents really were quite vigilant and very smart in realizing early on what caused your problems. Thanks for sharing here.
      I think you’re sadly correct in that the majority of people just don’t want to believe that food can make them sick, make them sad, make them ANYTHING. We are a country that is still in denial, for heaven’s sake, about food actually making us FAT…let alone anything else. And it’s hard to be the parent whose child has “issues” of any kind, especially when people dare to contemplate something like a food allergy — having to bring special treats to school for occasions, having to ask the birthday party hosts what’s in everything, always being vigilant. No one wants to go through that. So I think we try to ignore things instead. Thanks for commenting and for reading.

  4. Kat says:

    Can you share the overnight soup recipe? It sounds like a great idea and I’m all for easy mornings!

  5. Viki says:

    First, I doubt you will find many thermoses with soup at ALL in the lunch room. We usually eat pretty well. However, It Is the first week of preschool/MDO for me (teacher) and I was exhausted on Tuesday evening and so DH bought take out from a place I have never had problems from before, but then we don’t eat out often. Within 48 hours I have one of those lowgrade almost migraine headaches around one eye, one side of the face and neck. Not enough to keep me from doing what needs to be done, but enough to be very irritating. The first thing I thought of was what did I eat that I usually don’t eat!
    If one of the girls is/was being impossible growing up I always thought of food first. The oldest is allergic to peanuts and soy. When she was small if she had peas within 20 minutes she was on the floor under the table in tears, a whiney mess. Food can really mess with a kid if they are sensitive.
    I wonder how many kids would be off of medications if they ate healthy foods with ingredients that they could pronounce.

    • I suspect you’re right about the dearth of thermoses in the lunchroom, but I try not to think these negative thoughts — too depressing! 🙂 I once landed in the hospital with a horrific migraine that mimicked stroke symptoms — numbness, slurred speech, etc. It was terrifying and excruciating. I finally traced it back to an MSG-laden meal I’d eaten at an Asian restaurant just hours before the symptoms hit. It’s shocking what food additives can do to you.
      We see a lot more pronounced behavioral issues with P. at school than at home — often, at home, he’s a peach. He’s usually quite good at school, too, but there are days when he’s just a nightmare. I’m starting to wonder, now that I’m tracking things, if we’ll see these “eruptions” happening around clusters of certain additives. But I think you’re right that there are a lot of children out there whose behavioral/emotional issues are probably linked strongly to their diets, and their parents never know that it’s even a possibility. Education, education, education. That’s our mantra here at RRG, right? 🙂

  6. Liz says:

    I recently went to a naturopath, and he put me on a relatively strict eating plan. Foods I am sensitive to, according to the blood tests: eggs, wheat/gluten, cow’s milk, any kind of creamy dressing Blue cheese), white potatoes, anything yeasty like vinegar, anything moldy like aged cheeses. Goat or sheep milk/cheese is okay. To find out all of this, we took away all the things that could possibly bother me, didn’t eat them for a few weeks, and then added them back in one at a time (elimination diet). When something reacts, you’ll figure it out.
    Speaking of, on this new plan, I am losing about a pound a day. Unbelievable. xxoo
    Oh, try giving him a mix of sweet potatoes, leeks and white potatoes, that might help him with the GI symptoms, esp if you add some yogurt to it.

    • Wow, Liz. It sounds like you’re really having to deal with some radical changes. And the pound a day thing is unbelievable, indeed! I’ve heard that before — that if you have undiagnosed food allergies/sensitivities, it can manifest as a tendency to bloat and gain weight — but a pound a DAY. That’s insane.
      Thanks for the tip about the sweet potatoes! We have been giving yogurt quite a bit, and that has seemed to help, but I’ll definitely try to add the other items next time he has a reaction. (Fingers crossed that doesn’t happen…)

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