ANCHORS AND SAILS: Lunchtime memories

Brenda Kelley Kim
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“I was always a junk food person, still am.”

—-Dolly Parton

I’ve always loved Dolly Parton. She does whatever the heck she pleases; she wears clothes she likes, has big wigs and red shoes, and tells anyone who doesn’t like it just where they can put their opinion. Oh, she can also sing and write songs, and she donates money, time, and attention to good causes. What’s not to love?

I was chatting with a friend the other night over pizza, cheap wine, and other snacks I should probably limit, but hey, it was a fine soft night, on a deck overlooking a park, with good friends and a friendly dog. Does it get better than that? We got to talking about school lunches, as my friend was trying to figure out what her kids would eat, how to best pack it, how not to have 90% of it come back uneaten, and how to navigate the school hot lunches that make PopTarts look like health food. She is younger than me, but we both remember tin lunch boxes with our favorite TV show characters on them. There were bursting with canned Hunt’s snack pack puddings, Wonder Bread PBJs, and Twinkies. Not for nothing, the pudding in a can wasn’t that bad if you could manage to avoid slitting your wrists when you opened it. Seriously, I think the pop-top would now be considered a deadly weapon.

I’m technically a Baby Boomer, but like those poor souls still wearing a “Members Only” jacket, I’m among the last of them, being born the same year and month as the iconic first Ford Mustang. So I remember the moon landing, the Summer of Love, the gas lines, Watergate, the rise of disco, and much more. I saw some of that on the news, but it remains a part of my childhood, just like junk food. Especially the “Space food sticks.” Anything astronaut-related was wildly popular then. Space food? Who doesn’t want some foil-wrapped, preservative-laden deliciousness made from peanut butter and some chemicals we probably shouldn’t be putting in food? Some of the meals I toted around in my genuine Emergency! lunch box with my TV boyfriend Johnny Gage on the lid would probably make a nutritionist lose her low-fat lunch, but I lived for them. I spent nearly a decade eating food out of a rusty metal box full of sugar, fat, carbs, and salt, and here I am, still standing. Those were the days, my friend; we thought they’d never end.

There’s an old saying, “When you know better, you do better.” Or not, in my case. I enjoy the fact that I have friends with younger children. Mine are grown and don’t need me to pack a lunch for them anymore, but just looking at their Facebook pages of BPA and phthalate-free Bento box lunches tells me that if I had elementary school-aged children right now, the Mommy Mafia (and don’t kid yourselves, it’s real) would absolutely have put a hit out on me for exposing their children to the dark side of the lunch table. I admire their time and attention, but if I had kids now? I would be the mom that gets the stink eye…Ok, never mind, lunch choices aside, I was that mom; who am I trying to kid?

I didn’t make my kids’ lunches when they were little; I assembled them. Cheese and cracker packs so withered and dusty your throat resembled a dry lake bed? Check. Fruit leather, utterly devoid of any real nutrients and guaranteed to stick to your teeth? Check. A slice of fatty ham wrapped around a wedge of Laughing Cow cheese? Check. A Little Debbie Nutty Buddy and a bag of Doritos? Check and double-check. It’s the slacker mom five-course meal, paired with a fine Capri Sun Roaring Water for palate cleansing after recess. If I did that today, they’d shun me faster than an Amish girl in Lululemon. Lunch has become a social minefield, fraught with peril and judgment.

It’s confession time; I’m no longer a parent of young children, but sometimes, when I felt particularly generous, I would buy my kids a Lunchable. Those little plastic-wrapped trays of salt and nitrites were a treat for my kids. They lived for the day when I pulled one out of the fridge and tossed it in their backpacks for school. For one brief moment, I was a cool mom. I was worshipped and glorified; I was all that and a bag of Skittles (which are included in some Lunchable versions.) I sometimes felt terrible outsourcing my motherly duties, but I dare you; tell your kid they can take a Lunchable to school and watch them leap for joy at the prospect of being the envy of the kale chip kids they sit with. So, while I might be “that mom” because I’m not losing sleep over GMO avocados and corn syrup, my kids are no worse for it. They’re all healthy, thankfully, and they did get a vegetable or a whole grain something or other now and then. They ate broccoli when it had canned cheese sauce dumped over it, and once in a while, they even asked for baby carrots at the store. I’m calling that a win.

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