Brown bags and school lunchboxes

I understand that in the West, parents often pack their children’s school lunch — often a sandwich, a fruit and a candybar — in a brown paper bag. The kids bring the bag to school, open it during the meal break and dig up whatever’s inside.

This practice has never been widespread in Asia where rice rather than bread is the staple. Toddlers bring their food in food containers that are packed inside square plastic lunch bags which are often adorned with cartoon characters. Another popular food container is the stackable stainless steel pombrera (see a photo) which, I learned from a documentary, is also very common in India.

casaveneracion.com

The last two decades saw even more new lunchbox designs. There’s the insulated container shaped like a water jug which houses smaller plastic containers and a separate space on the side for the cutlery. My daughters used all those lunchbox varieties over the years. By the time they were in high school, we had shifted to insulated fabric lunch bags by Coleman. There would usually be two plastic containers inside — one with rice, another with the viand. On top of these two containers would be a sandwich wrapped in paper napkins and placed inside a brown paper bag. The sandwich is for the mid-morning recess; the rice and viand are for lunch. In addition to the food, they each brought their own water jug.

Okay, that was then. My daughters are now in college and I don’t pack lunchboxes for them anymore. I just went on a little trip back in time after reading about the “brown bag scare.”

Despite parents’ best intentions, many school lunches packed at home may reach unsafe temperatures by the time a child eats, and that’s true even when lunches are packed in an insulated container with ice packs.

A new study of preschoolers’ lunches found that more than 90 percent of the food sent from home was at an unsafe temperature long before children started eating. [MSN]

Yes, toddlers have more sensitive digestive systems.

In another article, the advice is to pack cold food that can be reheated in a microwave at school. I did a double take on that. Unless a school lunch bag is left directly under the sun (and who does that?) how hot can the school environment be to make food go bad between a child’s house and the classroom? And the study covers lunch bags of toddlers — pre-schoolers stay in class for no more than a few hours each day. Seriously, it did cross my mind that the study might have been funded by a conglomerate of manufacturers of insulated lunch bags.

The reason why parents go through a lot of effort to pack school lunches is to make sure that their kids eat well instead of suffering the often cold, dreary, lumpy and soggy canteen food. My kids’ packed lunches were the envy of their classmates. In fact, I often packed extra because I knew that their friends asked to taste their food.

The issue about what our kids eat at school is a HUGE global concern. While there is merit in a study that deals with potential bacteria growth in packed food, isn’t it more important to fund studies, talk about and give advice about what should go inside the school lunch bag instead of debating about whether brown bags are a worthy substitute for insulated lunch bags? A parent can buy the most expensive and efficient insulated lunch bag but if all that it will contain are chicken nuggets and a bar of candy, what good does it do the the child?

In the alternative, why not make it mandatory for schools to serve healthier and better prepared food than the muck that are found in school canteens all over the world so that school kids don’t need to bring packed food? The set-up in many private schools here in the Philippines (pre-school to high school) is especially abhorrent. Money-making establishments that they have become, schools take the easy way out of their responsibility of introducing children to good nutrition practices by allowing big corporations into their canteens and campuses. Purefoods hotdog stands, Nestle ice cream stands, stalls selling French fries flavored with artificial powdered seasoning… *Sigh*

P.S. Click here for school lunchbox recipes.



Comments

  1. Tara Orlanes says

    Hello.. My son is starting ‘big school’ in September. He will start having lunch at school in January (when he goes full time). I count myself lucky that the school my son will go to here in North London offers hot lunches that are cooked in the school premises. We had a parents induction night where we had a chance to try and school menu. Coming from a family obsessed with food (my sister is Shalimar Orlanes of http://www.shalimarorlanes.com), it was very important for us to know what our son will be eating at school. But I have also heard of schools where kids are given processed meat etc. Jamie Oliver made a big fuss about it and things are slowly changing. http://www.jamieoliver.com/tv/school-dinners.

    • Connie says

      Oh hello, Tara! How lovely to meet you. So your son is a big boy already. :) how time flies.

      When Jamie Oliver started his school food campaign, I was shocked at the amount of processed meat being served in schools and in the homes that consented to be featured. The UK has a high standard of living and, I thought, surely, people could afford better food?

      When my girls went to high school, we thought that nutrition was a big thing in that school. As it turned out, lunch was was often rice plus sauce plus a small token of meat or fish. Gee, and cost of lunch was in addition to the terribly high tuition.

  2. says

    I agree, more emphasis should be put on the content than the containers themselves. My youngest is in the 8th grade and still refuses to eat cafeteria food. So packed lunches it is, but she is on a vegetarian kick right now so she sticks to mostly salads, fruits and prepared snacks (cookies, crackers, etc). The only hot item she would take is her favorite, pastas :)

    The main issue my kids had with cafeteria food here in the South is that their veggies are always overcooked and tastes like from a can, they said. The schools make an effort to prepare food on the premises, but they need instruction on how to prepare food accordingly. Meaning using fresh ingredients and not over cooking them.

    • Connie says

      I understand what your daughter means. You can taste the can in canned vegetables. Canned veggies should be for emergency only and not for everyday use.

  3. Jacky says

    Unfortunately, schools [Seattle School DIstrict] here feed students with $$ in mind too. They only have about $2 to feed each student, including all costs like labor etc plus food cost. The public schools here are broke, and really don’t have money for a lot of things. A lot of schools dont even cook the food at the cafeteria. Instead it’s brought in from a central kitchen, so the kids get a tray of mass produced food. At least they get fresh fruit and the milk is real milk, but otherwise the food isn’t great.

  4. Jacky says

    Oh, and in response to the suggestion that the kids can microwave food at school – it is illegal for the schools here to allow this. We have to just serve the food as it was sent by the parents. We can not legally reheat anything or serve anything that was not provided by the child’s own parent, unless the food was from our kitchen and provided for all students.

  5. rinna says

    Hay naku. My son is barely 3 weeks into school pero stressor talaga sa akin ang school lunch. But thankfully, some of it is alleviated by the recipes I get here. Ang next hurdle naman namin is the amount of time they get for lunch. 30 minutes ang allotted time nila for lunch. Maglalakad pa sila papuntang cafeteria. The first 2 days my son did not get to eat his rice and ulam because naubusan sya ng oras (since he ate his fruits and veggies first). He was soooo hungry when I picked him up. So now I just pack rice and ulam for him and bring the fruits and veggies when I pick him up. And forget about the hot lunch. Even *IF*, by some miracle, they started serving healthy (up to my standards healthy ha…- and my standards aren’t much) hot lunches, the queueing time would eat so much into the 30 minutes given to them. A friend’s kid who was supposed to get hot lunches ended up throwing most of it away the first few days. So forced sya ngayon to send in lunch with her child.

    I was thinking of setting up some sort of a lunch coop. 5 families get together with each responsible for one day of the week to provide lunch for everyone. Because I’m thinking that it’s easier to prepare lunch once/week for 5-8 (kung may siblings) kids than to prepare 5 different lunches everyday for one child. Therefore, there’s a greater chance of the children getting quality lunches (syempre kasama na doon yung hiya factor because you wouldn’t want to be serving crappy food to others in the coop). But then ang problema ko naman is, hindi naman staple ang kanin+ulam para sa mga amerikano dito and even if they were amenable to eating that once/week, it would still mean that there’s a high probability that my son will be eating sandwiches 4x/week.

    Anyway, excuse the rant pero yan ang pumapalibot sa mundo ko as of the moment. LOL

    • Connie says

      Wow the coop idea sounds great. Like a carpool. Should make parents’ life simpler while the kids still get to eat well. Hope you find like-minded parents.

  6. Sandy says

    Hello! I was looking through your recipe categories and wanted to ask if you could put one particularly for “baon” food. If that’s too much, could you please recommend some recipes in your archive that would be good for just that purpose? Maybe something simple that your kids liked when they were younger. I’m always looking for good ideas. Sawa na kami sa tapa, longganisa, at tocino. :) Thanks.

  7. PITAY REYES-VITAN says

    HELLO MS. CONNIE!

    MY SON WORKS IN AN OFFICE WHOSE DINNING AREA IS WITHOUT A MICROWAVE OVEN (WHAAAT?!?). MY OTHER SON IS IN COLLEGE, NO ACCESS TO ONE EITHER. AND BOTH BRING PACKED LUNCHES EVERYDAY.

    I WENT THROUGH A LOT OF EXPERIMENTS JUST SO THE FOOD FROM HOME IS STILL EDIBLE, HOT/COLD …

    … PLASTIC CONTAINERS LIKE TUPPERWARE, LOCK AND LOCK, ETC AREN’T FAVORITES. DIFFICULT TO CLEAN AND IF THERE’S ENOUGH LUCK TO ACCESS A MICROWAVE OVEN, AND EVEN IF LABELS INDICATE ‘MICROWAVE SAFE’ … FORGET IT.

    … STAINLESS STEEL FOUMBRERAS (ZEBRA, SEAGULL, ETC) ARE BETTER THAN THE PLASTIC CONTAINERS. RICE CAN BE STEAMED DIRECTLY IN THEM AND PACKED IN THERMAL BAGS. FOOD IS STILL WARM BY LUNCH-TIME.

    … GLASS CONTAINERS ARE OKAY TOO. LIKE THE FOUMBRERAS, STEAM THE RICE IN THEM AND PACK USING THE THERMAL BAG. THEY DON’T EASILY BREAK, ALTHOUGH THERE’S ALWAYS A FIRST TIME.

    … THERMAL VACUUM CONTAINERS (TIGER ETC) ARE EFFECTIVE AND EXPENSIVE, BUT THEN EVERYTHING IN JAPAN IS.

    A CHEAPER OPTION IS ZEBRA OR SEAGULL. I’M TRYING THE STAINLESS STEEL MUGS FOR NOW. YOU CAN PUT FOOD DIRECTLY THROUGH THE MUG’S WIDE-MOUTH AND EAT OFF IT, OR WRAP THE FOOD BEFORE PUTTING THEM INSIDE AND JUST PULL THEM OUT. FOOD WILL STILL BE HOT/COLD AT LUNCHTIME AND EVEN WAY PAST THAT!

    IT HELPS IF YOU HEAT UP THE MUG BY POURING HOT WATER INSIDE, SET ASIDE FOR A FEW MINUTES, WIPE IT DRY … JUST BEFORE LOADING WITH THE FOOD.

  8. rinna says

    I actually bought my son one of those thermal containers (Zojirushi brand) and while it worked well (tinesting ko muna sa bahay) and kept food warm, it was just a bit too much for his little hands to open. So siguro kapag malaki laki na sya ng kaunti.
    What he ended up using was a Planetbox. Stainless steel din sya like the pombrera (actually baunan ko ito noon) pero rectangular ito na may compartments. I like it because isang piraso lang sya. Less ang chance na may mawala sya. And yes, he does end up eating his food cold, but I guess ganon din naman kami dati sa Pinas, ok lang naman.
    So far, napagbaon ko na sya nung tapa, herbed chicken, bbq pork, homemade tocino. No complaints naman. Di pa naman nasisira ang tiyan nya. LOL

    • Connie says

      Yes, some containers are too tough to open for very young kids. I remember my daughter asking her pre-school teacher to open her juice container, the teacher had a hard time and spilled juice all over herself. And had the gall to be angry at my daughter. *Sigh*

  9. jaybee says

    The hot lunch at my children’s school is catered from a local restaurant and is a whole lot better than the processed, microwaved lunches that most schools serve in my neck of the woods. However, I always like to know what goes in my children’s food so I pack them lunches despite an already very busy schedule. Thermos food jars are great in keeping food warm or cold. My kids refuse to eat sandwiches and we don’t believe in microwaving our food, so this really works for us. It’s a little bit pricey than a regular food container but it is worth its price because a) my kids get to eat the healthy foods that they eat at home b) their lunch is at the right temperature – nobody wants to eat their hot food cold or their cold food hot c) they get varieties in their lunch – when it is cold, i can pack them some yummy soup or some hot rice dish, if it’s too hot outside, i can pack them a cold salad. They sometimes feel ostracized because they are always eating something “weird” and not of the norm. But who cares? I always tell them it is important to eat healthy so their lives are better. What better way to end this but tell a story of my daughter when she was 4 yrs. old. A few girls were really being mean to her at the park, so she came back to me said ” Mama, those girls were really being mean to me. They must eat junk and processed food.” Lol!!! There might be a grain of truth in it.

  10. Ana Marie C. Palma says

    I guess we’re lucky here in Singapore since everything is regulated and there is a strong emphasis on nutrition when it comes to cafeteria food. Aside from food stalls in school cafeterias serving halal foods, there should always be one store that sells only vegetarian food and fried foods should be cooked in vegetable oil. In fact, in my school, (I’m a secondary teacher here) fried foods are cooked in canola oil.

    Kids here are also used to having a portion of vegetable dish in their food trays. The serving is also very generous!
    Plus, no soda drinks are sold in schools, we only have cold teas
    and freshly, squeezed fruit juices with ice and soya milk and
    milo. for chips, they have these cassava chips and crispy seaweed. Vendors in school cafeterias have huge accountability not just to the school but to the government. If they do not follow then their permits are cancelled and can no longer do business.

    • Connie says

      “no soda drinks are sold in schools”

      That’s one thing I would like to see here. In preschool, the kids were taught how unhealthy soda drinks are, they’re not allowed to bring soda into the school, but then they see the teachers buying coke in the store right inside the school premises. Haaaayyy…

  11. bambi says

    Before school ended last June, I learned to pack salad greens in the lunch bag. I have three separate containers: one for the veggies/greens; one for the dressing and another for the roasted chicken or turkey or beef. At the bottom is a frozen ice pack. My kids eat healthy. For them to have energy, I have some bread to go with it too. Natutunan ko ito sa officemate ko na itim. The night before pa lang naka prepare na at ni reref niya. So in the morning, into the bag na lang.

    But I do love waking up early in the morning and prepare pastas or ulam at kanin for my kids’ lunches. I pack them in Coleman lunch thermos. My kids’ feedback were not positive though, they say, its still not warm enough. I also find the opening or the mouth of the container, too small when putting in the food. I wish they can come up with the same material but rectangular. Maybe, di ko lang alam, baka meron na.

    Packing lunches is really a lot of stress. I have taught my kids to pack their own lunches but its still a mother’s job. Sometimes I ran out of ideas. This weekend is the final long weekend of summer. My pasta noodles are in the pantry; I have chicken breasts in the fridge all ready for the first week of school. With this blog on my computer – bring it on! Thanks Connie.

    • Connie says

      “I have taught my kids to pack their own lunches but its still a mother’s job.”

      I tried that. It didn’t work. hehehehe

  12. browneyedgirl says

    hello ms. connie, i think you have brought up a topic very close to the hearts of the mothers here. =) i haven’t had a problem (yet) with my child’s baunan (it’s tiger and so far so good), but i have to agree with you that there really is a disparity between what is taught in the classroom and what is being served in the canteen. punta ka sa school ng anak ko and you’ll see what i mean. they are taught “go, grow, and glow foods” but pagpasok mo sa canteen, may popcorn, candies, gum, ice scramble, french fries with flavoring, and hotdogs. and i think the happiest here is the canteen owner with her steady inflow of profits. plus the hungry kids, of course.

  13. natz sm says

    When I was in elementary school, I would have peanut butter and jelly sandwiches or balogna (baloney) sandwhich on rye without mayo but with mustard as a standard packed lunch. Yup, in a brown paper bag. A fruit, usually an apple was added and if I was lucky, a snickers bar or a cookie.

    All students were given free milk during recess and because our State and District could afford it, had the option to have FREE lunch, discounted lunch or pay the full price. The lower income group and usually the African Americans took advantage of the free lunches, the more affluent Americans payed in full while my parents gave me 25 cents to pay for the discounted lunch. Sometimes, I would opt for a free lunch then spend my 25 cents on candy at the store across the street from my school. (yes, I was bad)

    Lunch at my school was served hot and was very balanced with a meat, vegetable, starch dish and a dessert of either fruit or pie. I heard though that not all public schools served a good lunch and it indeed boiled down to BUDGET.

  14. natz sm says

    Oh yes, how could I have forgotten my favorite Twinkies, Hohos and Dingdongs! They where a big hit for kids back then and almost always completed the brown paper lunch bag!
    (They are similar to our local fudgee bars and the like)

  15. says

    here in germany, the school kids don’t have the luxury of time for recess. only 10 mins and 15 mins — but that’s why their longest school hour is until 1.05 pm. that’s also why my girls eat big breakfast before school and bigger lunch. grilled sandwiches or waffel or pancakes with fruits, yan halos ang baon nila so they could walk around while eating. kapag hindi nila mahawakan yung food nila, kawawa daw sila kasi they wont have time to play.

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