A Cook's Diary

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.


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.

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