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The Clean Plate Club

Preschool morahs speak out about your kids’ school lunches

“Never judge a mom,” says Morah Tova, “by the lunches she sends to school with her children.”

She ought to know. Having been a playgroup morah in Lakewood for years, she’s seen all kinds of lunches that moms send to school with their children. From grilled cheese to tuna, yogurt to fish sticks, she’s seen it all.

But she also knows not to question the mothers who will occasionally send an odd or unappealing lunch. These ladies are usually juggling family responsibilities, social obligations, and challenging jobs. They have plenty on their plate and they’re all doing the best they can.

 

What Works…

What do our children’s morahs really think about the lunches we send with the kids? Which lunches make sense and which ones just don’t work? What are some of the strangest lunches they’ve encountered over the years? Family Table reached out to several experienced morahs to find out the secrets of successful school lunches. Here’s what they have to say:

Never underestimate the power of the simple, basic sandwich. It may not be glitzy or glamorous, but it certainly does the trick. Sandwiches are quick, easy, and neat. They’re also filling and easy for little fingers to hold onto. In fact, most morahs recommend it.

“I try to encourage mothers to send typical lunches,” says Chaya, a morah of three-year-old boys. “Just send a typical sandwich.”

Morah Sarah from Lakewood agrees and insists that it’s not just about the filling and the two slices of bread. “There’s a social aspect to lunch break,” she explains. “And kids don’t want to be different. They want to feel like part of the crowd, they want normal. A sandwich is normal.”

Morah Nechama, who teaches four-year-olds in Monsey, agrees. “Even at this age,” she says, “it’s a social scene. When every other kid is taking out a sandwich, and your kid has the chicken and ketchup thing, he won’t want to eat it. He wants to be like everybody else.”

Sandwiches aside, what are some other typical lunches that mothers send with their children? “We get lots of frozen pizza,” says Miriam, who teaches two-and-a-half-year-olds, “or plain macaroni or yogurt.”

“Fish sticks with small containers of ketchup,” says Morah Chaya.

“Squeeze-up yogurts and applesauce,” says Morah Sara from Lakewood, “are definitely trending right now. They’re easy and neat and they don’t explode in the briefcase.”

And then there are those who opt for fleishigs. Or, as some morahs call it, “last night supper’s leftovers.” These moms will send chicken nuggets or deli sandwiches, and the morah will usually make sure that the children eat at a separate table.

 

…And What Doesn’t

After years of opening their students’ lunchboxes and finding surprises, morahs have a pretty good idea of which lunches just don’t work for little kids. “Eggs!” said quite a few morahs that we spoke to.

What could possibly go wrong with a classic egg for lunch? Plenty, the morahs assured us. Hard-boiled eggs fall apart and remain largely uneaten. And cold scrambled eggs or omelets congeal by the time lunch hour rolls around. They end up on the floor or the carpet, and good luck trying to clean up the mess. Morah Goldy, who teaches four-year-old girls, warns mothers against sending tuna without mayo. “It falls apart and gets all over the floor,” she says.

Some foods, says Morah Sara, are simply not safe to send along with preschool children. “I get really nervous,” she says, “when someone sends baby carrots. And grapes really ought to be cut in half.”

Morah Miriam, who teaches two-year-olds, advises moms to send along any and all accessories. “Don’t assume that we have the necessary paper goods,” she said. “If you want me to warm up the pizza for your child, send along a piece of foil. If you want her to eat the yogurt, send along the plastic spoon. And if you’re sending cereal, make sure there’s also a bowl in the knapsack.”

Do the morahs recommend that mothers send healthy food to school with their children? While everyone agrees that healthy food choices are amazing, many morahs recommend that moms think twice before sending exotic veggies and multigrain bread.

“Don’t send whole wheat bread if you know your kid doesn’t like it,” says Morah Tova. And Morah Sara says, “I encourage healthy eating, but maybe save the healthy stuff for when they come home.”

 

Getting Creative

What do morahs recommend when moms want to change it up a bit? Which out-of-the-lunchbox foods work really well? Morah Esti in Detroit remembers how one mother stu­ffed mini peppers with tuna salad. That particular delicacy turned out to be a huge hit. “It takes a bit more time to stuff­ the tuna into the peppers, so it’s not recommended for every day, but the kids really enjoy it. I even did it for my own children.”

Sometimes you just have to be creative when you’re dealing with a picky eater. “I had someone send a container of chickpeas,” remembers Morah Chaya. “I was surprised, but the kid ate it.”

“During the week before Yom Kippur, one little boy brought bread with honey,” says Morah Esti.

She also remembers the mother who would make a batch of pancakes and send them to playgroup with a small container of syrup. It was worth the e­ffort, because the child ate it happily. Another mother would send cereal and milk. “The cereal came in a ziplock bag. The milk came in a water bottle. To keep it properly chilled, she would place the bottle half-filled with milk in the freezer the night before and then add the rest of the milk in the morning. By the time it was lunch hour, the child had cereal with perfectly chilled milk.”

“One woman sent hearts of palm with her child,” said Morah Sara. “It was a little strange, but the kid ate it up. I’ve also had mothers blend their own milkshakes and send them in a thermos.”

The important thing, Morah Sara advises, “is to get to know what your child does and doesn’t like.” Most morahs will send home the uneaten portion of the lunch so the mother is aware of what their child is actually eating. “I’ve seen mothers sending veggies and dips in little containers. Some kids will eat it, others won’t touch it. The important thing is to get to know your child’s tastes and preferences. Some kids are super picky eaters and their mothers are willing to try anything.”

Does “anything” include a cheeseburger? Morah Sara laughs when she remembers how a mom once sent a burger for lunch. Sitting on top was a slice of cheese. “At the time I didn’t think it was funny,” she says.

Sara promptly texted the mother, who explained that the cheese was fake. It was made out of soy. The child ate the sandwich, but Sara says she’s still not comfortable with that particular scenario.

What type of drinks do morahs recommend? Not surprisingly, they overwhelmingly prefer plain water. “Juices are sticky and messy,” says Morah Miriam. “I provide unlimited water and no one has to bother sending any drinks.”

Juice boxes, morahs say, are more trouble than they’re worth. “Box drinks spill,” says Morah Nechama. “The kids squeeze them as soon as they’re opened, and you know exactly what happens next.”

 

The Cuteness Factor

Presentation, the morahs say, can make a huge di­fference. “We eat with our eyes,” says Esti. “There are so many things a mother can do to make lunches more appealing.” She suggests decorating containers with colorful stickers or adding a little note in a tiny envelope. “It’s not just about the food,” she says. “It’s about making it cute and inviting.”

“Some mothers will send along a note,” says Morah Sara. “The kids can’t read yet, but we make sure to read them aloud in class. It doesn’t have to be something out of the ordinary. Just a simple ‘I love Yehuda’ is so special for the kid. It means a lot.”

“It’s so much fun for them when they see their name with a flower or a sticker,” says Morah Sara. “It makes them feel good.”

“As long as there’s a cuteness factor,” explains Morah Esti, “it doesn’t really matter what’s inside. It could be a Hello Kitty sticker or it could be packaged in a cute box, but either way you’re suddenly the queen of the class for the day.”

 

Helpful Tips for Moms

* If most of the sandwich remains uneaten, it’s probably because your child can’t get through the crust. Cut the sandwich into quarters and see what a di­fference it makes.

* You might think you’re getting away with bread that’s more than a day old, but kids know the di­fference.

* Send along cereal in a separate bag to be mixed with the yogurt for lunch. It’s more filling and adds a little bit of crunch.

* Be creative, but don’t send lunches that will make all the other kids jealous.

* Your picky eater may enjoy her lunch better when it’s packaged in a section container, with the macaroni, veggies, and cheese each neatly stored in its own separate compartment.

* A thin smear of cream cheese or peanut butter is plenty for little kids. No need to slab on lots of excess that will just contribute to the mess.

(Originally featured in Family Table, Issue 707)

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