Summer reveals the true lunching habits of children

HAPPY EATER

June 22, 1994|By ROB KASPER

It is summer and that means, for some parents, one of the scariest of times comes at the end of the day when we ask our children: "What did you eat for lunch?"

The answers can be unsettling because in the summer, kids sometimes make their own lunch.

Every summer has its "free lunch" days. Those are days when kids are not attending camp or being watched by some meal-providing adult. On these days, older kids make or buy their midday meal.

At least you hope they do. At our house, a make-your-own-summer-lunch program got off to an uneven start. My wife and I loaded the fridge with popular, easily prepared edibles. We showed them to the kids. And, we pleaded with both parties -- the 13-year-old and the 9-year-old -- to lunch together. The plan was that the older brother would cook, or heat foods in the microwave. We kept our fingers crossed.

That evening, when my wife and I got home from work, we combed the kitchen looking for signs that some form of feeding had taken place. We found a few dirty bowls in the sink, evidence that some cereal had been consumed. But on closer inspection I identified some of the bowls as leftovers from breakfast.

Later, when the kids returned from the neighborhood swimming pool, their summertime hangout, I began questioning them about lunch. At first I got a puzzled look, indicating that somehow lunch had slipped off the agenda that day. Then there was mention of bananas, milk, and "blackmail."

You have heard of tough love, this was tough lunch. The big brother supposedly told the little brother that unless he came home for lunch right away, terrible things would happen. So the brothers went home and lunched on milk and bananas.

That was the little brother's version of events. He also said he considered the big brother's method of announcing that lunch was served was "blackmail" and was considering "suing" his big brother. I guess the charge would be "lunch harassment." The big brother reported that the only way he could get his little brother to come home was to threaten him. This display of brotherly affection made my wife and I reconsider the wisdom of having the boys eat lunch together. Instead, we began making a bag lunch for the 9-year-old. That way he could eat lunch with his buddies, not with his arch enemy, his big brother.

The problem with packing a lunch is finding something that kids will eat. After much negotiation, the 9-year-old and I agreed on a tuna sandwich, with lettuce, on white bread cut on the diagonal, a banana and yogurt. The big brother, meantime, seemed content to lunch on fast food and fruit.

The kids probably don't eat much differently in summer than they do during the rest of the year. The big difference is that in the summer kids don't hide the evidence of lunching on the wild side, and parents tend to worry more.

It also should be pointed out that few adults would fare well under a program of strict scrutiny of their lunch. For instance, the VTC day I interrogated my kids about their lunchtime habits, I had skipped lunch altogether, a practice lunch authorities frown on.

As for my wife, her lunch consisted of a Polish sausage sandwich bought from a street vendor in East Baltimore. Her only comment about lunch dealt not with nutrition but with seasoning. The Polish sausage sandwiches she bought when she was a student in Chicago, she recalled, had better condiments -- more hot peppers -- than the ones sold in Baltimore.

I know that when my kids eat at school, they trade pieces of their well-balanced lunches for unbalanced delights. But since I don't see this happen, I don't get worked up about it. In the summer, however, proof of my kid's lunchtime behavior often remains on the kitchen counter.

So when I come home from work and see a dirty mixing bowl, a dirty glass, and brown spots on the kitchen counter, I know the mad milkshake-maker has been at work.

Which is OK as long as the kid does not live by milkshakes alone. And, as long as the kid cleans up his own mess. That is my next lunchtime project for the kids. First, I want everyone to remember lunch. Secondly, I want them to eat a lunch that has at least one element that is not fried. And thirdly, I want them to dispose of the evidence, to put the dirty dishes in the dishwasher.

If this lunchtime routine fails, there is always camp, which begins not a day too soon.

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