My son was in first grade the first time we used school lunch as a punishment. He’s our oldest, and a very picky eater. I don’t say picky as in he cares about his health or anything — more that he will only eat a handful of things without gagging: cereal, mac and cheese, candy, and pistachios.
It’s really remarkable just how limited his palate is, and in so many ways, I try not to blame myself. I’m a picky eater myself. I’ve learned to choke things down while being a guest in people’s homes, but if it were up to me, I’d live on breakfast cereal and diet cola. Not that I’m proud of it, more that I bring this up because I totally understand why my son was terrified to eat school lunch, and I feel sorry for his future spouse because this drives my wife bonkers.
I’m not 100% sure if school lunch is as bad as it was in the ’90s. Or perhaps it wasn’t ever all that bad. Perhaps it was just the fact that I hated the idea of not having any control over what I was fed. I hated the idea of them giving me two options: lasagna or meatloaf, both with a side of half-frozen tater tots. But what I do know is that my son Tristan insisted on a packed lunch each day, and the thought of being sent to school without it was about as scary to him as a long dark cave. He didn’t like eating food that wasn’t prepared in our home, from his short list of “approved” foods.
He refused to clean his room. That was what brought it on. It was late. At the time, we were living in a small three-bedroom apartment that made any amount of clutter an eyesore. And as he folded his arms and dug in his heels, his blue eyes narrow, I looked in the kitchen at his packed lunch and said, “You know what? Fine. You don’t want to clean your room, then you can eat school lunch tomorrow.”
He didn’t fall on the ground and scream or anything. It wasn’t like when Charlton Heston found out that the Planet of the Apes was actually earth. But the pain in his eyes really showed me that he was screaming inside. And I know as a parent I’m not supposed to take pleasure in my child’s pain, but I think all parents of young kids find it somewhat satisfying when you find that one button in your child that you can push to get results. Some parents take away allowance. Some take away screen time. Some ground their kids. But for us, it was school lunch. It was the albatross. It was the twisted knife.
I picked up the sack lunch as though I were going to do something with it, something terrible.
After years of trying to figure out what to take away to get the most results, I finally had the thing — the motivator. Not that my son is, or was, a particularly bad kid. But as a parent, nothing is more frustrating than a child refusing to pick up their crap, or do their homework, or brush their teeth, and so you lay down some punishment like losing screen time or missing out on a birthday party. As a parent you think to yourself, that’ll teach ‘em!
Then your wonderful child looks up at you, shrugs, basically saying, “Is that the worst you can do?”
So he got cleaning. He picked up his stuff.
And for a long time, school lunch was a punishment for Tristan. And eventually it became a punishment for our middle daughter too. And I know that there are going to be some perfect parents out there, ready to pounce, and tell me that using school lunch is the worst possible punishment, equivalent to corporal punishment. Perhaps I am turning my children into forever horrible eaters. Or perhaps I’m making them associate food with cleaning, and I will turn them all into rage eating and cleaning adults with huge nasty obese bodies and failing hearts.
But let me tell you what ended up happening. After a couple years of using school lunch as a threat, one day my son shrugged. I told him he’d have to have school lunch, and he said, “That’s okay. I like school lunch.”
In the moment, my shoulders slacked because it felt like I’d lost my kryptonite. But by the next day, I realized just how amazing what he said was. This kid who was horrified by anything other than his signature menu items was comfortable eating school lunch. This isn’t to say that he isn’t still a picky eater. But he’s less picky than he was a couple years ago, and anyone sitting across a dinner table from a picky child, watching their eyes water as they choke down a bean burrito, knows how huge of a milestone this was.
Now Tristan is in fourth grade and doesn’t pack a lunch. He just goes to school and eats what’s on the menu. Sometimes parenting works out that way. Sometimes plans come out sideways. In an attempt to make my son more willing to do his chores, he became a better eater. I didn’t plan it that way, but it happened. Now I just need to find a new punishment for the next time he refuses to clean his room.