The Packed Lunch Tradition… with Pictures!

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Mark’s first daycare provided snacks and lunch. “Oh… he had two spoonfuls of moussaka and a bowl of ‘farmer’s delight’!” I’d note dutifully, reading the daily log sheet at pickup time. “What’s ‘farmer’s delight’?” “I have no idea, but I’m sure it was great if he had a bowl of it.”

For a few weeks, Feng and I were happy parents. Of course, there was the small matter of Mark screaming in agony every morning when I dropped him off, but for the first time in two years, we were relieved from our parental duties during daytime, including lunch. Someone else was at Mark’s service—the daycare’s chef, who presumably cursed less than Gordon Ramsay and enjoyed cooking tiny portions for tiny stomachs.

Then, a month later, the daycare declared bankruptcy and closed.

Maybe having a full-time chef on site had been a tad ambitious—and costly.

Daycare #2 provided snacks and meals as well, mostly because it was located in a religious community with a large banquet hall that provided catering services for weddings and other ceremonies. They had a full kitchen and a lot of experience feeding people, although the food was more institutional and less exotic—think fried chicken instead of vegetarian lasagna.

Mark only went there for a few weeks because, once again, the daycare declared bankruptcy. I’m fairly sure Mark isn’t one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse. But again, he loved going to Target and the store chain declared bankruptcy as well, so who knows.

We moved on to daycare #3 when we came back from Latin America. Everything looked fine but for one detail: we would have to provide a lunch and snacks.

I froze.

Convenience should never be taken for granted.

Since we didn’t have a backup plan and that looking for daycare centres is something I wouldn’t wish upon my worst enemy, I nodded knowingly during the tour, as if I was acknowledging the amazing opportunity to provide my special snowflake with nutritious homemade meals.

There I was, forced to embrace yet another North American tradition: the packed lunch.

In France, school canteens offer preschoolers, kids and teens an affordable three-course-meal with cheese and bread (the price is based on family income). You either eat the school meal provided at la cantine (weekly menus are posted) or go home. Okay, if you’re a teen, you may go to the nearest kebab or fast food joint with your friends, French aren’t that virtuous. The bottom line is, you don’t have to bring food from home. Ever. French don’t even bring lunch at work—large companies offer a subsidized hot meal and smaller companies have tickets restaurant, luncheon vouchers you can use to buy food in regular restaurants.

Feng never had to bring a packed lunch either. He came to Canada in his early teens and lived in a small community, so he’d just go home to eat. And of course, since we are both working from home now, we just step into the kitchen if we are hungry (fun fact: actually, we rarely have the time to eat during the day).

And now, I had to send Mark to daycare with a toddler-size lunch box.

They grow up so fast.

And new responsibilities are dumped on you quicker than you can say “here is five bucks, grab something at Subway.”

I didn’t know where to start. After all, Mark hadn’t been eating “grown-up food” for that long, and the daycare’s rather strict requirements were scary. I couldn’t pack what I used to bring when I worked at the office—salads, sushi or sandwiches aren’t exactly toddler’s favourite foods. At home, I often gave Mark peanut butter sandwiches (a huge no-no at daycare), bananas, cheese, etc. and he ate very few proper meals since he was still drinking bottles of milk.

So I did what most parents do when confronted with a new milestone: I checked the web for solutions.

Bad idea: apparently, most parents excelled at making super cute boxes with Hello Kitty characters imprinted on toast, decorated food and bunny-shaped rice dish.

I can barely slice a tomato in two perfect halves.

I glanced at Mark, who was eating rice with his hands. “Mark, what do you want to eat at school?”

He didn’t even look at me. “No.”

I sighed and got to work. Little by little, week after week, I developed a process and found out what Mark was enjoying the most (as you will see from the pictures, pasta with pesto is always a hit).

I think I mastered the packed lunch tradition.

Next step: driving one of these yellow school buses.

… or not.

Here are Mark’s latest seven lunches. Sorry, no cute bento art (although I do carve a mean Babibel star!). He usually eats everything but for a couple of bites. I try to change the “menu” every day to make it interesting but yes, it does get repetitive… that’s how Mark likes it, kids like routine and familiar stuff.

Rice, chicken, carrots and celery / Mini Babybel cheese / Veggie crackers / Strawberry jam sandwich / Grapes / Two small yogurts / Apple sauce

Rice, chicken, carrots and celery / Mini Babybel cheese / Veggie crackers / Strawberry jam sandwich / Grapes / Two small yogurts / Apple sauce

Pasta, carrots, broccoli, ham and pesto sauce / Mini Babybel cheese / Strawberry jam sandwich / Grapes / Apple / String cheese / Two yogurts / Apple sauce

Pasta, carrots, broccoli, ham and pesto sauce / Mini Babybel cheese / Strawberry jam sandwich / Grapes / Apple / String cheese / Two yogurts / Apple sauce

Rice, broccoli, carrots, chicken nuggets / Jam sandwich / Cucumber / Veggie crackers / String cheese / Chinese sesame cookies / Two yogurts / Apple sauce

Rice, broccoli, carrots, chicken nuggets / Jam sandwich / Cucumber / Veggie crackers / String cheese / Chinese sesame cookies / Two yogurts / Apple sauce

Pasta, carrots, broccoli, ham and pesto sauce / String cheese / Ham and cheese sandwich / Grapes / Apple / Cookie / String cheese / Two yogurts / Apple sauce

Pasta, carrots, broccoli, ham and pesto sauce / String cheese / Ham and cheese sandwich / Grapes / Apple / Cookie / String cheese / Two yogurts / Apple sauce

Pasta, carrots, broccoli, ham and pesto sauce / Strawberry jam sandwich / Grapes / Apple / String cheese / Two yogurts / Apple sauce

Pasta, carrots, broccoli, ham and pesto sauce / Strawberry jam sandwich / Grapes / Apple / String cheese / Two yogurts / Apple sauce

Rice, chicken and corn / String cheese / Honey sandwich / Raisins / Cookie / String cheese / Two yogurts / Apple sauce

Rice, chicken and corn / String cheese / Honey sandwich / Raisins / Cookie / String cheese / Two yogurts / Apple sauce

Pasta, carrots, broccoli, ham and pesto sauce / Honey sandwich / Grapes / Apple / Brie cheese / Cookie / Two yogurts / Apple sauce

Pasta, carrots, broccoli, ham and pesto sauce / Honey sandwich / Grapes / Apple / Brie cheese / Cookie / Two yogurts / Apple sauce

Pasta, tomato sauce, meatballs, onion, mushrooms/ Peach jam sandwich / Crackers / Cheddar cheese / Speculoos cookie / Two yogurts / Apple sauce

Pasta, tomato sauce, meatballs, onion, mushrooms/ Peach jam sandwich / Crackers / Cheddar cheese / Speculoos cookie / Two yogurts / Apple sauce

Jasmine rice, fish stick, carrots, cauliflower, broccoli and cucumber / Peach jam sandwich / Cheese / Cookie / Shrimp crackers / Grapes / Two yogurts / Apple sauce

Jasmine rice, fish stick, carrots, cauliflower, broccoli and cucumber / Peach jam sandwich / Cheese / Cookie / Shrimp crackers / Grapes / Two yogurts / Apple sauce

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About Author

French woman in English Canada. World citizen, new mom, traveler, translator, writer and photographer. Looking for comrades to start a new revolution.

27 Comments

  1. As a Canadian, I miss bringing my own lunch ! I’m stuck with vouchers and when you have tickets restos your boss does not have to provide a place to eat inside the company. I find my self rushing to get to the restaurant and back, plus it’s hard to maintain your weight when you’re eating out!

  2. As an intern here, I always brought my lunch to work. It was rare that I ate out. At one place, it was normal and most people were doing as I did (they didn’t get vouchers at the time nor was their a cantine). At the next place, I was the only one who didn’t go out everyday (still no vouchers). There was only a microwave, and it was summer and hot, so no meat, only veggies and pasta. It took quite a bit of planning!

    Mark’s lunches look really yummy! When I was taking my lunch to school, I only had a tuna or PB&J sandwich and like an apple or something. Needless to say, I got sick of these after awhile. It took me like 15 years to eat those things again.

    • Kids’ lunch is a mystery to me. I mean older kids. Did you have a say in it? Did you envy other kids’ lunches? Do you buy snacks? How can you not eat anything hot during the colder months??

  3. Those look totally delicious. I might start making myself PB+J sandwiches again.
    I try to take my lunch to school, because even at 6euros, lunch at the cantine every day really adds up. Also it’s pretty awful most days.

    • 6 euro? Wow… back in the early 2000s, when I was still in high school, I remember that school lunch was 3.50 francs, which is… 0.50 euro? Do kids pay 6 euro?

  4. Wow – you are amazing, this is a far cry from the sandwich and chocolate bar I would get as a kid! Although most of the time I had a hot school meal to be fair!

  5. Great job! these lunch boxes look delicious and nutrtious. That is Mommy, hard at work.

    Why am I not able to remember what I took for lunch during school days, hmmm… too many brain cells lost over the years to me healthy drinking habits 🙂

      • My mom packed lunch of course. Never at the canteen, we had a canteen, but it was mostly Samosas and sweets.

        The lunch box would have rotis and vegetables. Somehow I cannot picture it now, none at all 🙁

        We had a refectory at work though, good stuff, at my last work place we ate lavishly for 14 cents. And that was some lunch, oh man, hungry now!

        • Samosas and sweets? I want that canteen!

          Rotis are delicious. Indian food in general is delicious, although sometime the sweets are admittedly too sweet.

          • What all sweets have you tried?

            I am afraid that in another month or so I am going to start missing those sweets.

          • It’s terrible, I don’t even know the names. My experience with true Indian food was mostly in Malaysia, where there is a large Indian community and I ate a lot of street food. I had great Indian food in Ottawa back in the days when my French friends here and I didn’t have kids yet, they lived in the Glebe and we often had takeout at the Lights of India, one of the best Indian restaurants in Ottawa 🙂 But we were always too full for dessert!

          • Oh… now that I think of it, you should check NASA Food in Chinatown (802 Somerset St W). Indian store, I walked by last time and I noticed they advertised some specialties 🙂 Looks like the kind of place that could have your dose of sugar.

  6. C’est très réussi …..Mark doit être content mais finit -il tout son packed lunch ? personnellement , je n’aime pas trop “tripoter” la nourriture comme le font certaines pour décorer leur plat surtout un plat qui doit se conserver des heures avant d’être consommé .

    • Merci!

      Les premiers mois, non, il ne mangeait pas tout. Maintenant si : il a grandi et j’ai ajusté les portions. Il reste souvent une bouchée ou un truc ici et là (genre la compote, ou la tartine), mais en général, c’est tout beau. La garderie gère quand même les petits en les faisant manger “dans l’ordre” (genre pas le cookie en premier…)

  7. Delicious looking, Mark’s lunch looks better than mine! Yeah as you mentioned we have none of that here in Europe, kids eat at school cantine and older kids just grab kebab/burek/pizza etc.
    As for working people I guess it all depends on the company, most people grab a quick lunch out (really expensive option here in Europe), while some prefer to brown bag to save money + opt for a healthier home made lunch, but as you know that takes some time and dedication. Again, Mark’s lunch boxes look absolutely yummy, I would eat that any day, I can tell quite some effort goes into each box so well done!

    • I think it makes me feel good to make his lunch. I complain about the whole process (it’s time consuming in the evening) but at least I know he has one good meal and snacks, and I’m discovering what he loves as well. Sounds corny but yeah, makes me feel like an adequate mother 🙂

  8. Yes, I almost always brought my lunch to my French workplace and was surprised that most of my colleagues would buy a sandwich or Chinese!

    Those lunches look good. That is a lot of variety for one lunch. What do you do, eat the star yourself?

    • No, I carved the star in the “croûte”, you don’t eat the red wrapping, it just protects the cheese. Kind of a tradition at the canteen when we were kids 😉

  9. I was just checking out the website of ‘Lights of India’, on their online menu they seem to not have any desserts. I am going to be in that area tomorrow, who knows I might go there for a Butter Chicken 🙂

    I have seen the shop at 804 Somerset St. W, was it called NASA foods earlier because I think I sawthem call them-self Kaashi Food Center, I have walked past this store about 4 or 5 times, never went in, perhaps next time I will check them out. Although I did find some Indian sweets at, well no points for guessing it right, Walmart. And I am most certain you wouldn’t have tried these ones, these ones are not the famous ones, one of them is made from jaggery.

    • Yes, NASA, that’s the one! Did the name change? I should look up more often instead of speeding by 🙂

      FYI, every time there is a major cultural celebration, there are usually relevant ethnic products available for a few weeks in supermarket. For instance, imported Chinese stuff around Chinese New Year, etc.

      Now that I think of it, you may want to check out this store: http://www.silkroadfoods.org/

      (Finest bengal sweets! That’s what it promises!)

      I went in once and it’s super clean and very friendly. I wasn’t familiar with most of the products though.

  10. I’m so glad that I don’t have to prepare a lunch box for my kids. They have school only half-days and I already need to provide a snack… which I find not necessary, but kind of compulsory. I hate the lack of supervision in their school and how teachers encourage the students to share their snacks (a total lack of hygiene in my opinion). *big sigh*

    • It is a lot of work but on the plus side, at least, I know what he eats, what he likes, etc. I still miss the convenience of French cantines, though…

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