My kid is an amazing eater, and at home she eats more or less what we eat, from tempeh to turnips. I pack her these great nutritious lunches, but recently she has come home [from school] feeling upset and embarrassed because they are so different from what the others are eating. She's afraid the other kids will look at her quinoa patty or whatever and go, "Ugh." Is there some way I can help her feel better about her lunch and defend herself against the other kids?
Dear Healthy Mom,
Are the other kids actually mocking her? It's possible the drama is all in her head. Hugh Garvey, cocreator of Gastrokid, recalls: "I grew up in the Midwest ... I felt weird for having natural peanut butter on whole-wheat bread when my friends were having Wonder bread and [regular] peanut butter and Little Debbie snack cakes. But I never got any grief; it was purely an internal thing." Kate Zankowicz, a museum educator in Toronto, was brought up on a macrobiotic diet and cringes at the memory of her eccentric lunch: "a rice cake with peanut or almond butter with seaweed hidden inside and another rice cake on top. The whole lunch just smelled like fish." But though Zankowicz felt humiliated, other kids didn't tease her until she started a new school. Generally, the kids she grew up with were more likely to take pity on her and offer her pudding cups and Fruit Roll-Ups.
These days, kids are even less likely to sneer at someone else's lunch. For one thing, adults, and therefore kids, now have a much more cosmopolitan diet. Garvey says, "With Trader Joe's scouring the world for the next delicious foreign product, I see my daughter being curious about other cultures' foods." In addition, Kate Zuckerman, a pastry chef and mother of three in Manhattan, points out that concern over allergies has outlawed sharing or swapping. As a result, "there's privacy built around each child's lunch."
Still, even if your daughter's fear is groundless, you don't want her to feel scared to reveal the contents of her lunch. One obvious solution is to disguise her meal as a more mainstream offering. You could pack a lunch that at least follows the usual paradigm—sandwich, chips, cookie, fruit—as opposed to, say, wheat-berry balls with shredded-carrot-and-hijiki salad.
But if you do this, you're sending the message that it's better to blend in than be an individual. In any case, the disguise probably won't work. Zankowicz says that for a "treat," her mother sometimes gave her "bread" made out of compressed brown rice, and "cookies" that were really seaweed-sesame crackers. She wasn't fooled for one second, and the other kids probably weren't either.
So what should you do? The answer is simple: Strive harder for deliciousness. Your daughter's food sounds ultrahealthy, but—forgive me—not so delicious. I'm a pretty hard-core vegetarian, and even I would not be excited to find tempeh or turnips in my lunch. And I steer clear of any vegetarian item called a "patty." If your daughter looked forward to opening her lunchbox, I don't think she'd be half as concerned with peer judgment. Garvey's nine-year-old daughter, Violet, is a "philosophical vegetarian" who takes meat-free lunches to school such as quinoa with roasted sweet potatoes and herbs. She's never felt remotely self-conscious or asked if she could have a cheese sandwich instead. "Make it delicious and it will trump the judgment of others," he says. "Seitan doesn't taste good."
One final pointer: Though you should prepare tempting foods, avoid anything overly pungent. My dad used to send me to school with banana and bacon sandwiches. They were surprisingly tasty, but by noon, I did feel mildly apologetic about the ripe banana stink emanating from my locker. Be it on a plane, on a train, or in the school lunchroom, it's polite to avoid smelly food when dining in public.