The lunch box

It’s a new month and there’s another new stream to be splashed through.

As the leaves turn dry and brown and the sunshine becomes more scarce, the P1 day gets longer.

Which brings school dinners into the equation.

Or rather it doesn’t.

Because when you’re dealing with a shy and sensitive young boy who also happens to be a picky eater then the strange and exotic surroundings of the canteen is the wobbly stone in the middle of the water where it is too treacherous to tread.

The packed lunch is the safer option.

Although only slighter safer. The tropical storm rather than the hurricane.

Because knowing what to put in that lunchbox makes me a little worried.

First, there’s the challenge of trying to find something (anything) healthy that he might eat.

Also there’s the uncomfortable knowledge that somebody else might look into that box. The box that opens up to reveal my ineptitude as a parent for the rest of the world to view. I can’t get away with fish fingers and potato waffles any longer.

I think there’s a bit of mental scarring here. I remember my own primary school days when I had to make my own packed lunch. I used to keep its woeful contents hidden from sight as I gazed enviously at my friends with their neatly cut sandwiches and abundance of treats.

I don’t want my boy to ever feel like that.

As I was lying in bed last night unable to sleep I was thinking that I have to do his lunchbox for the next 14 years and I can’t even work out what to put in it on the first day.

The school helpfully sent home some glossy leaflets complete with recipe suggestions and pictures of beaming children eating fresh fruit and carrot sticks.

Meanwhile back here on planet earth I’m trying to combine the concepts of what he might actually eat with what is relatively nutritional.

Sandwiches would be the easy solution. Except my boy won’t eat sandwiches. He’s never so much as nibbled at the corner of one but he’s as certain he doesn’t like them as I am that the world is not flat.

Take sandwiches off the lunchbox menu and things really do begin to get a bit complicated.

Although it could be worse. If I’d had to do this a couple of months back then I’d really have been struggling.

But recently I’ve seen the first unfurled petals of hope as we’ve slowly started to integrate pasta and apples into his diet.

And this gives me a way in.

I cook some fusilli pasta. My son calls it ‘springy spaghetti’ and I’m able to get him to eat it sometimes by telling him that the springs help him to jump higher. Creating a narrative around the food increases the chances that he’ll eat it. You do what you have to do.

I chop and soften some tomatoes from my Da’s greenhouse in a pan and then push them through a sieve. This creates a simple sauce which I mix with the pasta and some cocktail sausages.

When all else fails I know he’ll eat sausages.

I put the pasta in a Tupperware container and then into his lunch bag along with some sliced apple, raisins, breadsticks, a smoothie and his water bottle. There’s probably too much there but I want to give him options because there’ll be something he refuses.

It’s a respectable enough spread but I’m strangely nervous as mummy gets him dressed for school.

I show him again and again how to open the various boxes, bottles and packets but I can’t shake the uneasy feeling that I’m sending him off to something which I’ve not prepared him properly for. The regular worry that through my indulgence of his whims I’ve not equipped him with the robustness needed to cope with this world.

Last week he had PE for the first time. All it requires is that he’s able to take his shoes on and off. When I picked him up at the end of that day I noticed his shoes were on the wrong feet. It felt like a personal failure for me.

The morning school run is an awkward one today. He’s more emotional than usual, as if he intuitively senses the change in routine. He clings to mummy at the school gate weeping. He hasn’t done this in a while.

Often I’ll meet a few of the other parents in a little cafe for a chat after the drop-off, but I don’t feel like it today.

Beginning this week the school day is two hours longer. The pick-up has shifted from late morning to early afternoon. As I sit in the house trying to divert myself with some writing the hours just won’t move quickly enough.

By the time the parents are eventually gathering for the daily reunion, the bright early morning sun has long since surrendered to the persistent, grey rain.

He’s smiling as the teacher leads his class outside and comes running happily to meet us. Once I manage to get him extricated from a lingering mummy hug I ask him how was lunch.

‘Good,’ he says. I wait for further enlightenment but that’s all that’s coming.

Back in the car I anxiously look inside the lunchbox. He’s eaten the sausages (no surprise) and about half of the pasta. Not too bad. He’s opened the containers with the raisins and breadsticks and nibbled at them. Best of all he’s opened the packet of apple slices and eaten them all. He asks if he can have his smoothie on the way home.

Sometimes you just have to trust them. Even when you don’t trust yourself.

As usual he gives very little away about his day. He does mention that a couple of his friends went to the canteen for school dinners. I think he’s slowly moving in the direction of asking if he can have school dinners too. But we won’t force it, we’ll let him make that decision in his own time.

But, for now, it’s a good start. That’s day one out of the way. Just another 5,109 to go.

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