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Boys vs. Girls: Lunchtime Edition

When my son started kindergarten, I was surprised by what his friends brought in their lunches. Their insulated Spiderman totes were filled with lots of little packages of things: individually wrapped crackers and cookies and premade store-bought sandwiches. Did these mothers not get the memo about processed food and preservatives—not to mention zero waste?

I cried one night, thinking about my poor 5-year-old gnawing his way through a PB&J on seeded whole grain bread with a side of sweaty carrot sticks, while his friends cracked open fresh chocolate-covered Rice Krispies Treats and stabbed straws into their juice boxes.

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Then, two years later, my daughter started the same public school, and I noticed that the lunches changed completely. When I volunteered in the classroom and accompanied the kids out to the picnic tables, the princess lunch boxes told an entirely different story. There were cut-up red peppers and hummus, flaxseed muffins, salads. Jane came home one day and asked me to pack her cucumbers and grape tomatoes for her snack, just like her friend Gali.

Why the difference? Presumably, parents of girls and boys have the same education before they give birth to either a boy or girl. Does having a boy erase everything you know about nutrition? Sometime between packing superhero or princess lunch boxes, notions about what constitutes healthy eating changes.

Could it be that the ingrained, subconscious pursuit of thinness in girls has produced an accidental health consciousness? I haven’t heard any mother say that she is trying to keep her 7-year-old thin, but feeding your daughter crap is definitely frowned on more than doing so with your son.

With girls, food is always part of the conversation.

“They run around so much,” I’ve heard mothers say of their sons, and implicit in that is full permission to feed the beast, as though he is a giant garbage disposal. It’s the unwritten collusion among mothers of boys: Feed him calories, feed him junk—everything gets burned off, anyway. I’ve never had the mother of one of Eddie’s friends ask me if it’s OK that she feeds him an Otter Pop and potato chips. But a playdate with one of Jane’s friends? “Do you mind if I take them out for frozen yogurt?” another mother will ask me. “I know, so much sugar, but I thought it would be a fun treat.” With girls, food is always part of the conversation.

I don’t try to pack regular food for my son because I think he’ll get fat. I want him to be able to concentrate, feel satisfied, regulate his hormones, keep his arteries clean, stave off diabetes and attention deficit issues, reduce inflammation in his body, keep his bowels regular and foster a lifetime of healthy eating habits. Getting fat is the least of my concerns.

“I’m always hungry,” he tells me, his metabolism being at an all-time high. So why not take advantage of this ravenous appetite and give him real food, like fruit, vegetables, grains and meat? Does anyone remember the food pyramid? I’m pretty sure that Goldfish, Oreos, Airheads (yes, they appear in lunches), Fruit Roll-Ups and breakfast bars all go into one itty bitty category: fats and sweets.

Of course, this is easier said than done. Packing a salad for your son? He’d get laughed off the lunch table. So I try to keep it somewhat manly: a whole wheat bagel with cream cheese, an apple, some kind of cracker or granola, a cheese stick, maybe a few slices of bacon and carrot sticks. If I have homemade muffins or a cookie lying around, I’ll throw that in.

What comes home? Half of the bagel, the granola, the cheese and the carrot sticks. I’ll ask him how he survives the day with so little food in his stomach. “Well, Darren gave me his Oreos and Chris gave me fruit chews.”

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We all know that those fruit chews, basically gummies made from fruit juice, have little to do with actual fruit. Right? So I’m assuming they were given to the child as a treat, but clearly they aren’t a treat because he gave them away. Most boys eat so much crap they’re bored by it. They are giving it away.

I understand that the whole exercise of packing lunch is an illusion of control. You can send your kid off with something healthful and hope that maybe 25 percent of it gets consumed. But what if we all just sent good stuff? Or not even necessarily good stuff. Just food. What if we all just fed our sons food?

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