From sangas to sushi – how school lunches have changed

Here’s something I wrote for The Guardian on school lunches. Thank you to everyone who told me what they ate.

My daughter has just started prep and, in addition to the herculean task of getting her out the door five mornings a week, we have to pack a lunch.

It’s a complex business. Nuts are out and if there’s too much sugar, processed food or excessive use of cling wrap, your mug shot could be all over social media with the headline: “Distraught mum lunch-shamed over THIS”.

You’d think that Googling “kids’ lunchbox ideas” would help, but seeing what pops up in response can be overwhelming. There are heart-shaped sandwiches, alternating-coloured fruit kebabs, vegetable sticks with homemade hummus and Moroccan couscous salads. Plus, a handwritten positive affirmation – 2022’s essential lunchbox item.

What a contrast this is to my early school years, a time when fringes and Cabbage Patch Dolls were massive and slinging a lunch box together was no big deal. In the eighties, my aqua lunchbox typically contained a strassburg sandwich, a muesli bar and fruit.

My peers’ lunches were similarly unfussy. Chicken loaf was a popular protein; peanut butter was slapped on fearlessly; and prima juice boxes were a regular fixture – this was before juice was considered the devil’s sugary brew. Pieces of fruit rolled around our school bags for weeks until they fermented. And at recess, children skipped about with fluorescent-orange fingertips, thanks to the Cheezels and Twisties that they consumed for play lunch.

Sonia Wells went to school in the seventies. Vegemite or cheese sandwiches accompanied by fruit were the norm, ferried to school in a brown paper bag. Having immigrant parents meant that more exotic ingredients were also included. “Sometimes I’d take mortadella sandwiches. Nobody teased me. The area I grew up in was really multicultural – there were lots of kids from Greek, Italian and Lebanese backgrounds.”

One of Wells’s friends, who used to go to school with frittata sandwiches, didn’t have it so easy. By lunchtime, the sandwiches smelled and were soggy, making her a target for teasing.

The soggy sandwich is something that has blighted generations of students. Take Phil Smith, who went to primary school in the fifties: “I loved a beetroot sanga but the juices stained my books pink,” he says.

In Smith’s lunch bag, sandwiches ruled. Some of the filling options that were standard to him would be unfamiliar to many today. “I had Camp Pie and sauce sangas … Camp Pie is like spam but much better. There were Peck’s Paste sandwiches too [a type of fish paste], with a Monte Carlo or Scotch Finger biscuit thrown in on a good week.”

Smith could swap food with his peers without fear of triggering an allergic reaction. “I had a mate from Switzerland – he had salami sangas on rye bread and we used to do a swap. They were delicious!”

So what about today’s packed lunches? I threw the question out to an Australian primary school teachers’ forum and received many impassioned replies. The responses confirm that some schoolchildren eat “like kings and queens” with a smörgåsbord of wholesome homemade snacks, sushi, sandwiches or cutely cut fruit. “I look at their lunches and salivate,” one teacher said.

Several teachers pointed out that, while these lunches are usually healthy, the sheer quantity of food provided means it takes ages for the children to eat them.

Multicultural meals are common too and no longer a source of embarrassment, with students bringing thermoses of fragrant curries, noodles and fried rice. One teacher mentioned the time he was making a lamb and tzatziki wrap for his son’s school lunch. His own father, who had come from Greece after the second world war, was there at the time, and concerned that his grandson would be teased for having “different” garlicky food. His grandson assured him that the only time other children commented on his lunch was to ask if they could have some. The grandpa was amazed – his own experience with school lunches had not been so happy.

According to the primary school teachers, packaged snack foods like biscuits, lollies, chips and “SO much chocolate” are still fuelling a significant number of children. There were mentions of students eating a cold McDonald’s cheeseburger or a family pack of chips. Some children go to school with no food at all, a stark reminder that, for some, lunch is a luxury.

When packing lunches, we’d do well to remember that generations used to thrive on a sandwich. Tomorrow, I’ll just make my daughter a Vegemite sandwich and throw in an apple.

Maybe I should make it with wholegrain bread, or is sourdough better? I’ll add some cheese for protein. But will that make her too thirsty? Watermelon should sate her thirst.

On second thoughts, will the watermelon leak all over her sandwich?

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