The Big Time: Leo gets a bed, I become a lunch lady

Leo's 32nd Month

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Leo jumped out of the crib last week and we knew it was time: Big Boy Bed. So we piled in the car, bought sheets, picked up the twin bed and boxspring we'd had in storage, took apart the crib and changing table and poof! Big Boy Bed. No sooner did we stack the crib in the hallway than I suggested giving it away and Aaron looked at me funny. "Isn't that kind of a big decision?" he asked. I stared at him blankly for a minute before it dawned on me. Ah, yes, well that would be. So there sits the crib, and ever since I've been reminiscing about how small Leo used to be floating around in that crib, and how huge he is stretched out in a real bed now.

This change comes along with my new job, which, including the commute, keeps me out of the house for the entire time Leo is at school. No more catching up on housework—or sleep—in the middle of my workday. No more getting a head start on dinner. Leo has his big bed and I have my lunch line. Yup, I have become a lunch lady. I oversee the healthy lunch program at a k-12 school in Manhattan: inventorying the food, heating it to safe serving temperatures, serving it up, encouraging picky eaters, cleaning up...I'm a lunch lady.

The gig comes with a major perk: healthy food. When I told my mom I'd taken the job she said "ah, you've realized your lifelong dream of having a hot lunch every day." It is so nice, and not infrequently the leftovers I bring home contribute to our dinner. I have no problem with feeding Leo this school food, because it is high quality, wholesome and tasty. Not home cooking, quite, but sometimes—like last Monday's Indian lunch with spiced rice, dal, vegetable jahlfrezi, chicken tikka and mulligatawny—it's better.

The other benefits of this work—and the reason I'm doing it—have to do with feeding children. The mechanics of getting kids to eat a healthy lunch during the school day are complex and major. This is a challenge our whole country is dealing with, and while the organization I'm working for hasn't solved the problem on a national level, they're doing real work and I'm contributing. And learning. Here's what I've learned so far:

Rice noodles are absurdly popular.
Repeat exposure is crucial for unusual foods like kale salad.
When there are many options, all healthy, most kids will eat a real meal.
Kids love chicken breast.
If dessert is only served once a week, kids will accept this and happily eat tons of fruit.
If there's no juice, kids will drink water. Ditto no white bread—they'll eat whole wheat.
As kids get older they become better eaters: on a day when the youngest kids focus on rice and bananas, the oldest kids may be getting seconds of lentil soup.

I take heart from this job, and enjoy working with the kids, and I bring home an energy that makes me glad to see Leo and encourage him and play with him. And my approach to dinners has been much more basic—which is actually a plus in Leo's book; he devoured tonight's super-simple turkey tacos served with steamed broccoli.

Recipe: Simple Turkey Tacos

Zoe Singer is a freelance food writer and cookbook editor and co-author of The Flexitarian Table. Food Editor and blogger for The Faster Times, she tries not to eat for two now that her son is a toddler.