The perils of a teenage packed lunch

One thing I have learned over the years, as a parent, is to always expect the unexpected. That is, just when you think you have seen it all and your children can no longer surprise you with anything, they do. You would think that any parent would know not to underestimate their offspring simply by the fact that they were once young, themselves, too. But we often forget the ridiculous things we did. Or at least we try to file them in the back recesses of our memory among the other stupid things that we have done and are too embarrassed to admit. This is why we are often surprised when we come across behaviour that seems, frankly, perplexing. This is never more true when it comes to the curious food habits of teenagers because this is the time of their lives when subsistence is central to everything.

For example, it has lately felt as if my 3 children have erected a pop-up Subway in my kitchen as every time I pass nearby, I am overwhelmed by the heavy aroma of melted cheese and oregano. I am so accustomed to it that I expect to see a daily sandwich bounty produced by the hard working sandwich press of one of my children. As my nose tries to distinguish the contents of a vast array of sandwiches, I don’t even bother to question the palatability of their chosen filling combinations anymore because I know it will be eaten. I may not fully understand why my children prefer to eat sandwiches that look like they have been run over by a giant steam roller, but they do. At least they are making their own lunch. I know that they wait and hope for the day when someone comes up with a portable sandwich press that they can cart off to school. Who wouldn’t want to be able to slide one of them out of their backpacks at lunch hour, ready to magically transform a cold sarnie into panini scrumptiousness?

In the meantime, living the reality of home and school drudgery means that my children are faced with the daily chore of making their own packed lunches, except for one day of the week when they buy their lunch from the school canteen. As you would expect, they don’t rate their canteen very highly and complain about the stringent queueing system, lack of choice and meagre portion sizes in equal measure. However, the eldest, being in the Sixth Form, has the privilege and opportunity to buy his lunch off-site and has discovered just how much food he can buy for little money. He has become an authority on rival supermarket ‘meal deals’ and as a connoisseur, he can reel off the pros and cons of each. He has also made some impressive purchases and has learned that if he bulk buys fruit from the market stalls, he can eat the proceeds from his backpack throughout the week.

With this in mind, it is not uncommon for him to fish out some discarded orange peels or forgotten food from his backpack now and then and you would think, no real harm done. After all, it’s his backpack and once a child hits their teens, does any parent really want to look into the dark depths of any of their school bags, sports kits or boot bags anymore? Does anyone need to see what is lying and fermenting at the bottom of their bag unless it is absolutely necessary? Unfortunately, there are times when parents have good reason and even feel compelled to investigate the contents. Our time was to come…

Last weekend, like most families, we spent our time by not relaxing or spending too much quality time together. Instead, we passed the hours by driving our children to several different sporting fixtures and training sessions and by trying to work on mundane chores without noticing anything new that we would need to add to the perpetual ‘to do’ list. However, among the chaos, something a bit odd began to happen. Every time someone walked past the large heap of abandoned school bags and backpacks dumped in the hallway, an unfamiliar smell began to slowly waft through the house. The smell wasn’t entirely offensive but it’s sharpness definitely stood out among the usual stench of dirty kit and rugby boots. As the odour drifted to and fro, my husband and I each played a game of who could quietly ignore it the longest. It was 1-0 to me as my husband and his twitchy nose caved first and he began to sniff around for the source. He soon discovered that the smell was coming from the backpack of our eldest child who was conveniently absent. After a moment’s hesitation, my husband felt he had no choice but to unzip the backpack and delve in. However, as soon as he reached into the backpack contents, he cried out and whipped his arm out again, covered and dripping with a deep, gloopy red. He then asked me a question that I will never forget. His exact words were, ‘Can you think of any reason why he would need to carry around with him an entire bottle of ketchup??!’.

Well, I could not. In fact, I was completely mystified. But I was looking forward to finding out why my son felt the need to carry around such a large condiment. Why did he need the ketchup and why so much? It’s not as if he douses everything with ketchup at home but then again, we rarely cook anything that warrants it. Ok, I haven’t exactly encouraged my children to eat ketchup on anything we cook, either but they haven’t been deprived of it. If anything, when they were younger I can remember their little fingers being covered in ketchup at every opportunity. Has my son been adding it to his food at home without us even noticing? Has this now spread to his sandwiches at school and he is starting to become a ketchup addict? Why else would he resort to hiding the bottle underneath his homework, like a dirty secret? Maybe he wanted to be caught and his sauce-laden backpack was a cry for help? I soon found out the truth behind the packed condiment and it was even more upsetting than I imagined.

I listened patiently as it was carefully explained to me that packing ketchup is a necessary solution to a particular lunchtime problem that he and his friends have come across. In their recent forays into town in search of lunch, they have discovered that a particular large supermarket sells some very tasty chicken schnitzel. However, on occasions, they find that it is not up to scratch and is simply too dry for their liking. Therefore, having a bottle of ketchup at the ready will remedy this instantly in a squirt. Otherwise, they would be forced to eat dry schnitzel or worse, walk all the way back to the school canteen to buy an overpriced ketchup sachet. As eating is time-critical, it is a no-brainer to pack ketchup in the event of a schnitzel emergency. Although this rationalisation sounded like a reasonable response to a potential schnitzel dilemma, I was utterly appalled and I began to doubt my parenting skills.

What kind of parent was I? Have I taught him nothing?? I thought I had worked very hard to pass on some of my Swiss heritage to my children by spending much time in the Alps camping, hiking and more recently, skiing. They are very well accustomed to and really enjoy Swiss cuisine and I include many traditional dishes at home such as rosti, spaetzle and of course, chocolate. But when it comes to their all-time favourite Swiss meal of schnitzel, they all know how to cook it properly and they will be able to pass on this tradition in their future families. However, all three of them know about the great importance of serving it with wedges of lemon! Not ketchup!!! What was my son doing?? I knew he was capable of creating sandwich fillings that were a little reckless but on some level, they still made sense. Essentially, they weren’t wrong. So how have I ended up with a ketchup dipping schnitzel eater?! What have I created? If he had had lemon wedges at the bottom of his backpack, at least it would’ve smelled better. But just try to reason with a teenager. They are impossible! And so we have now reached a schnitzel stalemate because he has not only admitted that he really likes it with ketchup, but apparently, his younger siblings do, too. I despair…

All I can hope is that in time, my children’s tastes will change and my son will be able to kick his ketchup habit or at least, confine it to chips. At the moment he has temporarily moved the now half empty bottle of ketchup into the fridge and his backpack is mostly clean. However, I suspect that the bottle will be packed again sometime next week, when it’s schnitzel day once more. Although I don’t expect this to be the last food mishap to uncover among their school bags, I think that I have learned something from this leaky episode. First, when it comes to children, never be complacent or believe that you have seen it all, especially when it comes to food. Just because you were once their age doesn’t mean that they won’t surprise you by doing something inconceivable. Second, sometimes ignorance is bliss so think twice before snooping into their backpacks and school bags, even if well-intended. You may learn more about your child and yourself than you cared to. Third, if you feel you need to pry further into a packed lunch or suspicious backpack, at least proceed with caution (and gloves). And lastly, be grateful for the small messes in life that you can clear up simply with a little soap and water. After all, when you are raising teenagers, you can always count on there being more difficult challenges ahead. In other words, there will always be worse condiments that you can find in their backpacks.

But now for the schnitzel recipe that my children cannot get enough of. As you would expect, this is the healthy version but it is also extremely tasty, easy and hassle-free.

Schnitzel blog

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