Hunger Pain: For Many Parents, Feeding Kids During Remote Schooling Has Been an Unexpected Challenge

The hardest question for parents so far during the kick-off to the remote school year hasn’t dealt with difficult geometry problems, complex science concepts, or obscure English grammar.

Rather, it’s this question that comes once or twice a day – every day:  ‘What’s for lunch?’

While parents have been gearing up all summer to have technology issues solved, and to make time to help with lessons, few were prepared for the stress of having to serve a planned-out lunch and snack every day – while also working full-time and doing the usual preparation for dinner.

And it’s causing massive stress already, many said.

Parents all over Charlestown have been confronted with this problem that started last spring during emergency remote learning, but came more of a pressing issue the past week when school started again and there were perhaps months of remote learning ahead.

Parent Ames Forish said last spring was an eye-opener, and she was caught off guard completely by it – and is so far hoping that the start of the school year will be more organized.

“My off guard moment happened quickly,” she said. “I was working overtime last spring. Almost week one, I realized I needed to get them breakfast. Then I was like, ‘Wait why you are interrupting my zoom call at 10 a.m. because you are hungry?’ I said, ‘I am sorry Blake that you eat lunch at 10:45 a.m. in school, but you just had a snack.’ Then my 11-year-old ate lunch at 1 p.m. Then there was more interrupting work calls at 3 p.m. for another snack. Then I realized quickly I needed to have some type of dinner on the stove around 4:30 p.m. or else they would eat a gallon of ice cream, which happened numerous times. There were more snacks all evening, and then a second dinner around 7 p.m. So quickly I realized I had to build time in an already very busy work schedule to pull this all off.”

Becky Adamonis, president of the Harvard Kent Parents Association, said the problem with lunch has been universal – whether kids are going to the school for the lunch distribution or having lunch and snack at home – accommodations have to be made by parents that they never considered beforehand.

“Honestly I need help with not only meals but snacks,” she said. “I am unclear how kids were able to function in the school building without having a snack every 45 minutes. I have been trying to make extras at meals and using leftovers for lunches or just sandwiches for something quick… Since our kids have been home our food bills have almost doubled. I know actual food costs have gone up, but we are buying more because we need to prepare so many more meals in the home. I personally wish they extended the EBT food assistance program; I know many families used that to help with these new costs.”

Adamonis said there has also been the problem of having two kids on two different schedules – meaning they have lunch at a different time and have recess at a different time. That means double the lunch effort, and double the recess supervision while she also tries to get something accomplished at her work.

“For us between morning break to last lunch we need to figure out coverage in my house from 11 a.m. to 1:45 p.m.,” she said. “I only wonder why can’t they figure out a way to have a universal lunch break so siblings can be together for their lunch and recess and parents only have to figure out a way to cover a smaller extended period of time.”

Forish said the situation has amounted to an absolute challenge for parents working from home, or trying to bounce between home and an office – but especially those that are going to work daily.

“On top of working, navigating home-schooling and keeping the house relatively held together, figuring out how to feed two boys ‘healthy’ food is an absolute challenge,” she said. “One of the side challenges is they eat constantly and our grocery bill has definitely increased by at least one-third with them home.”

Like most things COVID-19, remote school lunch is an issue no one expected to have to confront, but one that was dumped on the laps of parents who figured out how to innovate on the fly.

Registered Dietician Anne Lukowski, of MGH Charlestown Clinic, said the most prescribed innovation for getting good, healthy meals on the remote lunch table is one that is obvious – bringing structure and striving for organization.

One of the things that has become obvious to her, she said, is that being in home school for kids (and even working at home for adults) results in more of a desire to eat. With a pantry only a few steps away – and the mind telling one to take a break – food is an easy remedy.

“Planning and preparation are definitely half to three-quarters of the battle,” she said. “If you have the right ingredients around, then you can make larger batches when you cook…Structure and preparation are keys. I think instituting a structure and routine this fall is important. When kids are in school, they can’t go to eat when they want…I think a lot of times with kids and adults, you need a mental break and food seems like the logical choice.”

She said look ahead and have a plan for lunches for the week, as well as snacks. Kids are used to seeing the school lunch menu when in school, so that will be familiar to them – and unlike school, they can even participate in the planning of what they’ll eat. Consistent times for breakfast, lunch, and two snacks a day are good ways to start the plan.

Then, Lukowski said, another key element is making sure the foods that are being served provide the right “fuel” to keep going through the day. Carbohydrates in bread and pastas are short-term fixes for hunger, she said, and trying to get more protein and fiber in the offerings will take the edge off of what kids think is hunger.

“The pasta dishes and carbs don’t sustain the appetite,” she said. “If you have the pasta dishes and find proteins and vegetables to add to it, that will help you feel full longer. Proteins and fiber are digested slower and that gives you more energy over a longer period of time.”

For snacks, instead of just crackers and Goldfish, she suggested adding in string cheese, carrot sticks and Greek yogurt.

Mother Kari Cavanagh said having smaller children has proven difficult, but she has managed so far this school year by giving them a defined structure – as Lukowski suggested.

“Last spring they had more snacks in the day because they were home,” she said. “Then it became a habit. It was a small battle to fight, so it just wasn’t worth the fight at the time. Then over time it became expected. As we approached the school year in September, we knew we needed structure.”

With a K-1 students and a 4th grader at home, she said they sat them down and announced the free-for-all was over. They began letting them know what was for lunch and that there was not another option. They agreed on two snacks a day, and they put those snacks out on the table at the beginning of the day – with no switches or trades allowed.

“We anticipated they would fight it and it wasn’t that bad though,” she said. “They didn’t love it, but they followed it…They have tried to go in to the cabinet a few times and we drew a strong boundary. It really ended up being about drawing a firm boundary and sticking to it.”

Forish said she tries to focus most of her attention on breakfast and lunch, and dinner is a variety of frozen foods and her talented husband’s cooking. Still, it has been an off-guard moment for her and most others as well, she said.

“From day one back in March, feeding two boys all day caught me off guard,” she laughed.

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