Stop Feeding My Kid Breakfast!

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Everybody, it seems, is mad at the public school system in America for adopting the Common Core standard. My son is only in first grade, but judging by the small amount of math homework he gets, Common Core is spectacularly ill-advised and very poorly implemented. But that’s not why I’m mad at the public school system — at least not yet. I’m mad at the public school system for feeding my kid a free breakfast every day.

As I’ve written before, to say that Henry is a picky eater would be like saying Jimi Hendrix is a guitar player. We have been trying for his entire life to get him to try a vegetable, any vegetable, to try a piece of fruit, to try a piece of (unprocessed) meat, or fish, or chicken, and he just won’t do it. You can lead a child to healthy food, but you absolutely can’t make him eat it.

For the most part, we’ve actually given up on trying to get him to eat healthy — we just want him to eat. When he doesn’t, his blood-sugar drops and he turns into a spinning demon of mischief, shouting vulgar, unfunny jokes and scattering papers everywhere and bouncing off things that aren’t bouncy; then he collapses into an inconsolable sobbing heap as soon as something goes wrong, like the cardboard halfpipe he’s building not supporting his weight, or being told that there’s no such thing as “lunch dessert.” It’s bad enough when we have to deal with the Low Blood Sugar Monster ourselves, but now the boy is in first grade and getting sent to the principal’s office because the Low Blood Sugar Monster just can’t control himself.

So it’s important that he eats breakfast, and fortunately this is the only meal he can always be counted on to eat no matter what. The problem is that after he eats breakfast at home, they feed him another breakfast at school.

We didn’t have breakfast at school when I was a kid. We had lunch, of course. The terrible, rubbery pizza, the boiled hamburgers, the chicken nuggets with the watery barbecue sauce. But breakfast? Is this a new thing? (And is this the moment this blog turns into a succession of “in my day” complaints?)

So here’s what happens: Henry wakes up starving, because he ate the barest possible minimum amount of his dinner, whatever it was, the night before. He slurps down a bowl of cereal the size of his head. On the days his mom leaves for work before I get upstairs, he’ll then pretend he hasn’t had breakfast yet, in hopes of conning me into giving him some toast, or more cereal. (This doesn’t work as often as it used to, because I’m onto him, but I am kind of proud of the effort.) Then I walk him on the school bus. Fifteen minutes later, he arrives at the school cafeteria, where he’s free to help himself to another bowl of cereal or two, which he does with gusto. He is also liable to eat whatever the kids around him don’t finish.

So when lunch rolls around a couple of hours later, Henry is not interested. Why would he be? He’s got four pounds of milk and cereal in his belly. But a couple of hours after that, when they offer him an afterschool snack in the cafeteria, he’s hungry again, and as it happens he loves goldfish and graham crackers and poundcake, so he gorges himself again on even more complex carbohydrates, and when he gets home soon after he’s not particularly interested in his dinner, so he doesn’t eat it. Then he wakes up starving, repeat ad nauseam until you kill yourself, the boy, or both.

Why is the school providing breakfast? Are there people out there sending their kids to school on an empty stomach? I find that hard to believe. I realize that people have varying means and morning schedules, but seriously, if I can drag myself out of bed after staying up too late (I always stay up too late) to pour a bowl of cereal in time to make it to the bus, anyone can. And we’re talking about cereal, not a Denver Omelet. Ten bucks gets you a box of Crispix and a gallon of milk, and you’re set for the week.

I can understand providing lunch. Some people believe strongly in the virtue of a hot meal, as opposed to a cold sandwich. As a kid I always preferred to buy a hot lunch, rather than bring a cold one. But I did have to buy it. If you forgot your lunch money, you had to go panhandle around the cafeteria to scrape $1.10 together so you could have the world’s worst spaghetti and chocolate milk. So, I get it. The school provides a hot lunch to the people who want it. (My insanely picky son does not want it, so while he’s eating his cereal I am packing his lunch.) But breakfast? Why do we need to feed the kids breakfast?

It would be one thing if they were feeding them something healthy. Maybe even make a lesson of it: this is an orange! It has this this and this in it, and here’s how it helps your body! But no: it’s just cereal, those crappy single-serving things where you peel off the top and pour the milk right in, like you get at a motel. Not exactly brain food.

I’m not sure it’s a great idea to let parents off the hook from having to make breakfast themselves; in my house, it’s the only reliably calm, happy part of the day. (I have no idea why that is, but I treasure it.) Feeding my kid breakfast every day and then walking him to the bus stop is the foundation that the rest of our relationship rests on at this point, and I hate to think that people are missing out on what I’ve come to see as crucial bonding time just because they can. I doubt that my son consciously thinks, “I know my dad loves me because he makes me breakfast every day,” but paired with the fact that I use the time to keep up with what’s going on at school and remind him to listen and participate and save his hilarious hijinks for lunch and recess, I think the message is getting through subliminally. What message is getting through to the kids who don’t get breakfast at home?

Not that I think there are many of those; I’ve sat in on a breakfast period here and there, and the reason Henry is able to turn it into a cereal smorgasbord is that almost none of the other kids are interested in more than a couple bites of the school breakfast, because like Henry, they had breakfast at home and unlike Henry, who never met a dinner he couldn’t say no to, they also ate their dinner the night before.

Also, having a whole breakfast period eats up an hour of the school day. I’m sure the kids love that, but couldn’t that time be used more constructively? With all the time they’re wasting feeding these kids a superfluous breakfast, they could be getting farther along with the actual curriculum. Maybe this is the reason the school year doesn’t end until June 23 (JUNE 23!!!!) — not June 5 or 6, like in my day. And another thing: In my day…

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