It was the night before the first full day of kindergarten. Bags of school supplies were piled in front of my son’s new, oversized backpack. I’d laid out his clothes on top of his dresser, clipped his nails as if for inspection. At bath time, I scrubbed the magic marker off his palms with unusual vigor. And after I tucked him in for a premature bedtime, I headed to the kitchen. There, my least favorite task awaited me. It was time to pack his lunchbox.

I’d purchased a bento box, somehow imagining those cute little containers may turn my son into a person he was not yet: an adventurous eater.

There was once a time when my son was not picky at mealtime. It was around the time he began eating solid food. I loaded his highchair tray with carrots and berries, boiled eggs and chicken. One evening, he devoured our takeout tikka masala, and I, a smug new mom, bragged about his palate to his daycare teacher.

“He may get pickier when he’s older,” she warned. And sure enough, perhaps a year later, she was absolutely right.

He began demanding less color, reveling in a new obsession with tan. Chicken nuggets. Mac and cheese. I’d sneak single green beans and tiny broccoli florets onto his plate, only to be greeted with tantrums. He didn’t want to eat them! He didn’t even want to see them! Still, I continued to try—exposure, I read, was the most important thing. And as his taste grew narrower and narrower, I found myself thankful that at least he still ate chicken nuggets. Because, you know, protein.

By the time we reached kindergarten, we had made a bit of progress (specifically in the fruit department). Still, I dreaded packing his lunch. I dreaded it because I had two choices: I could pack foods he would actually eat, or I could pack foods that I believed would make me look like a good mom.

That night before kindergarten with the bento box, I tried to strike a balance between aspirational and realistic. I wasn’t crazy enough to sneak in anything too exciting, like edamame (this, when I looked at lunchbox inspiration on the internet, seemed like a crowning achievement: a kid who ate edamame).

I packed a mix of healthy and indulgent. A hard-boiled egg. Strawberries. A peanut butter sandwich on white bread. Apple sauce. Some chips.

When I picked him up from school that next day, he looked tired. Almost dizzy. When we returned home, I signed his planner and opened his lunch box. The chips were gone, and so was the applesauce—but otherwise, it was nearly still full.

“Why didn’t you eat your strawberries?” I asked him later that evening. “You love those!”

“They didn’t taste right,” he replied.

For a week, then two, I did this: packed a lunch, and then the next day after school, nearly threw it all away. He returned home from school ravenous.

“What do your friends eat?” I asked him, exasperated. “Is there anything they eat that sounds good to you?”

“They eat the school lunch,” he replied.

I looked online at the meal schedule. The following day, they would be serving a hamburger and fries.

“Go ahead and order that,” I told him.

And sure enough, the next day, he returned home bright and smiling. He reported eating his lunch, happily, with all his friends. And then, the next day, he ordered and ate the spaghetti. Then the chicken and noodles. I quietly rejoiced.

Energy! Protein! And my son was, in fact, trying new things.

I’d let myself believe that my son’s diet was a reflection of my motherhood. I’d internalized the stigma that a school cafeteria lunch was somehow inferior to a meal packed from home.

But you know what is truly unhealthy? A hungry child. By saying yes to the school lunch, my son was still discovering new foods. He was enjoying a meal with his peers, learning that eating is about nutrition, yes, but it is also about community.

I’d believed so many messages about food having moral value, and I was inadvertently placing that burden on my son. It wasn’t fair that I expected him to make me look better by consuming what others deemed good. I’m continuing to say yes to the school cafeteria lunch—something my son is very happy about—and I hope making mealtime less stressful for us both will contribute to a positive relationship with food for the rest of his life.

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