Woody Allen, Leftovers and the Math of School Lunches

Photo by fl4y, via Flickr

As is the habit of many working moms, I do serious cooking only once a week. The rest of the week, we survive on leftovers, frozen meals or fast-and-easy deals like mac & cheese. Knowing this, you can imagine how terrified I felt reading Woody Allen's sentence: "The most remarkable thing about my mother is that for 30 years she served the family nothing but leftovers. The original meal has never been found." Would my kids be saying the same about their mother?

Following a few days of despair, I found the solution. I didn't have to hire a cook or quit my job to shop for food and cook for ungrateful kids who don't eat much anyway. Consulting with my husband, I decided to alter our family's perception. We made the days when I did cook much more joyful and memorable. We encouraged our kids to help with the cooking or decorating the table. We invited guests and assembled a menu that everyone liked. And to top off the mood, we definitely serve dessert. Now we excitedly anticipate these happy culinary gatherings and then remember those meals for days to come.

What about school lunches? We pack them into little "Hello Kitty" and sports lunch boxes every day. Unfortunately, the older our kids get, the more conservative their food choices. I attribute this to peer pressure; how else can you describe the degradation from any pasta with any kind of sauce to only mac & cheese and then to mac without any trace of cheese? Or, maybe it has to do with literacy. Our son used to like Muenster cheese until he learned to read and realized that it had nothing to do with monsters.

Our kids are willing to consume only a handful of items. This makes cooking easy but warrants calculation and creativity. The likely edible lunch menu consists of: macaroni, peanut butter and jelly, rice, hummus with pita, tuna and fish sticks. From the fruit and vegetable kingdom my kids welcome only grape tomatoes, apples and baby carrots. To add some spark to this boring selection, I try to mix it up every day. How many different meals can I create with various combinations of these components? A field of math named combinatorics can help.

We have 6 main course choices and 3 fruit and vegetable choices. My daughter picks one of each, main course and fruit/veggie, allowing me to create 3 x 6=18 different combinations. My son is older and so he selects two of each, two main courses and two fruit/veggie. Therefore, for him we need to find out how many different combinations of 2 we can create out of 6 main course choices, and then out of 3 fruit/veggie choices. By either drawing on the paper or using a fancy combinatorics formula we can compute that there are 15 combinations (all choices of 2 out of 6) for the main courses and 3 (all choices of 2 out of 3) combination for fruit-and-veggie. Total different lunch variations are 15 x 3 = 45. Wow! So much more than one would imagine from the original limited selection. Think how many more possibilities there could be for lunch if your kid fancies one new food item. It may even deserve a menu!

Photo by Wendy Copley, via Flickr

Try it at home:
Kids love playing restaurant. A tedious school lunch preparation may be turned into a fun order-and-pick-up your lunch. Make a menu of all the choices: main courses, fruits and vegetables. Decorate it and make multiple copies. Let kids make their selections at the beginning of the week or a night before. Even saying "Sorry, we are out of Mac-and-Cheese today" in this context would be accepted with a much better attitude. At the end of the week, analyze together your selections. What are the most popular items and combinations? How many total combinations were available?

Read more about fun kitchen math in You put a dirty plate in, you take a clean plate out. And you repeat it all around.


  1. I see lots of kids in the USA whose "food choices become conservative" and will eat only a few things. I suspect this does not happen in poorer countries, where kids must eat what's given to them or go hungry. So this problem is likely social, not biological, born of living in a wealthy nation. It makes me wonder what would happen if US parents would simply take the same approach and NOT substitute foods at meals based on the whims of children. Eventually, they'll eat, and the "conservative" attitude goes away. Just a hunch. We did this with our kids and they eat anything now. (But I realize that's a mathematical sample size of 1.)

  2. My daughter pretty much eats everything that we adults eat and is not afraid of experimenting. We have made it clear from the beginning she needs to eat whats on the table or she has to go hungry. She is 12 now. I hope she remains that way.

  3. My daughter pretty much eats everything that we adults eat and is not afraid of experimenting. We have made it clear from the beginning she needs to eat whats on the table or she has to go hungry. She is 12 now. I hope she remains that way.

  4. You both are so right. We should have been stricter from the beginning when kids were toddlers and it would have been easier for us now and healthier for the kids.
    This is in fact exactly how I grew up. One choice every meal, for adults as well as kids. And this is what our pediatrician was always saying. We are trying to insist on mature and healthy now.

    There is a great program on ABC on Fridays - Food Revolution with Jamie Oliver. It touches the same points. We should offer kids what we think they should eat and not give them what we know they will prefer eating. As an example: regular milk vs chocolate mil.


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