Lunch Time at School, what’s in a school lunch?

Recently I bumped into some photo series about school lunches around the world kind of like this one.  They had interesting pictures of what is included in school lunches in other countries.  Since my kids have never been in school in the US< I have idea what the state of school lunches these days is.  I do know that even when I was in school (and processed foods were a tad harder to come by), they weren’t bastions of nutritional greatness.  Then today a friend who teaches at a school in town posted a picture of her lunch.  It was a rice dish with some lovely meat and potato sauce, coupled with stir fry.  She also posted a picture of the lunch line.  It got me thinking about school lunches.

In Jordan, schools don’t typically have cafeterias in the American sense.  They have open courtyards.  The kids either bring lunch or purchase a sandwich from a kiosk.  To be fair, though, most kids actually eat lunch at home.  My kids were the odd balls because they weren’t having breakfast (at 10 am like the rest of their classmates).  They ate breakfast before heading to school.  And the later break (usually 11:30 or so) was lunch for them.  So, instead of kiosk-driven food or a small snack, my kids took PB&J sandwiches, and grape leaves, and mansaf.  The looks they got (and the conversations I had with a particular teacher who seemed to think that she should direct my daughter on what she could/could not bring (no string cheese, no macaroni and cheese, etc.) were legendary.  And then we moved.

Here, peanut butter is outlawed due to children with nut allergies.  Sigh.  So they take other things.  Now they also have a cafeteria that prepares lovely food fresh daily.  Still they typically take their lunches, but they do clamor to buy lunch on fish days.  This is especially true on the days they’re serving grilled fish.  For a snapshot into these lunches, here’s the menu for three of the days this week:

Day One

Tomato Soup

Chicken Shawarma (live cooking)

Creamy mac n cheese

Baked potato

Roast vegetables


Bread roll

Day Two

Minestrone Soup

Fish tagine

Freshly made hamburger

Potato wedges

Sauteed cabbage


Bread roll

Day Three

Lentil Soup

Butter chicken

Stir friend beef

Vegetable rice

Broccoli & Carrot

Banana Custard

Bread roll

Now I don’t know about you, but we never had soup served at school.  And choice for main wasn’t between butter chicken or stir-fried beef, it was between pizza and burgers.  None of it was freshly prepared.  We were always happy on spaghetti day.  And vegetables were definitely from a very large can.  The other thing that I really like about the school is that they offer a salad bar.  So, if the kids aren’t into the meals, they can always get either a side salad or a lunch salad.  How awesome is that?  So, although my kids rarely eat the prepared food in the cafeteria (we’re much more likely to send left-overs to be warmed in the bank of microwaves (again, hot food from home!), if they do need to eat at school I know the choices will be healthy, tasty, and a relatively inexpensive $4.10.  It makes me wonder, what would they be having if we were in the US?


Expatriate: What’s in a name anyway?

I’ve been watching the ongoing debate about an article haranguing the world at large for racism in calling white people expatriates and brown people immigrants.  When I first saw the article linked in Facebook, I wondered what the deal was.  I read the article and found that it didn’t really meet my experience in any way.  I was very pleased when an exceptional blogger I’ve been reading for years decided to tackle the topic here.  I find that Rachel’s experience in Djibouti is much closer to what mine overseas has been like.  Mind you, Djibouti is much less expat filled and her experience is far more third-world, if you will, than Jordan.  Jordan is much more second-world (is that even a thing?).

But thinking about the term expatriate and thinking about both countries I’ve lived in has been interesting.  Reading Rachel’s piece pushed me to give it even more thought as the community I inhabit here is very different from the one I inhabited in Jordan.  In Jordan we were, if anything, more like immigrants.  After all, El 3atal is from Jordan.  Giving up our house in the US and moving lock, stock, and barrel to Jordan was very much an immigrant-like experience.  While I never expected to live there forever, I did expect to be there until… you know until some unknown time in the future.  In Jordan, we put our kids in local schools, not the fancy all-English expat schools.  I went to local vegetable shops and grabbed fruits and veggies using only Arabic (because, yes, the fruit vendor did not speak English better than I spoke Arabic).  While I had friends who were part of the expat community, they were more distant friends.  Most of my close friends were like me, immersed in the community.  They were married to local men or ministering to local people.  They weren’t living apart from society.  In short, I wasn’t an expat – at all – in Jordan.

Once we moved here, we became clear and obvious expats.  Among other things, everyone here is an expat, no one is an immigrant.  In this country, you can not become a citizen by virtue of being born here, living here for a long time, or buying property here.  If you marry into a local family, you can become a citizen. Otherwise, you cannot.  It is really that simple.  So the rest of the population, 90%, are expats.  And those expats are an entire rainbow from deepest black to brightest white.  There are NO immigrants here.  None.  So, the idea that brown people are immigrants here wouldn’t be on anyone’s mind.  Having said that, although I had never thought of it, I’m not sure I would have used the term expat for our wonderful HelperBean.  Nor would I have used it for the exceptionally hard-working laborers who build the buildings.  So, why not?  Is it inherent racism?  Is it classism?  Maybe.  But I expect, it’s more about the fact that I haven’t classified anyone beyond the stereotypical expat as anything.  Based on my experience in Jordan, I see being an expat as being very “other” oriented.  In Jordan, I WAS the other.  My kids were the kids with the foreign mom.  I was foreign.  I am foreign.  Immigrant or not, I was the foreigner.  That wouldn’t change.

Expat has always seemed a slightly fancy term that must refer to slightly fancy people (which makes it hard to think of myself as one).  And yet, in our current locale, I am definitely in the expat category.  My kids go to an international school (of course they can’t go to local schools, but you get the idea).  We don’t blend into the local population and we don’t try.  We live in a world that is almost halfway between Jordan and the US.  And what about HelperBean?  A quick look at salaries tells me that she earns more than engineers and even many doctors back home.  So, compared to the folks back home, she’s a fancy expat too.  So, in giving it a bit of thought, expat fits everyone here fairly well.  And since none of us are immigrants… well, it’s as good a term as any right.  Because after all, skin color doesn’t change your goals and desires in life.  But here in this expat haven, no one’s an immigrant, so no one will be offended by that term.  Perhaps we’ll have to think of another term to rile folks up?  Suggestions anyone?

Happy Expatriation!

Expecting more while expecting less

So, last year my book club decided to read Free Range Kids by Lenore Skenazy.  I had heard of her movement through posts on Facebook and the like and honestly was a bit intrigued.  I’d also read an article about a lady in a Northern European country who had set up a playground that makes Lenore look like the queen of control.  As I see more and more articles about parents being reported to Child Protective Services for such *gasp* horrible offenses as allowing their kids to go to the park alone, walk to school alone, remain in a car while mom’s in the store, I become more and more concerned.

It seems like we expect more and more of our kids at a younger and younger age… but only academically.  Soon before entering Kindergarten, 5 year olds will be expecting to be able to write Jane Eyre, but need help wiping their bottoms.  So, how have we come to this point.  And, I don’t mean as a society in some theoretical sense.  How have we, as parents, come to expect so little of our children?I came across this article this morning. It has a first grade checklist from 1979.  Allow me to say, wow.  Just wow.  Can your 6 year old child walk four blocks on their own?  I know I was.  I know my children weren’t.  This year, after moving to within about 3 blocks of the school, I’ve started letting my 5th graders ride their bikes to/from school alone.  My 7th grader walks home by herself if she doesn’t want to wait on us.  I had to bite my tongue HARD the first few times I sent them off.  I ask them to call me when they arrive.  However, I’ve gotten to the point that when they forget, I don’t stress.

We expect so little ownership of themselves out of our kids that it worries me.  When I go to a restaurant with friends, I’m often surprised when their 5th, 6th, 7th grade kids wait for mom to order for them.  Admittedly I’ve been having my kids order their own food for years.  Many, many years.  I did this, often, because if I chose for them they’d resist eating it.  If they order it themselves, they’ve made the choice.  So, my rule was always, whatever you order, you eat.  And they ordered for themselves quite early.  And still do.  Shouldn’t every child?

In an age where moms call college deans to ask them to remind sonny boy to wear his jacket on a cool day, it’s time for us to think about the children we are raising.  Is it fair to the workforce to send out kids who can’t set an alarm on their own?  Should our teenage kids be living in a world where they’ve never been left at home alone.  Or anywhere else, for that matter?  I hope not.  We need to take back our fears, accept that our kids are capable of just as much (or more) than we were, and send them off to explore their world.  When they want to ride bikes on the street, they should.  If they want to visit a friend, send them on.  As we parents loosen the grip of our fear and expect more of our kids, they’ll rise to the occasion.  Really, they will.

Happy Free-Range!

It’s Not About Brand… It’s About Fit: Thoughts on Education

So today I came across this excellent article on what’s wrong with the college applications process.  Mind you ButterBean is still YEARS away from college.  But what I found interesting about this is less which level of education we’re talking and more about how applicable it is to every level.  Especially here in the Arabian Gulf where the “best brands” find their way here to open an institution that may or may not match the educational experience of their home location.

What troubles me about this, in such a brand-conscious environment, is that parents get caught up in which school is the “best” rather than the best fit for their child.  I constantly see new families moving in asking what the “best” school is.  Somehow they miss the idea that the best school depends on your family and its values.  For years in multiple countries, I’ve been asked what school is the “best” in the city.  As a result, I decided to go ahead and put some thoughts on choosing the right school for your family, starting with questions to consider…

What type of education will best suit your child?

  • British: the British system boasts strength in academic rigor, particularly the sciences, it is more focused on giving the expected answer (repackaged or not).  British schools typically complete their program with the IGCSE exams. Students wishing to apply to British colleges are well served by completing the IG program.
  • International Baccalaureate: The IB system is marketed as an inquiry-based way of learning.  It has multiple towers of learning and a service component.  Again, it is rigorous  but has more focus on finding an answer.  Its usability depends on your child’s destination. Although the IB diploma can be applied in other environments, it is most useful in Europe.
  • American: the American educational system places a significant amount of emphasis on creativity.  It tends toward less identifiable academic rigor and more individual creation and understanding. Most American schools have excellent opportunities in and focus on the arts.  The American diploma is most useful in the US.
  • Islamic: Islamic schools place much more emphasis on religious studies than academic rigor in what the other systems consider core subjects.  As a result, students are more likely to have a more complete knowledge of both Arabic and religion, but may not fare as well in other subjects depending on the curricula used and expectations set.  Graduates of these schools are more likely to end up in universities in the Middle East or Islamic countries.

These descriptions are quite simplistic and many will argue that the British schools build creativity or the American schools are equally as rigorous.  The reality is that the learning approach is different in the three systems, and parents should review each and assess which best meets their child’s needs. For instance, ButterBean is the type of child who enjoys the arts and will not do well in a science class where she needs to develop the question and then find the answer.  IB is likely to be a less beneficial fit for her.  JuniorBean is quite gifted in math and science with the ability to envision options and ideas, IB might work just fine for him.

Once you’ve determined which overall system works best for your family, schools have different things to offer.  Some of those things that you should consider are:

  • Sports in which your child is involved
  • After school activities that your child values
  • Diversity mix that can impact your child’s social/economic fit
  • Importance of a language or religion class/approach/position
  • Learning styles and teaching styles (beyond system or curriculum
  • Teachers: qualifications and skills
  • Administration: Every school has failings here, can you live with them?
  • Support available to different learning styles, children needing extra help
  • For profit vs. non-profit status of the school
  • Academic rigor of the specific schools you are considering
  • Curricula in subjects that of key importance to your family
  • Community strength
  • State-of-the-art facilities

Asking what the “best” school in town is will get you either 1) the one that costs the most or 2) the one that is perceived as the hardest.  Neither may be what you want for your child.  I’ve watched quite a few families who moved in saying oh, we’re X nationality so that’s the school we’re going to pick.  Sadly, they fail to ask any of the questions above.  They find that the approach isn’t right for them, they feel the curriculum isn’t rigorous enough, in short it’s a bad fit for their family needs.  They transfer and some transfer again.  Continually moving your children because you’ve failed to do your homework is stressful and causes heartache to all parties.  Spending adequate time to understand the school (not just take a tour and see the facilities) will make your choice easier and more successful.  I’d also recommend that you talk to parents who have their kids in your top few choices.  Ask them about the key things from the above lists.  Also ask them what drives them crazy about the school.  Are they things you can live with?  If so, you may have found a winner…

Happy hunting!

Considering coming out of retirement… again

It’s funny how habits are made depending on what’s going on with you at specific times in your life.  In Jordan, I blogged nearly every day for years.  Once we moved, I found it harder and harder to keep up the discipline.  In fact, all of my writing discipline flew out the window.  Last year, for the first time since starting, I didn’t even manage to participate in NaNoWriMo.  Sigh.  Somehow my new home made it far harder to manage writing.  But really, perhaps that’s just a cop out.  I had lost interest and focus.  But I think the time has come to rediscover discipline.

I saw an article on Facebook this morning about a Jordanian woman who is sitting in jail for refusing to carry out what appears to be a wasta-laden court ruling in contravention of Jordan’s laws.  Her husband, who kidnapped his child and took her across national borders, is not in jail.  And it made me think about how very blog-worthy that is.  The next article I read was an open letter from Rachel Corrie’s parents on the anniversary of her murder while peacefully protesting the razing of homes in Rafah.  Wait, Rafah, wasn’t that one of those places that those terrible Palestinian terrorists live that the Israeli’s had to take out last year?  Surely the youth of today aren’t angry about their homes being razed 12 years ago!  12 years.  And that wasn’t the beginning ladies and gentlemen.

And then, thinking of Rachel reminded me of Nicole Vienneau, a Canadian who disappeared in Syria.  I stumbled upon her story back in 2008, the year after she went missing.  Every March, Rachel and Nicole pop up in my minds.  And for a couple of years I blogged about them.  And then last year wandered by without my marking either occasion.  And then this year the open letter got me thinking about how much I miss blogging.  And so, I think MommaBean is coming out of retirement.  Not because of my 2 or 3 loyal readers who still check (really?), although they are great.  Really more because it’s a great way to order your thoughts and keep track of them over time.  So, if anyone out there is still listening, let’s begin our conversation anew.  I miss you, dear loyal readers.  And I miss me, the blogging me.  So, let’s find each other once again…

Happy History!

Who Exactly ARE the Less Fortunate?

So, my kids’ school (along with half of the others in the Emirates I think) have joined with a major hotel chain in preparing large shoe box sized packages for workers here in the Gulf.  Families are invited to take a box and fill it with items needed by most of the workers.  These are things like razors, toothbrushes, combs, a T-shirt, a cap.  There’s no food in these boxes, no money or anything like that.  It’s just a small box of toiletries that says, “we’re thinking of you and hope this may make life a little more comfortable.”  On the day that the boxes were distributed, I had a very interesting discussion with one of the other moms.  She mentioned having picked up a box.  I shared that I had grabbed two.  She went on to tell me that she, however, had some philosophical objections to them.

I have to admit I was a bit befuddled.  Could someone have philosophical objections to helping the less fortunate?  She went on to tell me how people here aren’t really needy.  These folks in the labor camps may not live in luxury, but they aren’t really in need.  Apparently, some of her previous postings have been in places with people who are really needy, you know, places like Pakistan and Bangladesh, and… you get the picture.  I found her argument interesting.  My initial response was that perhaps she wasn’t aware how grim the work camps actually are.

No, no, she assured me that she knows life isn’t easy, but they’re not really in bad shape.  Given the articles written on this topic, I’m left wondering if she doesn’t need a trip to visit these folks in their camps.  But, lets get beyond that.  Because really it did get me thinking about this topic.  Who ARE the less fortunate?  How can we best help them?  After all, I consider these boxes a very small way of teaching the Beans not about charity (the lesson she acknowledged her kids would learn) but about giving thanks for our blessings and remembering that others have less.  This doesn’t mean they ARE less, just they have less.

As I was shopping for the contents of the boxes with one of the other Moms yesterday (yes, I can turn even that into a fun morning out), my thoughts finally crystallized.  Would it be better to get all of these little personal hygiene items and put them in boxes and send them to the really needy people?  After all, that would cost significantly more.  And, those boxes that the hotel chain sponsored, would it be better to use plastic ziploc bags instead as the other mom contended?  Is it wasteful to give these tokens to these hard-working folks?  Could we do better by sending the “charity” far away?

And for me the answer is fairly clear: No. In America for a long, long time we have been caught up in saving the poor all around the world.  That’s really taking the splinter out of our neighbors’ eyes while ignoring our own plank.  America has poor. Does America have the abject poverty of many third-world countries?  Um, yes.  Children go hungry in the land of plenty.  People are homeless.  And for all the good we can (and perhaps should) do abroad, I really don’t think we can ignore the people at home with our charity.  I don’t want to see my for-now home follow that bias.  In giving to the workers living in the camps, we’re acknowledging that we have need right here in our own back yards.

And you know what else?  I’d contend we’re doing more for the people in those poverty-stricken desperately needy places as well.  Stay with me here, when I given a box of toiletries (and a shirt and cap) to a worker here, I save him about $20.  To me, that’s not much money.  To him, that’s ALOT of money.  And that money that he saves in not buying those items himself, what do you think he does with that?  Does he go buy an ipod? Well, I’d say he more likely sends it home to his family in Bangladesh or India or Pakistan or .  So, by saving him money here, we’re giving his family more money there.  And let’s be realistic, the people who come and work on construction projects in the UAE are not the creme de la creme of society from developed nations.  These are the folks whose opportunities to provide for their families at home are beyond poor.  They are people from poverty stricken nations to whom coming to the desert to make $150 a month is a fortune.  They think that working 7 day weeks and perhaps 12 hour shifts per day is worth the sacrifice for their families.  So are we really trying to say they aren’t less fortunate?  Do we truly think these people aren’t needy?  And is it not the height of naivety to think that sending talcum powder and deodorant is really going to help the truly poverty-stricken in the third world?

If your passion is to go and help the poorest of the poor, do what Mother Theresa did.  Go into the slums of Calcutta and help people.  But keep in mind that often the best way to help the poor over there is to help the needy here.  Because in our little slice of the world people come from everywhere.  Here, the butterfly wings of your help in a labor camp can help send the rain of blessings “over there” where poverty gnaws at empty bellies.  And in this world we live in, chances abound for us to help our children see that everyone doesn’t live the life they live.  We have so many excellent opportunities to give back and show our children that it is, indeed more blessed to give than to receive.  Let’s take those chances with no philosophical objections.  Let’s give to the needy here and the poor there.  Because I am fairly certain that we have enough blessings to go around, don’t we?

Happy Need-Meeting!