The reason why packing my kids’ lunches is so important to me

lunch boxes on colourful backgrounds

This essay is part of Motherwell’s Parenting and Food column.

By Simone Muñoz

When I was a child, there was never any food for making lunch. We were not poor. We just didn’t have anything you would want to take with you to eat at school. When you added a dash of busy household to a heaping tablespoon of my mother’s food issues and a palmful of my father’s inattention to planning, you got two kids left scrambling for a mid-day, school-appropriate meal.

I was ostensibly in charge of packing my and my younger brother’s lunches, but the problem was that there was no appetizing food to put in them, nor did I have the knowledge to accomplish the task. My mom bought us bread and lunch meat and expected us to eat sandwiches every single day, I think? I’m sure there was fruit, but it was things like plums that bruised easily. We had Ziploc sandwich bags and brown paper sacks, but no hard containers.

I remember one friend who constantly munched on dried seaweed and vegetables and hummus packed in elaborate Tupperware. Another friend ate crunchy, yellow Persian rice flecked with parsley out of a glass dish. Meals like that seemed like impossibilities. Other kids bought lunch from the cafeteria. We were only given money for lunch one day a week, pizza day. I’m not sure why we weren’t allowed to buy more frequently, maybe because the school lunch was pricey and seemed like a waste of money.

My mother was always on a diet, and her lunch consisted of a diet coke and an apple. She didn’t like to eat during the day, preferring to snack in front of the TV at night. She may have inadvertently invented intermittent fasting. In the early 90s, she would buy Snackwell’s cookies, which we thought were healthy because they were low-fat, and plow through the box during whatever drama was on at 10pm that day or the 11 o’clock news. 

My dad, trained as a chef during his army days, did all the cooking, and we always had a proper dinner. There was roasted chicken and potatoes dusted with paprika, chicken enchiladas smothered in red sauce and topped with melted cheese, burritos the size of a baby leaking sour cream, or meatloaf with smooth mashed potatoes. If pressed, I would deem my dad’s style “Hearty California Mexican.” We’re not Mexican, he just cooked that way. My friends ate with gusto when they were invited over, usually cleaning their plates and asking for seconds. On weekend mornings, my dad made sourdough pancakes topped with pats of butter and plenty of syrup. On chilly days, he served Cream of Wheat hot cereal jazzed up with cinnamon and raisins and cooled down with a splash of milk. My mom planned what he would cook and shopped for the ingredients. 

My brother and I complained constantly about our sad lunches, but our parents ignored us. They probably thought we were whining like kids normally do. They also just plain didn’t want to deal with it. My dad assumed it was my mom’s domain since she did the food planning. My mom didn’t understand that some people like to eat food at lunchtime. When we came home from school, we were ravenous. We sat on the stools at the kitchen island mesmerized by my dad cooking, our stomachs grumbling in anticipation.

My kids started camp last week after 15 months of remote learning/life. With camp came the need to pack lunch. Weeks before the start date, I bought lunch boxes, thermoses, and water bottles. The first morning of camp, I woke up already in a panic, worried about what I might forget. I snapped at my kids to get out of the kitchen as I heated up leftovers, placed them in thermoses, and filled tiny Tupperware containers with diced melon, baby carrots, and mini brownies. I made sure to include utensils and napkins, too. And I didn’t even forget the ice packs! 

After the first day, I relaxed into the routine. Before the pandemic, I had had several years of packing kid lunches already under my belt and muscle memory soon kicked in. My method: I make sure there is a source of protein, a healthy carb, at least one vegetable, fruit, and a small treat. It’s not Pinterest-worthy, but it’s nutritious. If I’m missing any category, I run to the store for replacements even though I detest grocery shopping. Of course, I can’t pack nuts because there’s always at least one kid at school or camp who is allergic, and I don’t pack candy because that’s usually against the rules. (Side note: one time, my kid got yelled at by a lunch lady for having a piece of candy in his lunch the day after Halloween!

The other day, my younger son burst in the door after camp (because even six hours of outdoor play does not wear him out) and tossed his backpack on the floor on the way to his room. I immediately picked up the camo-themed bag passed down from his brother, extracted the lunch box, and began unloading the detritus. I learned quickly that you have to put all those containers in the dishwasher right away, otherwise, the next morning, you will be handwashing eleventy billion crusted, sticky plastic things while yelling at everyone to eat their breakfast. I asked him about his day and he said, “Mom, your lunches are so good! How did you learn to pack them?” I thought, What a great question! And also, He’s my favorite. (That’s a joke.)

So here I am, thinking about how I learned to pack lunch— the hard way. And why I get so anxious about it—childhood experiences, of course. Isn’t that the root of all anxiety? I resolve to teach my kids about the components of a healthy, filling meal and how to pack food so it survives a whole day in a backpack. We can’t expect our kids to take responsibility for a chore unless we teach them step-by-step and provide them with the necessary tools. Soon, my kids will be old enough to pack their own food, but want to know a secret? As much as I say I hate it, a tiny part of me loves taking care of them in this way. I see many years of packing and unpacking tiny Tupperware in my future, and that’s okay.

Simone de Muñoz writes personal essays and dystopian, or perhaps utopian, fiction, depending on your perspective, where women drive the story and sometimes even run the world. Her debut novel, Manflu, is out now. Based in Silicon Valley, she lives with her patient husband, their two young sons, and a grumpy dog named Fish. 

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