I am—at least by the most dispassionate, technical definition—a professional food writer. I often write about food, and people pay me for having done so.
(This may, in fact, include you! If so, thank you for that.)
I’ve developed hundreds of recipes, I received a Food Writing Fellowship, and I’ve carved out a niche as one of the internet’s staunchest defenders of weird chili. I own many lovely cookbooks, and I love nothing more than learning about new restaurants.
On any given day, though?
I’m mostly thinking about what I need to pack for lunch.
You see, I’ve got two kids, and—for the past eight years or so—a huge portion of my time and limited brainpower has been devoted to the procurement, assembly, and successful delivery of their lunches.
When they were little little, this was easy—tiny little Tupperware containers of pureed avocado or green beans sent along with them to day care, containers that still bear their names on faded tape labels even as I use them to shuttle salad dressing to work.
As they progressed into preschool and kindergarten, though, the task got more complicated. Suddenly, they needed a full-fledged lunch, and there were state-mandated standards we had to live up to.
(I have no idea what the enforcement mechanism for said standards is, but I am also an inveterate rules-follower who does not wish to find out.)
Each day, their lunch would have to include servings of fruit, vegetables, dairy and whole grains. Let’s break down this challenge step-by-step.
Fruit. This is easy. A handful of berries. Oops. The berries have gone bad, even though I bought them twenty minutes ago. No worries, just toss in an easy-peel Mandarin orange. Note: there are multiple brands of easy-peel Mandarin oranges on the market today, and they are sold in very similar packaging. You will buy the wrong one.
Vegetables. My daughter claims to like cucumbers, but I have never actually seen her eat the cucumber slices I put in her lunch. It is possible she is running an unlicensed spa at kindergarten. (If so, I respect the hustle. There’s money in wellness culture.) The alternative is carrot sticks, which I will find three weeks later on the floor of my car’s backseat. I believe I have a small colony of rabbits back there.
Milk/Dairy. The Frozen 2-branded string cheeses are exactly the same low-grade mozzarella as the non-Frozen 2-branded string cheeses. I feel like this was a missed opportunity in branding; they could’ve made them a nice Havarti with dill, y’know? Something Scandinavian. Anyway, it has to be the Frozen 2 branded string cheese, and only the ones with Elsa or Anna on them, not Kristof. Feed the Kristof ones to the dogs.
A whole grain. There is not a single bread that my children like, and yet they request sandwiches every day. It is possible they think bread is a packing material. I like sending them peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, because the filling sticks to the bread and they have to eat it.
I will spend an hour or more carefully assembling these lunches, then finding a place for them in the fridge. Each lunchbox is the size of a Honda Civic, and I will have to throw out all of my beer, hot sauces and dipping mustards to make room for them.
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Next, it’s on to the snacks.
This is the food that they will actually eat, and it will cost several hundred dollars at Costco and come in packages the size of my first apartment.
There’s Pirate’s Booty, a snack that I actually enjoy and frequently pilfer from their stash, losing any remaining semblance of self-respect as I eat it in a business meeting with other adults.
There are ten thousand varieties of fruit snack, all of which are functionally the same garbage they were as when I was a kid except that they are now marketed as being not garbage but rather all-natural and packed with superfoods. As a result, kids no longer want them.
There are variety packs of chips—I like to buy the ones that have one spicy item in the assortment because then those get left behind for me. I am the turkey vulture of our household snacking ecosystem.
And then there’s Veggie Straws, a product that, despite being an appropriately discerning and cynical customer, I actually did kind of assume was made out of vegetables until I saw this tweet a few months ago:
I don’t know why I believed they were actually veggies. I really did, though.
Never meet your heroes.
Anyways, each week we have to prepare [visualizing math in glowing numbers like John Nash in A Beautiful Mind] two morning snacks one afternoon snack times two kids uhhh eight thousand one hundred and ninety-two snacks.
With that all done, there’s only one thing left, and it’s the true bane of my existence:
The water bottle.
I buy roughly three new non-disposable water bottles a week, and there are never any water bottles in the house.
They get left on the playground. They crack after being dropped. They lose their lid, which does not match a single other bottle on Earth. They develop a tiny flaw in their overly-complex engineering and leak their entire 16-ounce contents into your work bag, where your child has quietly placed it without your knowledge.
I hate water bottles. I find myself wandering the aisles of Target muttering like a madman about water bottles and how none of them work.
Still, I am glad that my kids drink water, which is a pronounced generational shift. Gen Xers and Old Millennials like to idealize a carefree past in which we drank water straight from the garden hose, but this is only because that is the only water we ever drank. Our hydration came primarily from McDonald’s orange drink, Capri Suns, or the purple stuff from Sunny D commercials.
I will carefully prepare all of this for my kids—the lunches, the snacks, the brand-new-yet-short-for-this-world water bottle—and send them on their way, knowing full well that they will eat a small fraction of it and then complain in the car on the way home that they are hungry. It is at this point that I will stop and let them get candy from the gas station, because I also want candy from the gas station.
My daughter finished kindergarten last week, and will join her older brother at elementary school this fall. She will move on, as he has, to eating school-cafeteria lunches, and my wife and I will be freed from the duty of packing daily lunches.
I thought about this last week as I placed her final PB&Js into her lunchboxes, and I got a little sad.
For as much time and effort and frustration as the process has entailed, each of these lunches has been a tiny act of love, a measurable piece of devotion to people I love in a way I couldn’t have imagined possible a decade prior. It has meant something to shop for exactly the kind of berries they like, to spread a layer of peanut butter on both pieces of bread so that the jelly won’t soak through, to get online and replace the most-beloved Kirby water bottle that broke two days after the Easter Bunny brought it.
It’s a level of care I wouldn’t give for anyone else, a level of care I don’t even extend to myself. As grateful as I am to be freed from the responsibility, each such freeing represents one small way in which they need me less.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go. They start summer camp this week, and I have to pack their lunches.
[opens cabinet] where are all the water bottles?!?
—Scott Hines (@actioncookbook)
The exception to this is the years when we have had in-class nut allergies to work around. I am deeply sympathetic to this, because it’s hard enough worrying about your own kid’s lunch without having to think about someone else’s lunch posing a danger to them. We packed “sun butter” sandwiches those years, which is the most disappointing product you could make using those two words.
I have been deep in my daddy/daughter nostalgia feelings lately as I stare down 42 and my dad stares down 71 later this year. This little slice of peanut butter and emotional terrorism is not helping! I had a Peanuts lunch box with a thermos that my dad packed carefully for me every day of summer camp, and this piece brought all those memories of cool ranch chips and little Debbie cakes. I really did feel loved when he handed me that lunch box.
All this rings true for me, though I'm not a parent, merely a guy whose wife goes to the office three days a week. Monday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings are a struggle because we're always out of SOME two things she wants, and then I offer some fridge leftovers that she's sick of. Occasionally she'll kvetch to her co-workers about what I've packed, and the team reminds her that she can be grateful I did the task and keep doing it.
(Consider a second fridge for your dipping mustards.)