Did We Get Our Kids to Eat?
ParentData's adventures with "Lunchbox: So Easy, So Delicious, So Much Fun to Eat"
Next week, we’re replacing Wins & Woes with a virtual Halloween parade. Send us pictures of your costume handiwork, the candy you stole from your children, or a line or two about the best moment of your night. All entries must be received by 7:00 am EDT on Tuesday to be considered.
On Monday I posted an interview with Marnie Hanel about her bento lunch box book. As part of the “research” for that post, we had to try it out. I recruited a ParentData team member who has a 2-year-old and a 3-year-old. I agreed to experiment with my 7-year-old (the 11-year-old declined to participate).
The challenge was to produce five(ish) days of meals, document them in pictures, and report on the eating of the food. Let’s see how we did…
Emily: As I have said, I am skeptical about this whole enterprise. However: my kid often eats almost none of his lunch, so I guess it cannot get worse. He was extremely excited about the book, took it up to his room, and began marking off all the items he wanted to have. In a number of cases, what he wanted was impossible (i.e. included nuts, or ingredients I refused to get), although I will say he showed some flexibility with substitutions. We ended up with a list of five lunches.
K.S.: I want to say up front that the problem in my house is not the kids. For a 2- and a 3-year-old, they aren’t particularly picky about food (at least one of them gladly ate some chicken hearts Emily cooked!). The problem is me. I hate packing lunches — probably more than any other parenting duty I can think of.
I think there are two issues. First, performance anxiety. Because of the pandemic and the ages of my kids, very little of my parenting has been on display for anyone who doesn’t live in my home. So preschool lunches basically feel like the first homework I’m turning in to someone else to grade. (Obviously, there are no grades and this is in my head.) The second issue is a dislike of tedium, especially as it relates to cutting up strawberries.
But I was excited to give the book a try. At the very least, I thought, the meal suggestions would relieve one part of the lunch process — coming up with ideas for what to pack to begin with.
Emily: Before and after photos below. He requested sushi, which I know he doesn’t eat. However, he did eat some of it, reporting that he “didn’t like it but ate some anyway.” That felt like a bit of a win. The other win was the fruit, which actually got eaten. This will prove to be an enduring note: stuff on sticks is fun. This was an easy lunch to put together, other than having to remember to buy the sushi.
K.S.: Day 1 was a big mommy fail!
But first, the positives: I., 3, and A., 2, both loved this! Lately I. has been obsessed with “the story of how the asteroid made the dinosaurs go extinct,” so we captured that in meal form. A. is a more cuddly type who loves hearts and teddy bears and flowers, so that is what she got. Overall, this is a pretty basic lunch (carrots, cheese, ham sandwich, snack), but it still felt special.
Now the fail: I got so wrapped up in amusing myself with the styling that I forgot that the school doesn’t allow popcorn (choking hazard), so that part of their lunch was taken away. The kids ate everything else.
Bonus fail: red food coloring doesn’t make popcorn pink. It makes it look bloody.
Emily: You can see my pajama pants in this photo, and I’m realizing that these were maternity pants from Penelope’s birth. Still going strong 11 years in.
This mini pizza got eaten, but I’d judge it only a moderate success (the cookie pie was completely consumed). Making a pizza was some work (we have a great toaster oven, but still), and Finn said it was “a little wet.”
K.S.: I was feeling a bit gun-shy after the previous lunch, so we stuck to basic foods again, but with a different snack and a new theme for both lunches: Halloween. It took forever to cut the carrot slices into little jack-o’-lanterns, but I chuckled to myself the whole time I was working on it. And it was also a handy escape from dealing with the post-dinner/pre-bedtime-routine chaos hour, which my husband had to handle on his own.
The kids ate everything (and I ate the carrot cutouts), but I re-learned the lesson about food coloring being a bad idea when they both came home with green hands and faces from their “wormy” apples.
Emily: This was a sort of attempt to replicate one of the pictures in the book (although with bacon instead of eggs). We learned Finn doesn’t like chicken sausage, but the rest was good. I enjoyed attempting to stack the jam pancake sandwiches. You can see here I’ve really gotten into the idea of sticks in things.
K.S.: I tried not to resort to sandwiches and ended up with this cucumber caterpillar creature, a “worm” in quinoa dirt, and some flower apples and grapes for the “bugs” to munch. I. normally likes quinoa but did not like it after the comparison with dirt was made. Flower apples were a hit with both, and I was happy to eat the remaining apple bits.
Emily: This is probably the biggest fail. I thought he would like it (contains sausage and mozzarella! Has sticks!), but he reported he didn’t like the crackers (or apparently anything else). This came back pretty much completely uneaten, other than the mini cupcakes. No one in my house has ever turned down a mini cupcake.
K.S.: A. was home sick and I. was upset about leaving her behind. In the morning jumble, I did not get a picture of I.’s lunch, which, I can assure you, was a masterpiece.
Once A. woke up, I was inspired to try to get her to eat something by borrowing a bit of Lunchbox spirit for her breakfast.
With these pancakes, food coloring redeemed itself. But the real winner is candy eyes, which make every food more amusing. A. ate one pancake, the middle one, which was modeled after Stumpkin.
Emily: I forgot to take a before picture here, but this was probably the biggest win, since it came after the challenge period. There was actually a Day 5 of the challenge, but I do not feel I can post and take credit for it because our amazing babysitter made it. That meal involved a sandwich shaped like a cake with pepper candles, chocolate-dipped pretzels, and mini cupcakes (this is all straight out of the book). Finn ate it, but, again, it feels like cheating since my only contribution was thanking our nanny profusely and hoping desperately she doesn’t leave us.
Anyway! This meal is reflective of where we have gotten to. It was some leftover chicken and pasta bake, some fruit on sticks, and a cookie. He ate way more than he used to, it was not hard to produce, and he was happy.
K.S.: A. was sick again and was only interested in eating candy eyeballs without any real food attached. I. was down for a grand finale school lunch, though, and wanted to help create it. My inner lunch artist screamed “no,” but my more mature side agreed — and we ended up with a lunch that looked exactly as I. wanted. She had fun, ate the whole thing, and I only tweaked the placement of a few things after she stopped paying attention.
Emily: First, K.S., I feel you really won this round. The pancakes are a masterpiece.
Going forward, I’m not sure how much we’ll use the specific lunches in the book — although Finn has it on his shelf, and I suspect ideas will percolate up. But we will definitely keep using the bento, and I think I got some important lessons here: Food on sticks is fun. Seeing the variety all at once and having multiple things to eat is fun. Giving Finn more input into the process may also have been helpful.
The other big change is I bought myself a bento salad box, which I highly recommend. So now I can stack all my tiny snacks together. Adorable.
K.S.: I’m reminded a bit of that scene in Julia where Julia Child, who has just extolled the virtues of cooking an elaborate meal as a route to joy and sense mastery, is confronted by a skeptical Betty Friedan. In the case of the lunch boxes, I think Julia Child was onto something — at least for me. Making meal prep a more interesting challenge helped me resent it a bit less. Sure, I probably still would have rather been doing some other project. But given that lunches have to get made, doing it this way adds fun. And the kids liked it too.
We’re going to keep using the tools to throw at least a little spice into every lunch. And I might even make myself some bloody-looking popcorn every now and again.
Update: I got a note from I.’s teacher several days after this experiment to let me know that she hadn’t eaten any of her lunch (except for her raspberries) in days. It looks like fun lunch needs to come back in force.
Discuss your lunch travails over at the ParentData Chatrooms.