School Lunches

A while back, I was clicking around on Facebook and became captivated by a photo that my friend Nancy had posted to her profile. It was a photo of the lunch that she had prepared for her daughter to take to school the next morning—a PB&J, an Oreo cookie, some cracker mix and fruit. Nothing out of the ordinary there, but what caught my eye was the presentation. It was quite simply the most precious lunch I had ever seen. Each item was neatly nestled in its own section of a plastic container. The sandwich was cut in the shape of a flower, the cookie sat perched in a tiny pink silicone cup, the fruit was adorned with itty bitty colorful plastic picks in the shape of animals and the little bunny-shaped crackers in the cracker mix lent harmony to the overall theme. It was art, and I was utterly enthralled.

As I raptly studied each detail, my mind couldn’t help but conjure the sorry images of what I had been passing off on my own children as school lunch. Baggies of smooshed sandwiches comingling with crushed and slightly stale Cheez-its. A handful of fuzzy pre-cut carrot sticks paired with a hand-me-down thermos full of reheated ravioli.  That slightly overripe tangerine from the fruit bowl that everyone in the family had spent the last week studiously avoiding. As this slide show of shame clicked and whirred in my head, I remembered the words of one of my favorite authors, Anne Lamott:

Here is the main thing I know about public school lunches: it only looked like a bunch of kids eating lunch. It was really about opening our insides in front of everyone . . . .The contents of your lunch said whether or not you and your family were Okay.

I pictured my kids unzipping their insides in the cafeteria of Boals Elementary each day next to children whose nutritionally balanced lunches were carefully themed and color-coded. I felt a slight wave of panic. How did I let this slide? Why didn’t somebody tell me that school lunches are supposed to be cute now?! With just a couple of clicks on my keyboard, I discovered entire blogs and websites devoted to the art of adorable kids’ lunches, and intently studied the necessary tools—bento boxes, food markers, silicone baking cups, decorative picks . . . the possibilities to create edible lunchtime art for my spawn were virtually endless. The burden of shame lightened with each item that I added to my virtual shopping cart; a few more clicks and my starter kit had been ordered. I pushed back from my laptop with a flush of self-satisfaction. See? I can be the mom who makes awesome school lunches, too!

The morning after all my goodies arrived, I retreated to the laundry room to secretly assemble my edible masterpieces. This process took a bit longer than I had anticipated, leaving the kids to fend for themselves in getting ready for school. As they grumpily searched for misplaced shoes and squabbled over the last Toaster Strudel, I locked the door behind me and unleashed the magic. Sandwiches were cut in the shape of dolphins and dinosaurs, cheese cubes and turkey rolls were speared on the ends of decorative toothpicks, teddy grahams were artfully arranged in silicone cups and a lone gummy worm was coiled in the remaining vacant nook of each box to add a touch of whimsy. Twenty-five minutes later, with the sounds of all hell breaking loose beyond the laundry room door, I surveyed the work of my hands with a smile and a nod. Yeah. I flipping rock.

It didn’t take me long to figure out, of course, that the person I was most trying to impress was myself. Also, possibly any other moms who might just happen to be volunteering in the cafeteria and would take note as my children opened the lid on their super-cool lunches. But really, mostly me. Because I’m not the mom who is volunteering in the cafeteria, and I’m not the mom who buys organic, and I’m not the mom who schmoozes with the other elementary-school moms at the playground after school every day. I’m not the mom who goes on every single field trip and I’m not the mom who knows the teachers on a first-name basis and I’m not the mom who has ever been, or ever will be, the room mother or the president of the PTA. That mom intimidates the crap out of me. And on some subconscious level, that makes me seriously doubt whether I am Okay.

The whole fancy lunch enterprise didn’t last more than a week in our house, for several reasons: namely, the realization that I was really just trying to salve my own damaged sense of self through fancy finger sandwiches. And while my kids thought the new lunches were super fun, I noted that they weren’t the life-changing, paradigm-shifting, confidence-boosting catalyst that I had anticipated. Frankly, they weren’t worth the time and effort. In short order we were back to our plain old, baggie-enclosed PB&Js, crusts and all.

The next time I saw my friend Nancy, whose Facebook post started the whole thing, I asked her about the cute lunches. “Oh, I don’t do them all the time,” she said with a laugh (being the grounded and emotionally well adjusted woman that she is). “It’s just something fun for every now and then.” Ah—balance. Now there’s a novel idea. I have been thinking about dipping into my box of fancy lunch supplies lately. I barely even used the food markers, after all. But this time it will be just for fun, every now and then.


  1. Anonymous says:

    Bwahahahaha! “food markers”. I love it! I own three large cookie cutters, two of which are Halloween themed. William gets a pumpkin sandwich and ghost sandwich approximately twice a year. Both times typically AFTER Halloween because I had forgotten that I owned them. Then he gets a dinosaur sandwich about two times during the year as well. Nothing fancy the other 280? days of school.

  2. Nancy says:

    Allison, how you manage to share such deep and meaningful truths while having people laugh through the whole thing, I will never know. You have such a gift! And, yes, the lunches are a very rare treat (I haven’t done one in weeks. Months?) that I probably enjoy as much as Ainsley. So glad you’re writing these posts!

    • Allison Harrell says:

      Thanks so much, Nancy! I really am going to be pulling out my food markers and silicone cups again soon–I kind of miss it, too :)

  3. hilary says:

    Ha! I too saw Nancy’s post of the lunch she made and shook my head in self-disappointment! What kind of crap mom was I?! Only difference is, before I went out and bought the cute lunch making kits, I asked her too if she does this all the time (all the while crossing my fingers hoping that she would say no) and to my delight she said the same thing she told you… only every now and then! FFFFEEEWWW!!!! I considered myself off the hook! Isn’t it true that the hardest part about parenting is self-doubt?! If it makes you feel better, mom’s like me, look to mom’s like you and are intimidated (not because you intentionally make us feel this way)- but because you know what you’re doing! With Jude being my first “go around” I’m just figuring this stuff out as I go! You’re a pro!

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