The Joy of Lunchbox Notes

For any parents out there whose little ones need a pick-me-up during the school day, this one’s for you…

I’ll begin with the obvious: packing school lunches is tedious, thankless, repetitive (but never meditative) and always a little disgusting. To this day, when I take a whiff of an empty Thermos, I experience a wave of morning sickness so strong, I forget that my final baby is not only fully gestated, she is now in her first week of second grade.

For years, my husband was the lunch chef, bringing a short-tempered, short order flair to the operation. When I gave him a year’s furlough as a gift for his 39th birthday, he acted like I had given him tickets for the Cavs season opener; meanwhile, I reminded myself of a know-it-all mom from a 1980s laundry detergent commercial. Make way for the real expert.

Two of our three kids immediately aired serious grievances about my lunches: “Daddy knows I like my roll-up with the salami on the outside” and “Mom? FYI? I prefer macaroni in the shape of Arthur.” Our youngest didn’t even bother with low ratings; her feedback came home in the most literal form: an untouched lunch. Only eight days into the slog of matching lids to containers, locating absent water bottles and haphazardly sorting everything into the correct lunch boxes, I gave up. My husband returned to the cutting board, smugly slicing Granny Smiths with the fancy knife I offered as a gift in lieu of my catering services.

I didn’t make another lunch until last fall, when my husband was in London for a week. I find that a few solo days can be a nice breather; I welcome the opportunity to eat cookies in bed and arrange the shoes in the front hallway in size order. But I dreaded — dreaded — the lunch prep. I told my husband how my mom used to freeze casseroles for my dad to eat when she was out of town — would he consider assembling the lunches ahead of time? He laughed.

On my first morning as head chef, I woke up early, blundered into the kitchen and created a Vivaldi station on Pandora, willing the allegro soundtrack to grant me the serenity I needed. Then I lined up my tools and took a deep breath. By the time the New York Times skidded onto the front porch, I’d assembled two sandwiches, crusts intact, and filled two metal containers with cheddar bunnies. Add grapes, add water. Done. Why was it so easy this time? Suddenly, low-level nausea made way for the euphoria I used to feel when one of our babies drifted off to sleep without the usual bedtime watusi of rocking, pacing, patting and a serenade of “You Are My Sunshine.”

With a few extra minutes before my troops slunk grouchily downstairs, I grabbed two postcards from the junk drawer and wrote each of them a quick note. The messages were simple: “Good luck on your social studies test” and “Have fun on the class trip.” I’m familiar with the suburban legend of the parent who pens a daily cartoon for his kid on a banana peel; please trust me, I am not that mom. I’m no more likely to take a heart-shaped cookie cutter to a sandwich than I am to mill my own flour from scratch. I specialize in shortcuts, not perks.

But when I came home that night, my younger two kids were waiting for me at the train station, leaning dreamily on their scooters. “You packed notes for us,” they said, wonder in their eyes. That enthusiasm was the wind beneath my lackadaisical, lunch-averse wings.

I started packing postcards every day, introducing daily themes such as Trivia Tuesday (The average American eats 20 pounds of onions per year), Wacky Wednesday (Did you know that the strongest muscle in your body is your tongue?) and my own version of #TBT (What condiment did [cousin’s name redacted] pour over his head in a restaurant last summer?). I bookmarked a handful of websites featuring weird facts and G-rated jokes for Funny Friday, and amassed a collection of postcards spotlighting fine art, national landmarks and animals doing wacky things. Last spring, I even ran a contest, where the kid who correctly recited the tongue twister I packed in his or her lunch earned points towards a hot fudge sundae.

So, why would a mostly sane, frequently frazzled parent willingly add an extra step to an onerous process? I’m not sure, but I do know that the postcards lend an organizing principle to the most hectic moments of my day. They give me something to think about while I jockey Oreos and baby carrots, and scrub grape jelly off the sash of my bathrobe. Of course, there are plenty of other things I should be thinking about first thing in the morning, but the time I spend with my coffee and my postcards and a Sharpie is infinitely more pleasant than mapping out the day’s battle plan, not to mention the endless drumbeat of meetings, spelling words, orthodontist appointments and outgrown shoes. For one peaceful moment, everything else can wait while I Google amazing facts about pigs. The details will be revealed — or concealed — in the lunchroom, but the thrill of discovery is all mine, and the silence in our kitchen is sweet.

Elisabeth Egan is the former books editor at Glamour and the author of the novel A Window Opens. You may remember her from this beautiful post with advice for her college-bound daughter. Her essays and book reviews have appeared in Self, People, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and many others. She is also the force behind the Instagram account @100postcards.

Do you ever write lunchbox notes? Any other lunch-packing tips? Thank you, Liz!

P.S. What food geniuses have for lunch and how to help your kid turn a bad day around.

(Top photo by Bernard Hoffman via Life Magazine. This essay originally ran on Dinner: A Love Story five years ago, syndicated with permission.)