The Lunchbox Note, on Steroids

Ever since my friend Liz Egan told me about this lunchbox ritual a few months ago, I’ve been dying to have her write about it for you. Please welcome longtime magazine editor (currently on the books beat at Glamour), newly minted novelist (look for her first book, A Window Opens, spring 2016) and one of the more lovable ”insane moms” I know. Thanks Liz! – Jenny

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 gulag of matching lids to containers, locating absent water bottles and haphazardly sorting everything into the correct Built bag, 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. Now that our kids can dress and bathe themselves, 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 to the kitchen and created a Vivaldi station on Pandora, willing the allegro soundtrack to grant me the serenity I needed to remember my kids’ lunch requirements. 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. Somehow, miraculously, I managed to get through the process without retching. Why was it so easy this time? I did have one less lunch to corral, now that our oldest prefers to pack her own. 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.

I tell you all this because those original two postcards blossomed into a full-blown, banana-peel level daily program of lunch cheer that surprises nobody more than me. When I came home that night, my younger two kids were waiting for me at the train station, leaning dreamily on their Razor scooters. “You packed notes for us,” they said, wonder in their eyes. Pathetic, yes, but 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. True to form, I still haven’t actually come through on the hot fudge sundae, and resentment is building.

Of course my husband was happy to permanently pass his apron to me when I went into lunch-packing overdrive. As for my kids? Assuming you haven’t already forwarded this post to your sister under the subject line “How insane is this mom?,” I will tell you that the younger generation isn’t half as thrilled by my postcards as they were in the beginning. The seven year-old is appreciative in an off-hand way; there are so many perks to being the youngest, including inheriting a dozen American Girl dolls, so lunch notes are just another way her life is coming up roses. My ten year-old started to lose interest and gain embarrassment as fourth grade marched on. He asked me to reserve the flowered postcards for his little sister and he has requested only LeBron-themed messages for the upcoming school year—a request that will be easy to accommodate since we have two biographies of King James on the premises. As for our 13-year-old, she doesn’t want postcards in her lunch, but she’s still miffed by her exclusion from the program. I don’t lose a lot of sleep over this because she’s the only one of the three who has both a baby book and a passport.

So why would a mostly sane, frequently frazzled parent willingly add an extra step to an onerous process? I’m not sure, and I would definitely roll my eyes if I weren’t the person who is doing just that. 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, claw my way into a Ziploc pack of provolone 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: who will go where after school, how they’ll get there, who will pick them up and what they’ll eat when they get home. Not to mention the endless drumbeat of meetings, spelling words, orthodontist appointments, soccer clinics, swim team practices 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.

You can find Liz Egan on twitter.

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35 Comments

Awads

I usually pack the next day’s lunch for my son, my husband, and myself every evening as I’m preparing supper. It got to be such drudgery and made suppertime a stressed-out affair, that I made the decision to get to the packing much later, after kiddo is in bed. I don’t know what took me so long, but it sure beats playing beat the clock! Now maybe i can get to those notes….

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Amy

Love the postcard idea! I actually have written on bananas before…once…until I realized my kids didn’t want to eat or throw the banana away and it ended up being a mushy love message I had to throw away. I then started writing on post-its, but postcards is even better!

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aneelee

My daughter is now packing her own lunch. I am both relieved and a little sad about not driving this food experience for her every day, so I asked if I could please continue to pack her lunch at least one day a week. Notes seem like the perfect addition. :)

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Brittany Henderson

In elementary school my dad used to draw on my lunch bags with sharpies daily. He’s a fantastic artist and it was something I and my friends looked forward to daily. My little ones only 7 weeks old but I look forward to making lunch time special for him as well.

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Hollis

Oh man this comes on a perfect day! My son is having some trouble adjusting to a new school in Grade 1 and maybe some fun notes will brighten his days a little! Now to bookmark some wacky fact pages…

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Jenn I

I love this story. When I went away to school, I had a very tough first semester of college. My roommate was mean, I was far away from home for the first time, my mom was no longer driving me to school every day. It was awful. After one too many tearful calls home and an emergency trip home, my mom started sending me cards. Every day, I got a card in the mail. Sometimes they had little notes – goings on at home, something funny my dad did, concerns about my brother graduating – other times it was just a quick “Love, Mom”. This continued throughout college, and honestly, it continued for years after I graduated until she became too sick from Alzheimer’s to continue the tradition. As a result of this, I have boxes and boxes and boxes of cards from my mother, who passed away 2 years ago. I love looking through them, seeing where I was in what part of my life and how my mom managed to still be part of my every day life when I was no longer living at home. While they sometimes make me sad, and miss my mom more than I can say, I love that I have these rememberences of her. Notes are good.

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Jenny

“Notes are good.” What an understatement and what a story @Jenn I. Thank you for sharing that — completely tearing up over here.

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Brooke Reynolds

I’m a big fan of notes as well.. even though half the time I run out of time in the mornings. To save me some time in the morning, I’ve started pulling out their lunch boxes at night and adding the non-perishable items, then writing their notes when the house is quiet. LOVE the idea of themes and including fun facts and trivia and tongue twisters.

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Jenny

Hah! This comes on a day when I actually told the inside of my minivan (after a very harried Monday morning school drop off), “I’m going to consciously bring more joy to my life.” Well done, Liz Egan, for providing a very practical tutorial on how to do just that!

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Kristin

I don’t have children or pack lunches, but I love this post. Have been enjoying the blog for months but this is the first time I’ve felt compelled to comment.

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Brooke

I love this! No kids of my own yet, but I got the hugest grin on my face reading about your themes. I adore the idea of including famous works of art or destinations that you’d love to travel to. Such a simple gesture but what a fun way to get kids excited about broadening their horizons while feeling mom-hugs at the same time. :)

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Julie

I love this – the kind of thing memories are made of! May instigate operation lunchcard myself tomorrow morning…

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Erin

I buy “page-a-day” calendars at the New Year and use a combo of those in my kiddos’ lunches. I Can Has Cheezburger, Too Cute, Joke-a-day, etc. There are so many themes that you can definitely find some to match your kids’ interests. Even if you’re super-strapped for time you can do this. My kids say their friends at the lunch table look forward to them as well.

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Kristin

I did this for years! I love to draw so when I had extra time, I would stock-pile drawings (on post it notes) of cartoon characters from TV and books and I would write little sayings on each. Sadly, my 3 kids have grown out of this (oldest is 18), but they all still have one or two of their favorites display on bulletin boards in their room. If you are crazy, so am I!

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Karen

So funny. Thanks. I retired from lunches this year after 9 years. The kids are making their own each night and I’m loving it. They have to be involved in the shopping list now but it was probably time for that to happen anyway.

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Christina

I’ve always kept it simple . . . I pen a note on the paper napkin I include in their lunches each day. Most are short and sweet (sometimes just “I love you.”) Five years and counting now. It’s true . . . They do take them for granted now. Sigh.

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Beth

It’s early in the school year yet, but I’ve managed to start the year off with notes in my daughters’ lunches. We’ll see how long it lasts, but I guess someone appreciates it as I was rewarded by finding a note in my lunch today from my 7 year old.

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celeste

Coming out of stealth / lurker mode to thank you so much for sharing this story from Liz! It’s so sweet and hilarious and perfect.

This post’s got me all nostalgic.My son is in 9th grade and OMG MOM DO NOT DO ANYTHING REMOTELY LIKE THAT, OKAY, and my daughter is in preschool and gets lunch there. I have to wait a few years before I can bring out my crappy version of the lunchtime art brigade again. :)

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pmm

Great article! My food critics give me a nightly rundown on how I did.

I put small notes and sometimes drawings in their lunch boxes.

I wish someone would slip a nice note into my lunch bag…

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Kim Uhuru

I’m going to buy and read Ms. Egan’s book solely on the strength of the hilarity and realness of this post.

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Nicole

Loved the story and wish I had lunch packs like these when in school. What a wonderful idea, I might pack one for myself today!
On a related post, ‘The Napkin note’: heartwarming (I am welling up here) how such a supposedly tiny thing can change everything. Really nice, thanks for sharing those stories.
N xx

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Heather

Fantastic! I have actually thought about putting post-it notes in my boys lunches the other day. I used to leave notes in my daughter’s lunch when she was in Kindergarten. I think I’ll do that once we’re all free of strep throat and back to work and school.

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Eliza

This is going to sound insane, but my mother left me lunch notes all through high school. Some days I’d make my lunch, others she would (if I was really busy or something). But they were always in a brown paper bag (not very environmentally friendly, but hey, it was the 90s), and she always wrote something on them. Some trivia fact or a funny saying. I looked forward to them every day – as did my friends. They became a daily ‘thing’, and one of my best high school memories.

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Carrie

Adorable and hilarious and HONEST! I was loving the sweetest, but think I loved when she outlined their reactions over time the best. Hoping you post a reminder when her book is coming out!

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