If you are one of those parents who somehow finds the time to craft your kid’s lunch into cutesy animals and characters from their favorite movies (as in here), good for you. And good luck with your therapy.

I’m a working dad who can’t dedicate quite that much energy to my 9-year-old’s lunch box. Most days I’m pretty sure that doesn’t make me a bad dad. I still want him to eat healthy and to be excited for lunchtime. I just can’t obsess about it.

And for the record, at the end of a crazy day (or worse, the start of the next one), being a food editor and cookbook author doesn’t buy me any extra time or inspiration for packing a lunch.

But having spent a few years in the lunch box trenches, I’ve learned some tricks for packing meals he and I can both love. At least most of the time.

  • I trust – or at least sometimes indulge – his occasional crazy request. To a limit. As in his idea for a peanut butter and pretzel sandwich. Made with whole-wheat bread, natural peanut butter and multi-grain pretzels, it turned out to be a winner. He didn’t care that I used healthy ingredients because it was his idea.
  • I also experiment with some of my own crazy ideas. As in leftover spaghetti carbonara (consider it an Italian version of cold Asian peanut noodles); sandwiches made on whole-grain graham crackers instead of bread; hunks of his favorite cheeses and meats for nibbling; and a mango chutney and cream cheese sandwich (all big hits). No one wants to eat the same thing every day; mixing it up keeps things interesting.
  • My son has a bento box-style lunch box (rectangular boxes with compartments for various items). This forces me to be creative and come up with multiple items. It also makes it easier to feel good about slipping in treats. If you fill one compartment with a cookie, you know to focus the rest on healthier choices.
  • I involve my son in the grocery shopping, giving him a say (and thereby involvement and ownership) in his lunches. I veto most unhealthy choices, and explain why. This isn’t always fun or easy, but what about raising kids is?
  • When he says he doesn’t like something I put in his lunch box, I trust him and thank him for trying it. Save the green bean battles for dinner.
  • I refuse to be sucked into “But Hulga Mae gets to bring cotton candy and Big Macs for lunch every day!” fights. I try not to demonize the other kids (or their gross lunches) with a simple, “Every family makes different choices.” It may not lessen your kid’s desire for his classmate’s lunch, but it’s the truth and (when it inevitably gets repeated at school) is unlikely to earn you the scorn of teachers and other parents.

20 Responses to “Philosophy”

  1. June Grogan says:

    LOVE your humor! You’ve inspired me to keep on blogging about my daughter’s snacks. I refer to her as “Miss Pickey” as I believe there are only 15 to 20 items she will readily eat. And she will eat the same thing everyday if I don’t intervene. And my lunches are not cutsie (Miss Pickey would NEVER eat some of those!) and while I blog so I can keep track of what I made her, I know some people peek and yup, I was kind of embarassed by my lack of creativity at times. Thank you for reminding me to be real. And I’m going to try your idea – I’m going to let each one of my kids pick out something new to eat when we go grocery shopping next. Can’t wait! Thanks for the idea!

    • J.M Hirsch says:

      Ha! I love it. Glad to know my kid isn’t the only crazy one. The other day I got an angry/laughing/yelled “You tricked me!” when Parker came home from school. I had no idea what he was talking about.
      HIM: “The sushi! You tricked me!”
      ME: “What are you talking about? You asked for sushi.”
      HIM: “I know. But the avocado had cucumber in it.”
      ME: “It did?”
      HIM: “Yes. You tricked me.”
      ME: “Um… OK…”

  2. Lynne McEver says:

    Love your philosophy and it reflects a lot of my own. I love to put all kinds of different things in Tyler’s lunch to make it a good part of his day. Growing up poor, my brother, sister and I had PBJ on white bread or an occasional pineapple and mayo sandwich on soggy, gummy white bread. I dearly love the pineapple and still love a good PBJ, as does my grandson, but refuse to ever buy white loaf bread again. We buy sour dough, 9-grain, pumpernickle and anything else that is not white. Tyler says the best part of each day is opening the lunch compartments to see what I have come up with that day. I try to feed the boy and the soul at the same time.

    • J.M Hirsch says:

      I love this! Exactly the way I feel. And exactly the way I want Parker to feel. I want lunch to be something to look forward to and enjoy. A treat (even when there aren’t “treats” in it). Good for you (and him)!

  3. Laura says:

    I LOVE your blog! Your philosophy is wonderful, and your warmth and humor shine in your writing. As a former kindergarten teacher and a current holistic health and wellness coach, I am inspired by your passion for exposing Parker to real food and home cooking! There is such a great need for this type of education. Your blog will be a helpful tool for me as I coach parents on how to feed themselves and their families. Finding your blog made my day! :) Happy holidays…and please share a few more delicious recipes this season!

    • J.M Hirsch says:

      Thank you SO much. Much too. But obviously I agree, teaching our children about food, where it comes from, what it takes to get it to the table and why we need to care about all of that is so important. As for recipes, I don’t often post them on this site, but there are tons on my other site —

  4. Sherri Fuselier says:

    Now reflecting how I found your blog I can’t remember but let’s just say I’ve read all that l could; ive laughed, chuckled and even cried over your devotion to your son and the wonderful expansion to his eating palate! I’ve now bounced to chia seeds (where have I been!), lunch boxes, thermos, recipes- I am ever so thankful to live in the age of endless information – adding you to my reading list – keep up the great inspirations to the average working mom who never feels adequate when it comes to feeding my son ( thank goodness I actually can cook – Cajun born and raised!

    • J.M Hirsch says:

      Wow! Thanks so much. So glad you enjoy the site. Amazing how much stress we put on ourselves when it comes to even the simple parts of parenting. Which, of course, never turn out to be nearly half as simple as they should. And yum… Cajun cooking is sounding pretty good at the moment.

  5. Claire says:

    You totally inspire me! Every lunch box should be more like a treasure chest~ full of magic.

    • J.M Hirsch says:

      Thanks so much! The trick is making sure the treasure chest doesn’t come home full of half-eaten magic at the end of the day!

  6. Becca says:

    Hi! I love your blog and your philosophy. I have a technical question, I assume a 7 year old’s classroom doesn’t have a fridge (though I haven’t been 7 for a long time, so I may be wrong) so do all of the lunches you pack stay good just sitting out for a few hours? I’m thinking mainly about things you grill first then pack.

    • J.M Hirsch says:

      And thanks so much! You’re right about no refrigerator in the classroom (though wouldn’t that be nice). I pack his lunch in an insulated lunch box. I also put an ice pack in it so things stay nice and cool. Beyond that, I also pack hot and cold items that need to stay especially hot or cold (such as the grilled items) in preheated thermoses. The combination keeps everything just right until his lunch at noon.

  7. Love the blog. Pretty cool you make lunches for your baby!

  8. Julia says:

    I love your blog and I have been watching what you do. My boys have been eating school lunch but I would feel so much better doing what you do. My big hangup is I feel uneducated on food safety. I have read what you wrote on the stainless steel products, preheating a thermos and and ice pack. However when I read what you pack I am usually wondering, did he pack that hot or cold? Thank you for your blog, it has really helped me see that there are possibilities beyond the sandwich.

    • J.M Hirsch says:

      Thanks so much. Most of the time, I pack things cold. Many foods we traditionally eat warm are just as good cold. Pasta carbonara, for example. Parker loves it warm or cold. I think of it as an Italian version of cold Asian peanut noodles. But I do sometimes pack things hot in a thermos. The trick to a thermos is understanding its thermal rating. I cover that in my book, but here’s the brief version (an excerpt from a story I wrote last year):

      That’s what food safety all comes down to — time. Knowing how long food will stay hot or cold in a lunch box or thermos is the best way to know that the food you pack will be safe to eat.
      As a general rule, perishable cold foods must be kept below 40 F. Hot foods should be held at above 140 F. If those temperatures aren’t held, you have a two-hour window to consume the food before it becomes unsafe to eat. That sounds scary, but — if you do your homework before shopping for lunch boxes and thermoses — it turns out to be very helpful.
      By homework, I mean figure out what time of day your child will eat the food you pack. Now count backward to the time you pack the lunch. This is how long you need to keep the food hot or cold.
      Not so long ago, that information wasn’t much help. Parents could do little more than guess how long a thermos would keep soup hot or a lunch box (even with an ice pack) would keep food cold. That has changed. Today, a growing number of manufacturers are rating their products so consumers know how long they can hold a temperature.
      Lands End, for example, says its soft-sided lunch boxes maintain refrigerator temperatures for five hours (with an ice pack). Thermos’ Foogo stainless steel food jar keeps things cold for seven hours and warm for five.
      One tip about thermoses — before putting food in them, always prime them to be hot or cold, depending on the temperature you want to maintain. Packing soup? Fill the thermos with boiling water for a few minutes to heat it up, then dump out the water and add the soup. Filling it with yogurt? Toss the empty thermos in the freezer for a few minutes.

      But whether I pack things in a thermos or not, I always pack them in an insulated lunch bag and include an ice pack. That way I don’t need to worry about individual items, such as a yogurt or sandwich with cream cheese on it.

      Hope all this helps! And thanks for reading.

  9. Shilpa says:

    I don’t know how I found this blog but I am glad I did !
    You are inspiring me to create a list of lunches I pack for my two children ( 11 and 6 ).Although they are very adventurous in eating, sometimes lunches becomes boring.Your blog has many inspiration one can take to make lunch interesting and healthy.
    Thanks a lot !

  10. Carla K. says:

    JM – I love your philosophy and I absolutely love your blog.

    Question: How do you get around the “nasty stares” from the parents who are unimaginative when it comes to lunchtime cuisine?

    2nd Question: Does your son get requests for “trades” and if so how does he handle telling them “No!”?

    I Must give you 2 Thumbs up and 1 circle snap. YOur meal ideas are great.

    • J.M Hirsch says:

      Thanks! You know, neither has ever been a problem. The rule in most lunch rooms these days is no trading. Which is hard to imagine. I recall that being the best part of lunch when I was a kid. But no more. My son has to get special permission from the teachers to share anything, so there isn’t a whole lot of sharing or trading going on (at least not “legally”). As for the other parents, I’ve mostly gotten thanks for the ideas, maybe a few “I wish I could do that” comments. But the reality is I’m just a dad who packs lunch. Nothing fancy. No special tricks or such. So if I can do it, anyway can!

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