Angst 101: Packing Lunch

By Annys Shin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 28, 2008

When her daughter, Alexa, was 15 months old, Kim Becker began packing the girl's lunch to take to her Capitol Hill nanny-share three days a week. Becker had been following the popular cookbook "Super Baby Food," whose recipes are as liberal with wheat germ and desiccated liver as Paula Deen's are with mayo and butter. So one day, Becker baked Alexa and her playmate a treat of muffins secretly fortified with flaxseed and brewer's yeast, figuring that Alexa wouldn't notice because she had never tasted an ordinary muffin.

The toddlers excitedly tore into the dense cake and choked down the first bite. Then they put the muffins on the ground and ran away.

Great, Becker thought, I've got 22 left.

Packing a child's lunch is truly a labor of love. Whether you have one child or four, send your kid to school in a yellow bus or your Beemer, it also involves a certain amount of guilt and anxiety. The container alone provokes all types of questions: Is it made of vinyl? Does the vinyl have lead? Will hot food stay hot? Will cold food stay cold? Will the world end sooner because I used a sandwich bag instead of a reusable tub?

Add to these the usual trials of lunch packing -- a child's mercurial tastes, other parents who cut their kids' sandwiches like topiaries, the ever-present temptation of junk food -- and you've got a microcosm of parental angst in a 10-by-7-inch box with a handle.

Packing lunch is "the bane of every parent's existence," said Becker, who has since moved to Connecticut, where she's glad Alexa will be home for lunch when she starts preschool in September. "Funny how something so simple can be so complicated."

The packed lunch started out modestly enough. It was a sandwich in a dome-lidded steel box carried by factory workers. The golden age of the lunchbox as pop culture time capsule and movie tie-in didn't begin until the early 1950s, when Thermos came out with a Hopalong Cassidy box.

From then on, the lunchbox was a childhood totem. "It is one of the earliest points when children get to choose something for themselves. It's an early test of consumerism," said David Shayt, a curator with the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History. Lunchbox makers encouraged obsolescence by switching to thinner, more easily dented gauges of steel and rolling out new models each fall the way automakers did with cars.

For Shayt, today's lunchboxes are too sterile. "The mushy soft packs lack some of the 20th-century rigidity and John Wayne swagger," he said. "They look like a fanny pack or something you stick a Nutri-Grain bar in, not a bologna sandwich."

But lunchbox makers know what they're doing. They're tapping into our avian-flu-freaked, mad-cow-manic, global-warming-worried zeitgeist. Just read this recent ad copy from Thermos Canada:

"Today, how you pack your children's lunch is just as important as what you put in it. Did you know that Canada is the second highest per capita producer of municipal solid waste in the world? And school lunches are a major source of waste."

Fear crept gradually into lunchbox design. Thermos boxes came with insulated containers. By the 1980s, rust-prone metal was replaced with easier-to-clean plastic. The plastic boxes, however, weren't good at keeping food at safe temperatures to reduce the risk of bacterial growth. So in the '90s, plastic gave way to fabric or vinyl stuffed with insulating foam.

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