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Angst 101: Packing Lunch
Filling Kids' Lunchboxes Ranks at the Top Of Back-to-School Chores

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.

More recently, environmentalists have raised concerns about the health effects of chemicals used to make vinyl and plastics, spawning a new generation of gear. Now there are high-tech water bottles with descriptions straight out of a laboratory-supply catalogue. Sigg, a Swiss manufacturer, says its bottle, made of a single piece of aluminum, is designed to be "taste neutral and resistant to fruit acids and isotonic drinks."

Many lunchboxes now boast that they are PVC-free, meaning that they are not made with polyvinyl chloride, which can contain lead. A popular alternative to vinyl is neoprene, the material used to make diving suits. Another is FDA-approved food-grade PEVA, which is a non-chlorinated vinyl.

The biggest challenge facing lunch-packing parents, however, has little to do with such externalities. Consciously or not, many compare themselves with some unattainable ideal. Several parents interviewed for this article referred to themselves as "the mom who gave up" or "a lazy mom" because they haven't figured out how to pack a scrumptious meal made solely of green vegetables and whole grains sculpted into the shape of a rabbit and laid out in a toxin- and commercial-free container made from recycled milk jugs.

Although the mom or dad who has pulled this off has yet to come forward and rub it in, many parents still feel they are falling short. Sometimes they are comparing what they do with the lunches they remember eating as children, or with the fantasies of lunches they never got to eat.

"I remember growing up having the same peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich every day, and that's not okay with me," said Lindsey Paige Savoie of the District, who makes sure to pack a variety of foods each day for her son Caleb.

Whatever you pack, being judged (by yourself and others) is inevitable. The crumbs in the Tupperware container say it all. You know instantly whether meatloaf dumplings were a success or a bust. And everybody else at your kid's lunch table does, too.

The latest hot solution for harried moms and dads is the bento box. The art of the bento as perfected in Japan is a takeout or homemade meal made up of single servings of rice, fish and vegetables, packed tightly into a washable container. Japanese parents have been known to spend hours artfully arranging their children's bento box meals, and the containers themselves can be quite elaborate.

Americans have embraced ersatz bentos, most notably in the form of Lunchables, those packaged meals of crackers, cheese and other processed foods sold by Kraft Foods. Inspired by bento boxes, Lunchables have remained huge sellers for 20 years, owning nearly 80 percent of the $750 million packaged kids'-meal market, according to market research firm Packaged Facts.

But for Deborah Hamilton of San Francisco, sending her son to school with Lunchables is the ultimate defeat. Hamilton has tried to reclaim bento as a healthful solution to the lunch-packing conundrum. With her blog, Lunch in a Box ( http://www.lunchinabox.net), she has become the Rachael Ray of bento, sharing tips and recipes, as well as the reception her meals get from her 3 1/2 -year-old son, whom she refers to on the blog as Bug.

The fact that Bug will eat almost anything has allowed Hamilton to try a broad range of foods, including quail eggs and grilled skate wing with chili sambal sauce. But the beauty of bento, as she sees it, is its ability to accommodate all sorts of foods and palates and present it in a way that entices kids.

"We're really competing with Lunchables, with fast food," Hamilton said. "One thing the fast-food and packaged-food industry has done really well is make food fun."

Though at first glance her meals look elaborate (Tuscan squid for a preschooler?), her mantra is speed, speed, speed. Packing a bento lunch should take 15 minutes, tops, she said.

Preparation is key. Hamilton is a believer in "leftover makeovers," such as using curried vegetables from dinner as the stuffing for dumplings or turning last night's spaghetti into sesame noodles for lunch the next day.

Packing everything into the box is an acquired skill. Bento boxes must be packed to the gills to keep food from shifting during transport. Hamilton has come up with a variety of tricks, such as using colorful silicone baking cups to hold a small drumstick and keep it separate from the other food. If she has a gap, she uses cherry tomatoes or other small fruits and vegetables to fill them. The result is a riot of colors and textures and tastes.

But she draws the line at trying to turn her son's lunch into food art.

"I am wary of setting the bar too high," she said. "I don't want my kid to expect a fabulous creation every day."

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