GUESTWORDS: Is Packing Lunch Cooking?

By Evan Harris

    This year, with both of my boys now at the John M. Marshall Elementary School, one in kindergarten and one in the second grade, the back-to-school feeling I get every year — part of the meta schedule I carry around from my childhood, teen, and college years — is mixed with the sense of a milestone gained. Both kids in full days at the big kids’ school! Yippee!
    Getting ready was sort of fun. It was fun to go shopping with the younger one for a new red backpack. It was fun to go shopping with the older one for some new school pants. It was even sort of fun, in a checking things off the list, taking care of business way, to get the boys new lunch boxes. What I do not expect to be fun — what I am steeling myself for — is the actual lunch packing.
    I am a non-cook, and many aspects of food preparation give me anxiety and fears of failure. One of those things I dread is lunch. Not my lunch (crackers). Their lunch. Their lunch, which must be packed. The whole mix of hunger, pickiness, pitfalls, and plastic containers churns around in my anxious, fearful non-cook world.
    Here’s how it works: I am afraid that my children will not eat the lunches I pack, that they will be hungry, that they will then be miserable and misbehaving at school, and that it will all be my fault because I don’t know how to offer the right food, food they will actually eat, to fuel them. That’s it in a nutshell, only no nuts in the lunch boxes because there are children with serious nut allergies in each of my kids’ classes.
    My thoughts reach back to my own experience with lunch at J.M.M.E.S., which I also attended. Since I have a memory of the milk table, where you could buy a little container of (Schwenck’s Dairy?) milk for 10 cents, and also a memory of the worn red plastic lunch tokens with edges in a petal pattern like stylized flowers, I know I must have sometimes bought my lunch.
    But I also know that sometimes my mom packed it. For the record, I will say here that my mom is a nifty cook, not at all uneasy with food or bad with food, practical but also enthusiastic in the kitchen. Plus, she makes the very best black bean soup! Still, I wonder if my mom might have once had a non-cook streak, now totally smudged out by years of her own good cooking. I wonder this because as a single working mom in the generally haphazard 1970s, her lunch-packing record was . . . uneven.
    I remember the sweet cozy triumph of the special notes in my lunch bag from the Lunch Fairy, a protectress, a magical presence in my corner of the J.M.M.E.S. lunchroom, then still tripling as the gym and auditorium, though now we have a beautiful cafeteria. Wisely, my mother sent her love with me to school in a tangible form, knowing I would take comfort in that. And look, I remember. It worked!
    Yet I also remember the Soggy Unwrapped Cream Cheese & Jelly Sandwich Incident. That was the time when I discovered the sandwich — cream cheese and jelly on an untoasted English muffin — huddled at the bottom of my lunch bag and fled the lunchroom in grossed-out distress. On my way out (where was I going?), the sandwich, heavy from the weight of its unwrapped sogginess, fell out the bottom of my sodden brown paper lunch bag and onto the floor, mortifying me completely.
    Recently, I had a full-out laugh-a-rama with my mom and my kids about the incident, during which I regaled the boys with all the incredible details. They couldn’t believe that the jelly was totally soaked through the bread. Gross. No way! They couldn’t believe that the sandwich was unwrapped. Unwrapped? No way! They couldn’t believe that the sandwich was the only thing in the lunch bag. That was it? No way! Well, that’s how I remember it.
    Later, it struck me that at this point in my life, as a mother and lunch packer, I can totally understand how circumstances might have lined up to place that poor unfortunate lone cream cheese and jelly sandwich in my lunch bag that day, creating the legendary lunch incident that would be remembered and rehashed for years to come. A lot goes into the lunch-packing racket. Communication, time, supplies, skill, the will to pack. It’s not easy to pull it off day after day after day.
    As a domesticated non-cook, I really feel how risky this lunch-packing thing can be. I might not put enough food in the box; I might put in embarrassing things, or things that get yucky when they’ve been sitting in a lunch box, only I don’t know that. I might think the salami and raisin bread sandwich is okay, when actually it is not okay. I might think the slightly overripe banana is fine, when actually it is an obvious sign of my lack of good judgment in all food-related matters. I might be running late, neglect to cut the crusts off the bad sandwich, and then fail to master the mechanics of proper wrapping procedure on top of it all. Every packed lunch box could be a lunch incident waiting to happen. Do I dare pack my children’s lunches? Who knows what will scar them?
    Fear and anxiety central! It is almost certain that my children will remember that I never was much of a cook, but will they emerge unscathed? With the help of my friend Courtney Garneau, a mother of three and an excellent cook who can definitely cope with the whole food thing, I have come up with this lunch-packing ideal: The Non-Cook No Trash Lunch.
    I am bravely attempting! The “no trash” part is optimism reflecting the hope that my boys will not toss their lunches, getting rid of the evidence in abject disgust. The “non-cook” part is to remind myself that you don’t have to be a great cook or a food person to pack a respectable lunch. Do you? Is packing lunch cooking?
    Evan Harris is the author of “The Quit.” Her articles about being a non-cook have appeared in Edible East End, and you can visit her online at