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I Tried Bento Box Lunches for My Kids. It Didn’t Go as I Planned.

Why I’m letting go of the pressure and embracing what works for our family.

I Tried Bento Box Lunches for My Kids. It Didn’t Go as I Planned.

iStock

Every August, I feel a strong urge to improve my parenting skills. Last year, I pledged to let little things go—to allow my kids to go to school in shorts through the crisp fall air—to give them that extra minute on their iPads before brushing their teeth. I vowed to give them some autonomy so that I wasn’t fighting incessantly—but then it hit 50 degrees, and I said, no more! “Go upstairs and get those pants on!”

I set up a token system the year before to promote positive behavior. They earned tokens for completing routines without a reminder and listening consistently with expectations laid out on a handmade poster. They added their tokens to a tube one by one until they reached the top. Then, they chose a piece of candy from a locked treasure chest—yes, unlocked candy disappears quickly in our home! As far as behavior goes, it was the best few weeks of my parenting career. Until it stopped working.

Setting big expectations for permanent change

I let my high hopes take over at the start of every school year. This will be the year we make permanent change. Usually, by January, plans fizzle as I’ve realized that even the best parenting hacks lose their novelty. This August, I put my faith in bento boxes. But as we approach the new year, my idea has fizzled. Again.

The hype of bento box lunches came at me from every direction, social media and friends included. I saw pictures in magazines of perfectly cut pieces of fruit and sandwiches in the shape of hearts placed just so in a bento box. Then I came across a blog post on Co Springs Mom Collective in which a mom described bento box lunches as a smashing success in her home. “We are still packing bento box lunches even as my oldest heads to sixth grade,” she celebrated.

This mother went on to provide ten reasons to pack bento-style: I know what my kids are eating, and I can offer them unique options, which are the two that stood out most to me. If she can make it work, so can I, I reassured myself.

young girl smiling as mom hands her a bento box in her back pack iStock

Getting the whole family involved

My twelve-year-old and I sat down one late summer afternoon and made a list of foods he’d be willing to eat from a bento box in the school cafeteria. It was new and exciting, and the thought of filling the compartments of a bento box with colourful snacks was enticing—almost akin to a work of art. My creative tween, who loves to draw but typically fights fruits and vegetables, gave me the go-ahead to add edamame, carrots, and kiwi to our list. The more color, the better. It was a project we embarked on together.

I packed bento boxes each evening for both kids in the first week of September. I took pictures and sent them to my family so they could share in my delight. They ate pasta with meat sauce, clementine slices and cheese cubes in the school cafeteria. Each lunch differed from the day before, making the new school year like an adventure. Between cucumber with ranch dressing and leftover taco meat with rice and cheese, the meals were nutritious, and I felt like a better mother because of it. But then it ended.

When it all started to fall apart

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“I want to buy,” my 12-year-old insisted. I wasn’t against him buying school lunches, but he chose Doritos as a side instead of applesauce or corn. He treats himself to cookies instead of finishing a meal or choosing fruit as a dessert. My kids’ snack purchase is limited to one per day, but there is little more I can do to enforce better choices when I’m not there. And I wanted to preserve this limited independence they have in their lives.

With the bento boxes, I provided an array of nutrients, and I knew that what they were consuming wasn’t processed or all from the same food group. “I’m not eating this anymore,” my twelve-year-old declared. The cafeteria Sloppy Joes and spaghetti and meatballs were suddenly more appetizing than perfectly cut grapes alongside last night’s leftovers. I guess it wasn’t all that surprising.

My nine-year-old’s interest in the bento-style lunches had already faded, and he was back to his typical peanut butter and Nutella sandwich with yogurt—and fruit on a good day! There’s nothing wrong with this lunch, but I was thrilled with the idea of him eating various foods and perhaps trying new items he might not usually choose.

What began as exciting became a chore. So, again, we reverted to our old ways.

mom putting a lunch box in her son's backpack iStock

Embracing what works best for us

We still use the bento boxes occasionally, but mostly, they contain the same lunches on repeat. There are no veggies with dressing or kiwi slices in the shape of a flower. The cubed cheese and edamame have lost their appeal. But I’ve come to accept it.

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My children must eat some vegetables and protein with dinner to earn dessert. I offer fruit with breakfast, and they drink milk twice a day. Lunch is the one meal I have less control over. I’m not there to oversee their consumption. Their minds are focused on recess and socialization, not on the meal in front of them—and they’re far from alone in this mentality.

When I see other moms celebrating their bento box lunches on social media, I remind myself what we remind mothers of newborns: Fed is best.

So here we are at the end of another year with yet another September resolution running dry. But my kids are fed. They know they’re loved. And if Nutella sandwiches are the only thing my younger son eats for lunch this year, then so be it.

Being a mother in 2023 is no easy feat. I’m following last year’s resolution today and letting the bento box lunches go. Maybe next September, I’ll embrace consistency. Because even if my nine-year-old eats the same lunch daily and my twelve-year-old purchases cookies or Doritos with his slice of pizza, if they’re happy, I’m content.

And a content mother is a better mother.

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Lindsay Karp is a freelance writer with a background in speech-language pathology. She writes about parenting, speech/language development, life with MS and everything in between. Her work has appeared in Parents, The Cut, TIME, Salon, Newsweek, Insider, and other outlets. You can follow her on Twitter @KarpLindsay

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