What Did You Bring For Lunch as a Kid, And How Are We Still Alive?

That I have to competently feed myself three times a day every day for probably the rest of my life is something I will never get over. You have to think of what to eat every day! Just make new things up! It is wild.

Over Thanksgiving we were talking about holidays meals of yore, and my mom admitted that she had just that day made mashed potatoes from scratch for the first time in her life. And that, “of course!” all of the mashed potatoes we ate as kids were the powdered kind from a box. And yes, definitely Stove Top stuffing, which was not limited to Thanksgiving. I don’t know if my was a class thing, or an ’80s thing, or a feminist thing — probably a combination of all three — but it kind of makes me giddy, and soothes my post-Smitten Kitchen perfectionist Brooklyn brain to think about my mom and her powdered mashed potatoes, refusing to give a shit because she hated that she had to cook for everyone every day and apple sauce totally counted as a side, dammit.

Then later in the conversation my mom got all misty-eyed reminding me that my dad packed my lunch for me every day when I was little, and that every day I ate the same thing: Cup of Noodles out of my plastic Disney thermos. You know, the kind with the dehydrated vegetables that you just add water to, and that have 1480mg of Sodium?

But that was until middle school, when I was charged with packing my lunch myself. So every single day for maybe three years this is what I ate:

A package of Fig Newtons
A container of strawberry apple sauce
A chocolate milk


I thought of all this today because I just made a box of macaroni and cheese for the first time in maybe 10 years, because we made macaroni and cheese from scratch the other day and it was not the same at all. I’m sad to report, though, that Annie’s Organic White Shells and Cheddar (500mg of Sodium per serving) is also not the same at all.

And yes I am still jealous of the rich kids who had Lunchables.

Photo: *_*


27 Comments / Post A Comment

nell (#4,295)

I’m having some serious repressed jealousy over all these processed foods. My mom was/is a hardcore from-scratch cook I always ended up taking like…weird bulgur wheat salad things or pita with tabbuleh and hummus. Or just like, a wrap that was literally a tortilla with just some hummus and lettuce on it. Obviously I know this sounds fine as an adult, but in middle school? my kingdom for a baloney sandwich.

Derbel McDillet (#1,241)

@nell I always had peanut butter and jelly with whole wheat bread and the gritty peanut butter that required stirring. Having a white bread-Jif PBJ at a friend’s house was heaven.

Ellie (#62)

@nell My mom made me healthy and varied lunch too, which I usually liked quite a bit, but I also begged and begged and begged for Lunchables. I am amazed my mom ever bought them for me because I’m pretty sure they are one of the worst things for you on the planet. But also moderation in all things, and I’m glad I was sometimes allowed them.

@nell UGH, BULGUR SALAD. My parents made that too and I hated it. (With chickpeas and huge slices of raw onion. The worst.) And the PB&J on whole wheat with the all natural peanut butter! Hippie parents. We would get usually a sandwich, a piece of fruit, a juice box and a snacky thing – fruit leather, homemade cookies, something like that. Never the highly processed foods of my dreams.

Also sometimes instead of juice boxes we’d have soy milk. And my parents never bothered with the cold packs, so they were warm. Warm soymilk with a peanut butter sandwich is a special sort of hell. Especially carob soymilk, which tastes like it came from Satan’s fiery teats.

sherlock (#3,599)

I remember my mom being proud that I was a non-picky eater who liked enough things to eat a different sandwich each day of the week. In retrospect, it is kind of crazy that my mom would have kept that many different sandwich materials on hand. I think the likely candidates are pb&j, turkey, ham, tuna, and . . . maybe cheese? Yes, a slice of American cheese and two pieces of white bread is probably something I ate a lot growing up.

Really, the best part of bringing my lunch was my purple Beauty and the Beast lunchbox.

charmcity (#1,091)

@sherlock My two siblings and I also always had a different sandwich! There was pretty much a weekly rotation (i.e. always tuna on Fridays because we were Catholic), but I can barely remember to go to the grocery store enough so I don’t eat popcorn for dinner more than once a week. I am one person. One adult, allegedly.

Liz the Lemur (#3,125)

I’d have a sandwich (usually pb&j, maybe ham&cheese sometimes), a veggie (carrot/celery sticks or some thing) probably pretzels or goldfish, and a dessert – processed snack cakes! Sometimes applesauce cups or pudding cups. I’d also have a juice pouch and a frozen juice pouch as an ice pack. In the warmer months I’d drink the frozen one too as a slushie.

guenna77 (#856)

my mom was the queen of school lunches. by high school i didn’t have a lunch period so if i didn’t bring something i didn’t eat. she packed one nearly every day for me and my brother, and they were pretty awesome because she paid attention to every detail. she’d wrap my drink in foil to keep it cold. every day was different. sometimes i’d get sandwiches, sometimes other fun main dishes. my brother was a big fan of buffalo wings. there was always a salty snack and a sweet one. she’d bake toaster-oven cookies in the morning, find individual salsa packs to go with a baggie of chips. she’d thread a toothpick through a napkin so that i’d have something to spear my pineapple chunks and clean up after. if needed she even provided a homemade wet-nap – aka a damp napkin in a baggie. and everything always fit in a standard brown paper bag, perfectly packed too keep cold things cold and fragile things from crushing. her lunches were so good my voracious brother made a business of selling individual pieces to his friends, and using the profit to buy two school lunches.

which is not to say she was june cleaver – i ate plenty of lunchables in my younger days, and we took every one of those shortcuts above for dinner (i thought all mashed potatoes began in flake-form until i was a teenager). but lunches were her *thing*.

Ellie (#62)

@guenna77 That is so great! My mom did something similar. She didn’t make me lunch every day, but often, and she’d make lunch for a few of my friends too a lot of the time – only child and I think she enjoyed it and also probably liked supporting the general principle of making sure that high school girls eat at lunchtime. Everything fit in one of those black plastic takeout containers with the clear lid (they had just come in at that point in time). Regular standbys were the miniature packets of (real) cheese, crackers, a few olives wrapped in saran wrap, carrot and/or celery sticks and/or other sliced veggies. Sometimes cracker and hummus sandwiches or a little cup of hummus. They were awesome.

jfruh (#161)

Every day in elementary and middle school, I had the same set of things, packed by my mom: a plastic baggie of some kind of chips, and plastic baggie of some kind of cookies, a juice box, and a thermos of hot chicken soup.

Right before I started high school, I had an abrupt moment of self-consciousness about the soup, deciding it was for babies or something, so I asked my mom to switch from soup to sandwiches. Which she did, while continuing to make my lunch (which was actually for babies). But because I didn’t actually like sandwiches, or at least didn’t think I did at the time (today I am all about sandwiches), I threw away the sandwich that my mother was nice enough to make every day, and just ate the chips and cookies for lunch. I don’t know how I’m alive either. Sometimes I would go to the little snack bar in my cafeteria and buy myself another cookie.

And in fact, this lunch template was firmly imprinted on me that, after college and its bounteous free (i.e. paid for by parents/student loans) cafeteria lunches was done and I started working in offices, for a while I reproduced it myself. I’d bring in a cup of instant noodles, a bag of chips, and a bag of cookies — not single-serving bags you could buy in a supermarket or convenience store, mind you, but sandwich baggies that I’d fill with chips/cookies from family-sized bags. Economical! I don’t eat like this anymore, but it just seemed like a natural three-course lunch for, say, two years of ostensible adulthood.

jfruh (#161)

@jfruh oh god I just remembered that in high school I ALSO got a daily Slim Jim, which was my protien for the day, I guess

meandmyself (#4,410)

@jfruh The filling-from-family-size-bags part made me lose it at my desk.

Ugh school lunches. I remember being made fun of for some of the food I brought. Like I had my grandmother make Cheeze Whiz rollups which were basically Cheeze Whiz slathered onto flattened white bread (because who could afford real flatbread?) and rolled up. It was one of those stupid snack recipes that would play on TV after school that we latchkey kids could make ourselves.

But I loved it and had my grandmother make it until some kids started making fun of me for it. So I ended up with regular bologna sandwiches and Fig Newtons. I loved Fig Newtons cause my dad loved them until I got made fun of for that too!

Man kids suck.

Meaghano (#529)

@forget it i quit ha, this is the best

I was lucky enough to have Lunchables on occasion in elementary school, but more often I brought a thermos containing one small individual serving size of Chef Boyardee meat ravioli, which had been heated up in the morning and wrapped in paper towels to stay warm. I probably also had some string cheese or a granola bar on the side. Sometimes I would have those pre-packaged cottage cheese and fruit combos, which I now find horrifying.

By high school, I had scammed my parents into giving me $20 a week to buy school lunches. However, I was also bringing what they believed to be a mid-morning snack of one strawberry Nutrigrain bar, one Yoplait Light yogurt, one single serving Sunny Delight, and a watermelon Tangy Taffy bar. In reality, I would eat this disgusting combo at lunch, occasionally springing for a soft pretzel and a Snapple Peach Iced Tea instead, and pocket the rest of my lunch allowance.

In grade school, I had a PB&J, pretzels, and an apple. Every day. Except pizza day. Cafeteria pizza is amazing, I don’t care what anyone says. I was super jealous of my friends that got to buy lunch all the time. And even more jealous of the kids that had pudding packs and Lunchables, and Little Debbies.

In junior high, I had babysitting money so I bought lunch a lot more. Made terrible choices, mostly because I wasn’t allowed to have junk food at home. But when I brought lunch is was a PB&J, pretzels, and an apple.

High school was weird. I went to a charter school that was in an old converted racquetball gym so there was no kitchen. So they brought in fast food everyday and that got old really quick. I went back to packing my lunch most days. It was usually Diet Coke and Easy Mac. Or Diet Coke and Slim Fast. (It was a performing arts high school. Ballet classes. Self-esteem issues.)

kellyography (#250)

I still eat pretty much exactly the same lunch as I did in grade school. Sandwich (usually peanut butter on whole wheat potato bread now, but I used to switch it up for turkey/lorraine swiss), some kind of fruit or vegetable (carrots or grapes; back in the day it was an applesauce), some kind of chip (wheat thins/triscuits forever), MAYBE a cookie, if I was really lucky (now this is a given), and a quarter for milk (which I now forgo entirely). In high school, when I was given $20/month to buy my lunch at will, I ate pretty much just fries and ice cream sandwiches. I could never eat like that again.

ellabella (#1,480)

I started packing my own lunch in 5th grade, because I was too picky about it. My little brother, a senior in high school, still gets his lunch packed by my mom.

In elementary school, raw instant ramen (“top noodle”) was the shizz. Sprinkle the MSG packet on top, then snack on it. Watch David Chang do this on Mind of a Chef if you don’t believe me.

I packed myself awesome lunches, and still do. Even into high school, I carried really cool metal lunchboxes (this was weird, and nobody else did it), or used those hardy little paper shopping bags you get at places like Anthropologie and Gap until they got spilled in.

Back in the day I ate: bagels with cream cheese, salads with leftover chicken on top with dressing separate in a mini-tupperware, a variety of leftovers from the delicious dinners my mom cooked the night before—flank steak, pasta, sausages. Usually I avoided sandwiches, but if I had one it would definitely have all the toppings: salami with lettuce, tomato, onion, mustard. Sometimes I got Snapples bought in bulk from Costco. And definitely SNACKS: cutie oranges, apples, sliced mango, almonds, pretzels, carrots, cheese (string cheese). DESSERT: Almost always 3-4 Pepperidge Farm Milano or Geneva cookies. The best was bringing in a big ol’ slice of cake after someone’s birthday. Oh, and 3-4 pieces of Halloween candy for all of November and December.

And then a phase in high school where I bought a Diet Coke and a chocolate cookie between 0 period and 1st period (8:15am) every day.

Clearly, I care about food a lot and always have.

ifwecantaloupe (#2,654)

I’d blocked my early food choices out of my mind until now. Elementary school through middle school I went through phases, and I’d eat the same kind of weird meat sandwich for ~6 months (bologna, pastrami, capicola, or salami) until I got sick of it and switched. There’d be random other stuff – Sunny D and Warheads were my favorite combo for a while there.

In high school, I’m amazed I didn’t have a heart attack. They sold Boardwalk fries at my school, so I’d usually eat a big container of those with Old Bay. Sometimes I’d sneak off campus to 7-11 where I’d eat a couple of those jalapeno and cream cheese taquitos along with a Red Bull. WHAT.

Meaghano (#529)

@ifwecantaloupe Ha! Yes high school was awful. Lots of Zebra Cakes and fries and Dr. Pepper. Oh and Wendy’s Junior Bacon Cheeseburgers (JBC’s), as they were 99 cents.

fleetweek (#5,503)

Great question, I have no idea how I stayed healthy. My sandwiches varied, but I always had one of those little bags of either Cooler Ranch or Nacho Cheesier and a Fudge Round. Barbecue chips if I was having a turkey sandwich that day, because obviously they are a sandwich topping.

I really want to say though, not cooking from scratch in no way implies that you do not give a shit. Getting a bunch of sides together while also preparing a main dish every single day for an entire family is hard work, even if the sides come from a box.

Meaghano (#529)

@fleetweek Oh yes, you are totally right. I was kind of joking and forgetting that my mom-appreciation goes without saying only in my head. :)

Also I miss Cool Ranch Doritos

eraserface (#1,628)

I usually had pretty standard lunches, PB or baloney, but the one weird thing (that I totally owned) was that my mom would pack me a little baggie of sliced up bell peppers instead of chips for lunch. I think people made fun of me for it, but I guess I must have not given a shit because bell peppers are delicious and I don’t care if you think otherwise.

Where my free-school-lunch people at? In elementary school my mom usually packed me a cheese sandwich, an apple, some cookies, and a juice (maybe some carrot sticks or chips sometimes? Can’t remember), but by middle school and high school we qualified for federal assistance and it was school lunch every day. Although in high school I’d often skip it and just buy a pack of chocolate covered pretzels from the vending machine with babysitting money. I was addicted to those.

lemonadefish (#3,296)

In elementary school I usually had either American cheese or cashew butter & honey sandwiches, and some fruit (usually orange slices I think?). Sometimes some tortilla chips, an organic jucie box, and a fruit leather for dessert (which I would often trade to fruit-deprived classmates for something more processed like a snack cake).

In middle school I was allowed to buy my lunch from the snack bar, and it was usually a baked potato covered in nacho cheese (omg ick!) and a Dr. Pepper, and sometimes and oatmeal creme pie.

In high school I went back to bringing my lunch mostly, and I alternated between peanut butter & jelly, and turkey – but not just any turkey! I hated deli meat, so my mom would roast a turkey breast every weekend for my sandwiches. So spoiled! Sometimes I would buy a deep fried burrito form the snack bar (again, ick!).

Charlotte (#1,900)

My mother had gone k-12 to a private school where everyone ate lunch together, so the whole concept of school lunch was a mystery to her. Also, not a morning person. Elementary school she bought a year’s worth of hot lunch at the beginning of the year (or one school there might have been monthly punch cards?). Middle school I started packing my own, or walking home, which was better and then I’d skip school in the afternoon and read books and watch soaps (got straight A’s, it was a crappy school). In high school we went to live with my Dad and stepmother — I think she made lunches? Or bought sandwich stuff and we made lunches? Sandwich, some chips in a baggie, a cookie, an apple? Sometimes I’d buy hot lunch, which was cheap and still pretty good because I am old and come from a time when schools still had real kitchens and lunch ladies. High school we were not allowed off campus for lunch either, but once in a while we’d sneak into town for a cheesedog. Mostly I remember in a couple of schools being one of the only non-poor kids eating hot lunch, because my mother’s attitude was what? make lunch? why? they serve it at school, right?

Solarbib (#3,551)

I always envied the kids who got to bring their lunches. I was a free hot lunch kid. I don’t know if things have gotten any better, but I remember the food all being rather beige.

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