Today’s post is an interview with writer Marnie Hanel on her new, incredibly beautiful book about packing lunch boxes for your kids. When this book was first brought to my attention, I scoffed. I am nothing if not a hater of high-pressure lunch packing for children. I survived on natural peanut butter on wheat bread, a juice box, and two Chips Ahoy cookies in a paper bag for nine years and turned out fine. Now I’m supposed to make rice into the shape of a bunny? This seems unfair.

However: I was convinced to consider the book by the fact that one of my children’s lunch boxes came back pretty much uneaten most days. But I didn’t just want to do an interview — the pitch of the book is that this can be easy. Is that true? I needed to evaluate. 

In the end, I both interviewed the author and convinced one of my ParentData team members to try the bento packing with me. Today, the interview. Friday, we will report (with pictures!) our experiences. Enjoy. 

A couple of notes: 

First, we’ll be using “bento box” here to discuss a container with multiple compartments, in this case for kids’ food. The bento box has a long history, which you can read more about here.

Second: there are a lot of ideas in here that apply more generally to food with kids and we have a question about school lunch at the end. So even if you don’t pack a lunch, give it a listen or a read!

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Emily: I’m very pleased to have Marnie Hanel here today to talk to us about lunch data. I’m going to title this “lunch data,” although it is in fact about her new book on lunch boxes. So, before we get started, Marnie, I would love you to introduce yourself and tell us a little bit about your background and then say a brief thing about the book.

Marnie: Sure. My name’s Marnie Hanel, and I’m a journalist living in Portland, Oregon. I’m also a mother of three boys under age 7, and I’m a cookbook author. This is my fifth book that I’ve co-authored with Jen Stevenson, and it’s titled Lunchbox: So Easy, So Delicious, So Much Fun to Eat.

E: Amazing. Okay, so I am going to start with the elephant in the room here, which is that I am a person who is, I believe, on record as being quite skeptical of the bento lunch box.

The reason for that, I will say, is that I feel like it becomes a competition. I feel like there are many things in parenting, and mothering in particular, in which we have a lot of pressure that is put on us about performing in particular ways. And the idea of, you know, rice shaped like a bunny or … I don’t even know, I can’t even imagine. There was an Instagram story I once posted where somebody for the first day of school made their own wafer cookies and they dipped them in all these different things so they looked like pencils. But the caption was like, This is so easy. And I was like, Are you out of your mind? Okay, so we’re starting with a rant.

But what I want to do today is talk about lunch boxes as an opportunity. Because your book is actually really cool, and it has made me think a tremendous amount about how I think about lunch. And I think there is a lot of opportunity to use lunches to shape how our children interact with food — and in some ways, and I think this is a little bit of your pitch, to address the things that we worry about with our kids’ food around exposure or picky eating. So let me just first ask you if you have any reactions to my ranting before we get into it.

M: I completely relate to where you’re coming from, and it reminds me, there was a tweet last week that I read that said, “The Bear but it’s just parents making breakfast & packing lunches right before school.

And I feel like nothing’s more relatable than that. You know, in the morning you’re often making lunch in such a rush that it can feel like the least likely time to be making a rice bunny. At the same time, because I approach this as a journalist and I’m so interested in food exposure, I see the lunch box as something that’s helped me address really specific food dynamics with each of my children.

And I think that if you get a little bit too caught up in the fact that we have to make these lunches, which is a hard truth, you’re missing this opportunity to make your kids’ relationship with food better. And I think it’s a chance to play with food with your children. I just don’t want parents to sleep on that opportunity. And so that’s why we made this book.

E: Okay, so one piece of data that comes out a lot and I talk to people a lot about is the idea of flavor profiles being determined in childhood. And so there is actually a lot of evidence that kids who are exposed, even in utero, to flavors like the flavors later. But even when you introduce flavors to young kids, introducing them multiple times matters. There’s a related piece of data, which I also think is relevant here, which is around dip in particular, but more generally around, how do you get kids to eat vegetables? And the idea there is that they’re more likely to eat them if they’re presented with a dip or in some way that is more appealing.

So one of the things that you do a lot of in the book is think about presentation in a way that is effectively just one step up from just throwing the cantaloupe in a bag. So a big thing I took away was like, maybe if I put toothpicks in the cantaloupe, that would make the cantaloupe seem different. And I wonder if you could talk a little bit about both that idea of exposure and presentation and also how you guys thought about it in producing the book.

M: Yes. First of all, I have to know if you’ve seen that study that just came out with the babies in utero grimacing over kale.

E: I did see that study. What did you think of that study? We’re going to digress.

M: Well, I was interested in your perspective on how good that study was, because it was kind of a fascinating idea that kids might grimace if they eat kale but have a happier facial expression for carrot or something that’s sweeter.

E: Yeah. So I did read this study, and what they’re doing is 4D ultrasounds of a small number of babies, and they actually don’t have the mom eat kale — you eat a pill that tastes like kale — and the babies make a grimacing face. I mean, part of what’s very hard is that actually, it’s very difficult to judge if a baby is grimacing even on a very nice ultrasound. They have a lot of different ways to code it. The other thing I worry about there, and this is way in the weeds of statistics, is that that study isn’t very interesting if there’s no effect, right? The study that’s like, “We gave people different kinds of vegetables and their babies look the same in utero” is boring. So I wonder if there’s a little bit of a publication bias; not that they did anything wrong, just that maybe there are 3,000 of those studies, and the only one that found a significant result gets published.

I mean, it could be true.

M: It was a questionable headline. I mean, there’s a reason it hit The Guardian right away, you know?

E: Exactly, yeah. The Guardian loves a good baby face study.

M: Right. But getting back to our kids, I think, yeah, presentation is pretty much everything for kids. They’re just much more likely to try something if it’s cut into a star shape. And this realization came to me, honestly, through occupational therapy — working with an OT for my youngest son, who has a disability. She suggested that I look at food cutters, and before I had that experience, I was also really skeptical of making things look extra-cute for kids. But once you’ve had the experience of cutting cheese into a word that says “fun” and then your child eats it and he’s never eaten cheese before, then it takes away all skepticism.

But I also think there are opportunities just to help kids be less rigid in life, just to be more easygoing and flexible. You don’t want to have a kid who only eats carrot sticks, so can you show them…

E: I’d actually love to have a child who ate carrot sticks.

M: For my kids, the baby carrot was a myth.

E: No, no. My kids did not like the baby carrot.

M: It’s a tough bite, you know? So once I got into cutting it on an angle, buying carrot chips instead of baby carrots, using food cutters to cut carrots into different shapes, and seeing how that could impact their feel around a vegetable — it just opened me up to the idea that there’s a lot of room to play here. And when you do play, kids are more likely to try new things.

E: That seems plausible to me. Okay, so that’s the exposure presentation piece. And one thing I wanted to dig into is the book, if people read it. And actually, if you get this book, your kids will love it. My son is obsessed with this book; he has it in his room and he looks through it and tells me which things he wants. And I can’t produce all of them, to be fair.

But I think there is something to these smaller changes — to the idea of, maybe it’s exactly the lunch you packed before, but the cantaloupe is cut in a star shape. Or maybe it’s the lunch you had before, but you put some toothpicks in the pieces of peanut butter and jelly.

M: I also think, from a parent perspective, when you’re reading about food exposure, there’s often advice to put the same food in front of your kid 15 times. If you give it to them 15 times, they might eat it. And that is a tough ask when you’re sitting across from your kid and your kid says, “I can’t believe you gave me broccoli. I don’t like broccoli.” But if you’re giving them a bento box, which has six compartments, and you put broccoli in the corner 15 times, it doesn’t feel aggressive. It just feels like, eat it or don’t, there it is. So I feel like it can be the bridge from that evidence-based finding to actual life. The lunch box can be sort of your Trojan horse.

E: How important do you think the bento aspect of this is?

M: For me, I think it’s very important, because I think that opening one container and seeing everything together gives kids that visual wow that might convince them to engage. I also think that lunchtimes have gotten shorter, and so it decreases the barrier for entry for kids. Because you can start eating right away. You’re not opening bags or containers; it’s all happening. And I think it’s perfect for children in that there are compartments, so you can separate foods. And we all know that that’s a classic kid behavior around trying new things is foods that touch. And so you can separate them out. You can also have a slight push there, by putting two different fruits in one compartment. So can you just stand to see those two things together? That can be an early food exposure technique too. Can you just look at it? You’re not going to be able to remove it from your plate. It’s right there.

And when parents think about kids having a wide variety of foods to eat — and this is something I’ve learned from occupational therapists — a win doesn’t have to mean chewing and swallowing. It can mean looking, it can mean touching, it can mean using a food cutter to cut that star with your parent. And all of those wins, the bento box is a natural pairing for those kinds of techniques.

E: It’s interesting the thing you say about having the win being engaging with the food at all. Because another thing we get out of data is when people worry about picky eating and we think about: What are the strategies you can use when you are engaging with your kid and they are sitting in front of the broccoli and they won’t eat it?

We are often drawn, many of us as parents, to what you would call prompts. Where it’s: if you do this, then this other good thing will happen. So, “If you finish your broccoli, then I will give you ice cream.” And it turns out that’s almost exactly the opposite of what you want to do. That kind of food engagement makes them think broccoli is bad and ice cream is good. As opposed to what we call a supportive prompt. Like, “Why don’t you try this date? It’s like a big raisin.” That’s not actually true of dates at all, but anyway, one could say that, I guess. This strikes me again as, what you want to do is present the food and then be like, “Here is the food. Experiment with it. It is the food that’s in front of you and it’s your choice.”

And that’s the other piece of this that I wanted to ask about, because it has come up as we have been experimenting with this with my son, is it’s very clear that he values the control. So I wonder, when you engage with this with your kids or you think about [it], how much do you let them pick what they want?

M: Well, I’ve always been fascinated with this idea that we want our kids to have agency in a lot of their decisions, but when it comes to food, suddenly we don’t want that. We want to control what they eat. And no wonder there’s resistance there, because we’re giving them mixed messages.

So for me, there’s a huge grocery list in the beginning of the book. A hundred lunch boxes are photographed in the book — so there’s endless options, thousands of foods — and there’s a huge grocery list at the beginning of the book that you could go through with a pencil and your kid and cross off the things they don’t like, just interview them. And I did this this summer. My nieces were visiting, so we had six kids and we needed to make lunches for everyone from camp. So I just went through the list and found the foods. “Okay. Everyone likes grapes. Great. Everyone likes cucumbers. Cool.” And we had a better working list of things to have around, and it made it a lot easier.

I think working from a common grocery list that’s approved by everyone involved is a key part. And I don’t think it’s a bad thing for kids to have agency over their food choices. Like one of my children really doesn’t like any meat. And a lot of adults don’t; we’re all moving towards more plant-based eating.

So that to me seems fine. If you like melted cheese but you don’t like cheese, just not melted, that’s okay with me. I think we’re allowed to have preferences in what we eat, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I think what’s problematic is if it gets to the point where it interferes with your life, where you can’t go on a play date, you can’t go to a restaurant — and so that’s the dynamic that I’m often trying to work with, is just pushing for a little bit more of an easygoing attitude about food by giving this idea that it’s fun. That’s the main thing.

E: It’s fun! I think this does relate to this question of picky eating. So, what do we mean when we say picky eating? A lot of us say our kids are picky, and in fact, almost all kids get pickier. In a way, I think that’s where it comes from. Your 18-month-old is shoveling down everything you put in their face, and your 3-year-old liked strawberries yesterday and today they’re just like, “I’m allergic to strawberries.” That’s my kid. Like, “Oh, I’m allergic to mushrooms.” You’re not allergic to mushrooms. He told someone at a restaurant that once.

So how do we think of the distinction between true picky eating and … children are somewhat resistant to a variety of foods because they’re children?

M: Well, there is a definition, which is 50 foods or fewer is picky eating.

E: That’s a small number of foods.

M: It really is. When you start listing the foods, it can be quite reassuring to think, “Oh yeah, 50 foods, that’s fine.” I also think we have to factor in the idea that our diet has gotten so much more varied and interesting, our ask of what our kids will eat has also become a lot broader than it once was.

So I think parents can relax a little bit about picky eating, but I also say that from the perspective of someone who’s watched a 7-year-old go from the “Hooray, he’s eating my pureed beets; he eats everything, and gosh, look at my little foodie kid” to “Oh my gosh, here I am in the noodles-and-butter zone, and I’m never going to get out of here” to now, he’ll eat almost anything. I guess I come at it from the perspective of watching a kid expand. And feeling less worried about it.

I think there’s ways that you can introduce food that take the power dynamic away. One of them is just by enjoying food yourself and creating agency in any of the meals you create. Like at dinner, everyone knows this, but every kid likes tacos because they have a lot of agency about what goes into the taco. Yeah, my taco might not look like my kid’s taco, but we’re all eating tacos together. And I guess that’s also how I see lunch boxes, is you don’t have to eat every single thing I put in that box, but there’s a lot of choices and you can create a lunch you like out of what’s in there.

E: Let’s talk about — before we get into the thing I want to end on, which is competitive lunching — let’s talk about lunch timing.

So, one of the things that is true about the world is your kid does not get enough time for lunch. And you have some thoughtful comments about the bento box being helpful for the short lunch timing that many schools provide. But I also think this is something you’ve thought about on the journalist side, which is: Why are we not giving enough time for lunch, and how can we help with that?

M: I think from the advocacy perspective, asking your school when your child eats lunch and how long they get is something we should all be doing. The American Academy of Pediatrics says that we should give kids 20 minutes to eat lunch, but they mean time in their seat. So that doesn’t include finding your table, opening the string cheese, chatting with your neighbor, getting your drink… So really kids need at least a half an hour.

And I think we all should be advocating for kids to eat longer, because all the studies show that they eat a broader variety of foods, they’ll eat more vegetables, it’s healthier outcomes, more energy throughout the day. Everything’s positive about having a longer lunch.

But given the realities of where we are, I think you can also help your kid by making sure that all packaged snacks are open. Like I don’t send a granola bar in the package, because my 5-year-old is going to have a hard time opening that. So even if you want it in the package, start the package, just so they can get into lunch a lot quicker.

And then when your lunch box comes back, if there’s food in it, ask about why. So sometimes they didn’t have enough time to eat, in which case you can say, “Okay, could you go to the bathroom earlier in the day?” I mean, these are things that, it’s horrible we have to strategize…

E: It’s true, it’s just very depressing. It’s a depressing comment, but I’m hearing you.

M: It’s depressing, but I think you need to strategize around making sure when your kid sits down, they can eat right away. “Could you try to eat before chatting with the friend that you love to talk to?” Could you pack a smoothie? So that they can drink the smoothie pretty fast. And are there elements in that lunch box, like pistachios with shells, that are just going to take a long time to eat? Some older kids, like my older son, loves them. He thinks that’s such a fun busywork and he has a half-an-hour lunch, so it’s fine. But for a lot of kids, they won’t have time to do that. So making it easier for them to get into lunch. But yes, this isn’t a conversation we should be having to have with our children.

E: Agreed. Good conversation, wish we had not had it. Okay, so I want to end back on this question of lunch as a competitive sport, because it can feel that way. And particularly when these bento boxes are so pretty! But as I was thinking more about this, and I think this is more how I am reflecting on it, I realized that part of that is the frame.

It could be the case that this is something you like, and there are many things in parenting where it should be okay to say, “You know what? I enjoy packing these lunches. It’s not that I do it because that is what makes me a good mom, or that you wouldn’t be a good parent if you didn’t do this, but just that it is something that I enjoy doing.” And it’s almost the case that we’ve gotten so far in the direction of this being something I have to apologize for. “Oh, I’m sorry that I packed this bento. I just did it because, you know…” In fact, I was explaining to someone as I was packing up one of these bentos, I was like, “Well, I’m doing it because it’s for work.” And then I was like, Why am I explaining that? Like actually, it turns out my son and I are having an extremely good time doing this.

So it reminded me of many of these things in parenting where I do sometimes feel like it should both be okay to say, “This isn’t the thing that makes you a good parent.” And also to say, “But it’s actually an effortful thing that I do in parenting — and not that it’s hugely effortful — but it’s something that I put time and thought into because it is something that I enjoy and a part of my parenting that I like.” So bentos as, I don’t know, an opportunity for expression.

M: Well, you’re having the experience that I hoped for. This is my dream, that you and your son would be having some fun around food and taking some of the struggles away from it and turning it into something you mutually enjoy.

I’ve thought a lot about why this reaction particularly comes to lunch. And I think part of it is because it’s a new format for American cooks. And we don’t really know what’s happening in everyone else’s lunch bags. And so we have a tendency to imagine that other people are doing a better job than we are.

And what I noticed when we were working on this book was that parents just don’t feel good about lunch boxes. They find them stressful, they assume that they’re either not providing healthful enough foods or that they’re failing in some way. And I have not found that to be true. The more I ask, like, “What are you putting in your lunch box?” it all seems fine. And I think, like all cooking for families, it’s not like every day has the same amount of effort given. It sort of depends on what’s going on, right? Sometimes you’re ordering takeout, sometimes you’re heating something up from the freezer, sometimes you’re going all out. And all of those are okay. And all of those are okay on the lunch front.

It’s just what I’m hoping is, instead of feeling like there’s only five foods I can put in this lunch box every day, you now think of, you can have thousands. And having a lunch that’s exploratory leads to an easier experience at other meal times. I also find kids eat the most in the middle of the day. So why not take advantage of that hunger? And you can draft off of other people’s wins. So a lot of the lunch ideas come from me saying to my kids, “Ooh, did anyone else have something that looked good in their lunch box today?” And then I’ll put that in their lunch box. And it can be foods that they didn’t like for forever. But suddenly the cool kid has it, and so they’re trying something new.

I think there’s just an opportunity for community around this, and what that requires is taking away the performative aspect of it. So you don’t have to post this to Instagram, but if it’s a fun thing between you and your child, then that’s such a win.

E: It’s awesome. Okay, my last question for you: There are a hundred lunch boxes in here — which is your favorite?

M: Oh gosh. Well, each of them has a story to it, so that’s hard because it’s like choosing between my children.

E: Is it like, which is your favorite child? Okay. Except there’s a hundred of them.

M: There’s a rainbow of lunches, which is aesthetically fun to look at, but it’s also because one of my kids went through a phase where they only wanted to eat orange food. So those lunches make me laugh, because one day I just gave him all orange foods to see if he would notice.

But the one that I think is like the slam dunk every single time has to be, ooh, this is a tough call…

E: Drumroll, drumroll, what do you got?

M: I think anytime you’re sticking a skewer in something, it’s not harder but it makes it look a lot more fun. So I really like that spread of all the skewer lunches.

E: I love the skewer. Yes, things with a stick in them, except that then you’re there at school with a stick. My husband was like, “Is it okay to send ’em to school with a stick?” I was like, “Nobody’s complained yet.”

M: I’ve had that thought too. It’s okay.

E: I will tell you my favorite is the parent lunch box, which is like the crust of the bread with the shapes cut out of it and all of the Goldfish that weren’t in the orange color for the orange box, and I thought that was just genius.

M: Yeah. Those are real examples, too. There’s like this energy bite that I was so convinced was going to be great for the book, and no one would eat it. I mean, everyone’s had those experiences.

E: I mean, I mostly eat the crust of the bread. That’s my main, right, source of nourishment.

M: This is what happens. And the thing is, I’m so glad that kids are loving this book and taking it to their rooms, but I completely wrote this for the parents. I hope this makes parents laugh, more than anything else.

E: I think it will.

M: ’Cause this is a weird lane we’re in, and it’s not gonna last forever.

E: It is a weird lane. Eventually they’ll be eating Doritos from the school lunch.

Awesome, thank you so much. I really tremendously appreciate this.

M: It was great to get to chat. Thanks, Emily.

Hi, this is Emily again. I loved my conversation with Marnie, but there was something I wish that we talked about. So I sent her a follow-up question over email: What about kids eating school lunch? Here are her thoughts.

M: My gut reaction is, congratulations, you have figured out a way to streamline one of your parenting responsibilities. If school lunch is working for your family, awesome. There’s lots of reasons to choose it, whether for reasons of time saving or equity or wanting your kid to have a shared experience with their classmates.

If your kids are getting school lunch, you’re just trying to check in to make sure it’s working for them. And I would do that by asking questions like, “Hey, did you have energy at the end of the day? Did you have enough to eat? Did you like what you ate?” Because even if you don’t want to commit to packing a lunch every day, you can always throw additional snacks in their backpack. Or even they make a miniature bento box, often branded as a snack box, and you can throw shelf-stable things like trail mix in there and then refill it throughout the week. So there’s just something in their backpack that they can grab that’s protein-forward and might give them more of an energy boost than the bag of chips they’ll grab if they don’t have something on hand.

But I would also say, even if your kids eat lunch at school, there’s a role for lunch boxes in your life. Because lunch boxes are amazing at creating predictability in unpredictable situations. So I’m thinking of things like road trips, concerts, visits to the zoo, having a new babysitter, or grandparents visiting… If you can, use that lunch box as a way to remove friction around food, because when kids see the foods that they like, that they already know are delicious, they’re more likely to eat them. And we all know that kids who are well-fed are happier and just a lot easier to deal with.