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In this episode

Have a question, query, or quagmire you’d like Renee and David to answer? Click that red button to the right, or click on this link to leave us a recorded message. Press and talk away and maybe you’ll be featured on the show!

As any kid who’s toted a lunch box to school can attest, this is no mere container for transporting nutritional sustenance to an educational institution. It’s an expression of self. And if your childhood was anything like David’s and mine, you wore your rebel yell on your lunch box. David’s was a thunderous yawp like that of Tarzan. For me, it was the Fonz’s purr-like “Ayyyy.” This wasn’t expressed everywhere in our lives, mostly just in our reaction to the lunches our mom packed us. But it’s what we had.

Tarzan Lunchbox

These days, though, it seems everyone—parents and picky eaters, principals and political officials—has a rebel yell about school lunches, whether the brown-bagged sort or the cafeteria type. The entire topic is a maze of mishaps waiting to be averted. Nut allergies. Vegetable quotas. Gluten sensitivities. Budget cuts. Chicken nuggets. Crusts or no crusts.

Sensing your barely contained frustration, we sought the advice of Debbie Koenig, a Brooklyn mom, blogger, cookbook author, and lunch-box whisperer. (She had a Hardy Boys lunch box. Ah, Shaun Cassidy.) She’s seen it all—the morning bickering about what’s for lunch, the vegetables that come back home untouched, the tears that accompany the wrong sandwich, and those oh-so-suspicious words “I bought the cafeteria lunch today.”

In our newest Small Bites podcast, Debbie talks us through some of the tricks she’s learned to help keep her son, Harry, fed during the week. Decently fed, mind you. Just as important, she divulges how she manages to do so without losing her sanity. After all, she gets parents, if you can’t tell from the title of her book Parents Need to Eat Too: Nap-Friendly Recipes, One-Handed Meals, and Time-Saving Kitchen Tricks for New Parents (William Morrow, $16.99) which we included in our list of the best cookbooks of the year in 2012.

Take a listen, if only for the relief that comes from knowing you’re not alone in what seems a constant lunch tussle. That and the realization that chances are pretty darn good you have it easier than Momma Leite did back in the day. I mean, seriously, can you imagine packing lunch every day for David?

Tell us, what was your lunch box of choice when you were a kid?

And if you had it to do all over again, what would it be nowadays? Let us know in a comment below.

About David Leite

I count myself lucky to have received three James Beard Awards for my writing as well as for Leite’s Culinaria. My work has also appeared in The New York Times, Martha Stewart Living, Saveur, Bon Appétit, Gourmet, Food & Wine, Yankee, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, The Washington Post, and more.

Hungry For More?

Ep. 45: Chef Pati Jinich on Mexican Food

In this podcast episode, the charismatic Pati Jinich, Mexican chef, author, and star of the PBS series Pati’s Mexican Table and La Frontera, talks about Mexican cuisine.

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  1. My very first, lunchbox was a metal Mary Poppins lunch box. I loved the movie and my mother had to hunt for my requested lunch box because they were not being made anymore. She found one with a thermos at a thrift store. My dad spray painted the inside of the box so it looked shiny and new. I was one proud second grader.

    Our lunches tended to be leftovers from dinner. Sliced chicken, turkey, roast beef, pork loin or tuna sandwiches. My mother loved egg salad so we saw that often. If not a sandwich there were chunks of meat, cheese and raw veggies in tiny multi-colored Tupperware containers. Toward the end of the month we might see a boiled egg and veggies. Milk was the only thing my thermos ever knew. The sweetest thing in the lunch was almost always fresh fruit. My sister and brother would get PBJ but even now I consider peanut butter a food of last resort– hurricane fare, something to eat if the power is off or it is the only thing left in the pantry.

    I lusted after chips and those Hostess cupcakes. Chips were party fare and the only time we would see them was after my mother’s Bridge parties. I remember getting a Hostess cupcake once as a birthday treat. If, and a pretty big if, I got a dessert it would be a home made baked good. My favorites were oatmeal cookies, a blond brownie, lemon bar or a slice of sweet potato pie. These made surprise appearances and now that I think about it had to be around holidays or when we had company and my mother baked.

    This was well before the days of microwaves in school lunchrooms so leftovers that were best heated were not an option. Today I do pretty much the same thing for my kids and the lunches I pack to take to work with three big exceptions. After preschool, I quit buying lunch boxes. Everyone gets lunch in a paper or cloth sack because they fit easily into a backpack then into the frig at school or work and do not cost a small fortune to replace. Milk is purchased at school or I send a milk box. I also pack leftovers that can be microwaved.

    1. AnneS, I was fascinated by your story. Such a memory you have! I had a packed lunch only until third grade. Then we had cafeteria food, which at that time cost 25 cents. I can still see those pastel melamine plates and tan trays. The only drink available was milk. I remember little about the food except the mashed potatoes that were served with an ice cream scoop, and Friday’s pizza and blondies. How I lived for Fridays!

  2. Loved this podcast! (Of course, I love every podcast.) I, too, David, had a Disney lunchbox, but this one — not the nifty schoolboy version.

    Disney Lunchbox

    Mom made great lunches. One day, I forgot my lunch so she called a neighbor and asked her to take a lunch to school for me. I was suspicious when my teacher handed the bag to me, so I didn’t eat lunch that day, but it was an anemic PB&J and a few cheese puffs. I realized that day how good I had it with mom sending soup in my thermos and all manner of interesting foods. If the stand-in lunch was representative of what most kids got, I was doing well.

    Although I *was* pretty jealous of anyone who got a Ding Dong. I was always fascinated by their shape and the thin foil wrapper.

    1. Beth, thank you kindly. My mom made good lunchbox meals, except I was kind of a fussy kid. I didn’t eat peanut butter and jelly (have never been a big fan), but I remember loving Underwood Devil Ham sandwiches. And I begged her for Hostess cupcakes. I loved the swirly white icing on top. This is my lunchbox.