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The Competitive World of School Lunches

Aviva Wittenberg combines colorful foods into combinations of nut-free, dairy-free and vegetarian lunches each day for her daughters and posts pictures on Instagram.
Aviva Wittenberg combines colorful foods into combinations of nut-free, dairy-free and vegetarian lunches each day for her daughters and posts pictures on Instagram. Photo: Aviva Wittenberg

Aviva Wittenberg packs two school lunches every morning, one vegetarian and the other dairy-free. Her children take them to separate Toronto schools with nut-free restrictions.

That might send most parents weeping into their thermoses. Ms. Wittenberg, a 43-year-old information-technology consultant and mother to daughters Talia, 10, and Noa, 13, embraces the challenge, posting her lunchbox creations on Instagram each day before noon. One recent Tuesday, it was veggie and tofu samosas, surrounded by an assortment of eight fruits and vegetables, including broccoli, grapes and lupini beans. By 3 p.m., the image had 111 likes. “Beautiful,” wrote Christina Diep, a 38-year-old stay-at-home mom in West Hollywood, Calif. “I wish my six-year-old would eat this lunch.”

Welcome to the world of competitive school lunches. People’s obsession with posting pictures of food on social media has moved to the lunchbox crowd. Posts on Instagram about lunchboxes rose 90% in the first eight months of 2018, according to Socialbakers, a social-media analytics firm that analyzed high-traffic accounts with more than 1,000 followers. Lunchbox makers report record back-to-school sales: Boolabox says revenues for its Yumboxes rose 35% this summer, says co-founder Daniela Devitt.

Beau Coffron creates an elaborate themed lunch each week, such as Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory.
Beau Coffron creates an elaborate themed lunch each week, such as Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory. Photo: Beau Coffron/lunchboxdad

Japanese-inspired multi-compartment boxes have helped fuel lunchbox one-upsmanship. Preschool teachers sometimes encourage parents to buy into stylish all-in-one Bento-box brands such as Yumbox, PlanetBox and OmieBox. A lunchtime with fewer containers and plastic bags means less mess and confusion. Parents like that it eliminates cupboards overflowing with mismatched lids.

The lunchbox craze has helped fuel a cottage industry that includes specialized utensils, pre-written parental love notes and lunchbox-planning apps. In the months before San Francisco stay-at-home mom Nancy Yen launched her $39.50 OmieBox, she interviewed dozens of lunch-packing mothers nationwide.

“We got deep into the psychology of lunchmaking,” says Ms. Yen. A big theme that emerged in her consumer research was the guilt-ridden working mom. “It was, ‘I can’t be there for everything, so I am going to make you the most kick-ass lunch. I’m going to make sure you know I love you. And I’m going to do it at night when the kid’s asleep and it’s going to be amazing.’ ”

Lunchbox support groups, including Think Inside the Lunchbox and My Lunches for My Girl, are lighting up Facebook . Parents say that when they post their creations, it creates a bit of healthy competition. “It’s motivation,” says Daniela Oltean, a 46-year-old scientist in San Marcos, Calif., and mother to 12-year-old Sabrina and 10-year-old Conrad. Some days are more ambitious than others, and she says everyone aims high in the first few weeks of school.

Daniela Oltean (standing) began a Facebook group with her friend Kinda Arzon to share lunchbox ideas for their children. From left: Louis Arzon, Leila Arzon, Sabrina Post and Conrad Post.
Daniela Oltean (standing) began a Facebook group with her friend Kinda Arzon to share lunchbox ideas for their children. From left: Louis Arzon, Leila Arzon, Sabrina Post and Conrad Post. Photo: Kinda Arzon Photography

“Tried to copy one of the Starbucks protein boxes,” Ms. Oltean wrote on Sept. 14, including a picture of a hard-boiled egg, salami sticks and sliced fruit. On Sept. 22, she wrote “Baked croissants for breakfast and made tuna salad for lunch. They can have cat food for dinner.” The daily slog of combining sliced fruit, sandwich bread and goldfish crackers can be hard, she says. “Some days it feels like ‘I’m done, I can’t do this anymore.’ But then you see someone else post a picture and say ‘the kids like it,’ ” she says. That fuels more ideas.

Melissa Wheeler, a stay-at-home mother of three in Newcastle, Ontario, posts a diary of her lunchbox creations on Facebook. The idea started four years ago, when she and a friend would send images of their kindergartners’ lunches to one another. “We would joke around, and sometimes it was a little competitive,” she recalls. “Then our friends would make comments, and follow us, and then my phone got full of lunchbox photos.”

Melissa Wheeler starts prepping her daughter’s lunchbox each Sunday by storing chopped ingredients in containers.
Melissa Wheeler starts prepping her daughter’s lunchbox each Sunday by storing chopped ingredients in containers. Photo: Melissa Wheeler

In September, she started a new page, called My Lunches for My Girl, detailing her lunchbox-planning process, which usually begins on Sunday with some preparatory slicing and dicing. “Ok veggies prep done,” says a Sept. 23 post with a picture of nine plastic containers of vegetables diced and julienned. The following day, she posted a lunchbox for her 7-year-old daughter, Lily, that included cheese tortellini and an egg frittata.

Some parents save one day a week for their best effort. Beau Coffron, a 40-year-old director for a nonprofit in Oklahoma City, packs a themed lunch every Monday for his two oldest children, Abigail, 12, and Zachary, 8. In recent weeks, lunchbox themes have included Princess Bride, Legos and Star Wars. He started making specialized lunchboxes when Abigail started kindergarten, inspired by images on social media. “I saw moms doing stuff online and I was like, ‘Why can’t I do this?’ ” he recalls.

Today, he says his children don’t react to his creative efforts in quite the same way. “My daughter loves to show it to as many people as possible,” he says. Zachary, on the other hand, “doesn’t like all the attention.”

As with many things on social media, it helps to brace for criticism. Ms. Wheeler says her feelings have been hurt after posting a lunchbox picture. “Once, someone said I put too much fruit,” she recalls. “I cried over it.”

Kelly Pfeiffer, assisted by her daughter Kaela, photographs a school lunch for her Nosh and Nourish blog and Instagram account.
Kelly Pfeiffer, assisted by her daughter Kaela, photographs a school lunch for her Nosh and Nourish blog and Instagram account. Photo: Jenna Sparks Photography

Some parents like the stepped-up challenge to an often thankless task. Kelly Pfeiffer, a 38-year-old food blogger in Denver, says she is on a self-imposed mission to create one letter-themed lunch each week for her daughter, Kaela, 8. Last week, Kaela received an O lunchbox that included an orzo salad, an orange and an Oreo cookie. (Ms. Pfeiffer, who has written two cookbooks and blogs about food regularly, says she sometimes gets paid to show branded products in her Instagram photos.)

The idea inspired Mabby Howard, a 34-year-old business operation manager in Los Angeles and mother of 4-year-old twins, to recently try a P-themed lunchbox that included popcorn, pretzels and pineapple, posting it on her own Instagram account.

“I’m not a Pinterest mom, I’m not super creative, and I’m not particularly social-media active,” Ms. Howard says. “But this is so fun.”

Write to Anne Marie Chaker at anne-marie.chaker@wsj.com

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