PSA: Don’t look for lunchbox ideas on Instagram

Adding to the negative impact that Instagram is already having on mental health and body image, a set of unrealistic standards for school lunchboxes is unearthed by Juliet Speedy. 

If I was asked to offer my most valuable piece of culinary advice to parents, it would be this: don’t Google “lunchbox ideas”. In fact, if you want to hold yourself up as a caring caregiver with moderate cooking skills, don’t you dare plug #healthylunchbox into Instagram.

I find lunchbox packing pretty bloody arduous. The day-in-day-out task of trying to come up with new, yummy, diverse ideas to please three “starving” kids (their word, not mine).  Hard to be starving when you have an all-day buffet at your hands. Talk to any parent, whether a keen cook or not, and they will be capable of whining at length about food preparation. 

There is no holiday from providing food for your offspring. The consequences can be, well, not ideal. Children need feeding – regularly – and they are often fussy as all hell and will critique you in far more certain terms than the team from Michelin. 

But in terms of lunchboxes, I thought I was doing pretty well. I love cooking – food is my thing. I can whip up a tomato and basil baguette for the three hungry nippers in no time. A weekly batch of homemade but slightly tasteless muffins. A mandarin one day, a granny smith the next. Get me with my rolled up salad wraps (a god soggy mess come lunchtime). 

But then one winter’s day, sick of packing the same shit day in, day out, I started looking online for ideas. And, well, I shouldn’t have.

 According to the internet, there are many parents that spend their Sundays making hummus spiked with kale and Swiss chard, carving carrots into bunny rabbits and planning themed lunchboxes around special days. 

“Go the thanksgiving lunchbox! Naturally coloured red, white and blue home fermented sauerkraut!”

“Check out my cheese souffle modelled off Donald Trump’s hair #voterepublican”

“It’s Halloween, Araminta is enjoying my freshly made spider shaped sushi. I even harvested the seaweed myself!”#cookswhoforage

Some of the bento boxes on Instagram look more like computer-generated images straight out of Silicon Valley. I’ve seen cucumbers with sculpted faces, fritters fried into the shape of twin ballerinas and entire edible scenes recreated from Star Wars. I’ve honestly seen rice ball cow faces and forests made from cherry tomatoes, edamame beans and baby corn.

I couldn’t put my children’s lunchboxes on Instagram. I’m not sure the budget brand wholemeal bread complete with crust is wildly photogenic. Or the container of rice crackers I managed to find for $1.50 a packet. My pesto comes in a jar. I made kale chips once but I put so much salt on them to make them taste good they were more likely to give my five-year-old a heart attack than a nutrition hit. 

You can tell some lunchbox geniuses are actually child-free food writers with no bloody idea. They will tell you to marinate the artichokes overnight for the vegetable medley frittata with green tomato salsa and promise it will be a “big hit with your little ones”. The reality is it will come back not only rejected but also lining the entire inside of my child’s school bag and probably dribbling down their back. 

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And then there are the lectures: Don’t do this and don’t buy this. Make everything from scratch. That muesli bar will turn your child’s body into a chemical shit storm. We know those yoghurt pottles have more sugar than ice cream, and the preservative list in that “fruit” snack could help make an atomic bomb, but sometimes it’s what you’ve got to do.

It’s not just lunchboxes either. There are actual humans who turn every meal they make for their child into a full-blown artistic creation. I often find it hard to get time to roast a chook long enough to stamp out the salmonella. But some parents find the time to turn their children’s fillet steaks into a sleeping tiger lying on a green polka dot blanket (dehydrated spinach and black sesame seeds, naturally).

Don’t get me wrong. Who doesn’t get satisfaction out of seeing their kids eat yummy and healthy food? And when we get time to sit down ourselves, us parents can rejoice in creating and eating it too. But I can’t replicate Matisse out of tofu. And I’m pretty sure I’m not poisoning them with an inorganic grape.


The Spinoff’s food content is brought to you by Freedom Farms. They believe talking about food is nearly as much fun as eating it, and they’re excited to facilitate some good conversations around food provenance in Aotearoa New Zealand.

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