The Best Thing I Put In My Kid's Lunchbox Every Day

by Rita Templeton
Originally Published: 
Rita Templeton

I’m a packer of boring lunches. I admit it. My kids don’t open their lunchboxes to find some thrilling mélange of crinkle-cut carrots, soybean crisps, artfully arranged sandwich cutouts, and organic fruit leather cut into fringy strips; most of the time it’s just a PB&J, a yogurt tube, and an apple or something. I try to make them reasonably healthy and include things they will actually eat, but I pack four lunches every day and I have no time for extra shenanigans.

However, regardless of the lack of fancy edibles, there is one special detail about my kids’ lunches. Every day, no matter how short on time I am, I always tuck in a handwritten note.

I may not be the craftiest mom, or the most patient, or even totally attentive 100% of the time (I mean, I’m on Pinterest pinning creative lunchbox ideas that I’ll never use). But like most moms, I want my kids to know how loved they are, that they’re never far from my mind and always in my heart. So I convey that message with messages — literally. Yes, they’re cheesy. Sometimes they’re little poems, like maybe a haiku (Please enjoy your lunch / Sorry about the stale bread / It was all I had), sometimes a (poorly drawn) cartoon, sometimes an inspirational quote, sometimes just a hastily scrawled wish for a great day. They show up on scraps of paper, sandwich bags, and Sharpie-on-banana.

But whatever the format, my kids can always guarantee that each day, they’ll have a reminder that their mom loves them enough to put forth the effort of writing them a special greeting. I envision them opening their lunchboxes every day, eager to read my little love notes, each one bringing a smile and a warm fuzzy feeling that sustains them through the rest of their school day.

You can imagine my surprise when that illusion was totally shattered one day.

They had just come home from school and I was going through their backpacks, cleaning out all the stuff they neglected to throw away at school (funny how they can nonchalantly pitch permission slips and informational newsletters but come home with half-eaten granola bars and orange peels). Watching me, my then-kindergartner said, “All my friends wanted to see the note on my sandwich bag today.” I gave myself a mental pat on the back, proud of my stellar mothering skills — I knew the notes were a hit! But then he finished up by effectively bursting my bubble: “I was embarrassed.”

“Yeah,” my third-grader chimed in. “My friends say it’s babyish that my mom still sends notes in my lunch.”

My pride fell faster than Jell-O nailed to a wall. They may as well have punched me in the gut and said, “Your lunch notes suck!” One minute I was feeling like I might actually have this mom thing down; the next I was picturing them being ridiculed at school and growing up to be hugely dysfunctional adults and sobbing on the Dr. Phil show all because of my stupid notes. (Okay, so I may lean toward the dramatic side. But still.) I fully expected them to someday be “too cool” for my motherly gestures — not letting me kiss them goodbye in the drop-off line at school, for example — but not this soon. I blinked away the sudden onslaught of tears in my eyes, unwilling to let them see that I was upset by this revelation. “Okay,” I said simply, throwing in a casual shrug for good measure. “No more notes, then.”

Despite my best efforts to play it cool, they must have picked up on my distress — because after a short silence, my oldest son said, “Well, you can still put notes in there if you want, Mom. I don’t mind.” And his little brother agreed. “It’s okay, Mommy. I don’t care what my friends think. They might just be jealous.”

“Does it embarrass you guys?” I asked. “Please tell me honestly because you know I love you whether I send you a note at lunch or not.”

It was a little embarrassing sometimes, they told me, but it was okay. The consensus was that I should keep putting the notes in. Still, as the conversation ended and they scampered off to play, I couldn’t help but feel deflated, like they were only agreeing with it to spare my feelings. I stood at the sink, rinsing out the yogurt-and-juice stickiness and pondering the fate of the notes, when something told me to unzip the bottom section of my third-grader’s lunch bag. I never packed anything in there, so there was no need to wash it out, but I felt inexplicably compelled to look inside. And when I did, an avalanche of notes fell out.

I was astonished. He had kept every single note I had sent him all year, and some from last year. Some were so old that they were literally falling apart, many of the words washed away by water droplets or worn away by friction. Tears came to my eyes again, but for a very different reason this time. He valued the notes. He valued them enough to not just read them and smile, but also to keep them. They were making the impact that I had hoped they were making, and more.

So when I packed their lunches the next morning, I confidently resumed the tradition — even though this time, I made the notes a bit smaller, a little more discreet, because even if they were occasionally “embarrassing” or “babyish,” they were still important, tangible proof of my love for my children, and they secretly enjoyed being reminded.

Besides, if your mom doesn’t embarrass you, is she really a mom at all?

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