"Don't look in your lunchbox until you get to school, OK?"
"You think I'm going to complain about what's in it, don't you?"
"I know you're going to complain, but that's not why. I put in a surprise," said the sister whose job it was that week to pack lunches.
"I bet I can guess what it is," said her sister. "Chocolate."
"No, I saw the package on the counter. Now can I look?"
"I want it to be a surprise -- "
"But -- "
And so it goes, the lunchbox drama. Like a bad soap opera, this show has been running at our house for a decade and a half and, given the ages of the participants, has a contract to keep running for another 11 years.
In the great sweep of human events, the question of what to pack in a packed lunch may seem small. It is small. Yet, stipulating its smallness, it is nonetheless a question of great consequence. Is the food appetizing enough that a child will eat it when unsupervised by a spinach-obsessed parent? Is it nutritious enough that the child will be able to pay attention to the teacher after lunch? Is it substantial enough to keep the wolf from the classroom door, yet not so substantial that they waste half of it?
For years, I struggled to fill the wretched things -- the lunchboxes, that is, not the children. Eschewing junk food makes this an especially difficult challenge. There were times when my children went to school with cheese sandwiches and a banana and returned home with the cheese untouched, the crusts gnawed out, and the bananas blackened but unbitten.
During one particularly bleak period, right after I'd had a baby and had hired help in the house, my eldest two went to school not once but twice with sandwiches made of raw pancetta. (The hired help didn't realize the stuff had to be cooked). On those occasions, the children's fastidiousness worked in our favor: They didn't eat the raw pork, and we didn't have to rush them to the hospital. Still, yuck!
Some years later, I conceived the scheme that prevails to this day: The people who eat the lunches take turns packing them. If your household drama lacks conflict, this is an excellent way to introduce it.
"I'm looking now. We're almost at school," said the girl who'd received the do-not-open edict, half an hour later.
"OK," said the lunch packer, bracing herself.
But it was their younger sister who had the immediate difficulty.
"I don't eat tomatoes," she said, sounding puzzled as she removed two perfect scarlet orbs from her lunchbox.
"No. Can someone take them?"
"I already have some. And -- hey, wait a minute! Where's my sandwich?"
"What do you mean?"
"Thanks for the chocolate and everything, but you forgot to make me a sandwich."
"We didn't have any bread."
"Yes we do. Did you check the freezer?"
"Argh, this is not enough food!"
"Yes, it is. You have grapes and tomatoes and chocolate and some crackers and -- "
"No it isn't! You never pack enough!
There was no answer to this. What answer could there be? The die was cast, the Rubicon -- in this case, I-495 -- had been crossed. There was no going back; there was only going forward. Hungrily.
"Here," said the youngest child. "You can have my tomatoes."
The show was over, and the credits were running, but one thing is certain: There will be more lurid lunchbox drama in tomorrow's episode. Stay tuned!
Meghan Cox Gurdon's column appears on Sunday and Thursday. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.