My son Ben started first grade this fall, and at $2.50 for a hot lunch, I knew he'd bring lunch most days. He needed a lunch box.
At Target, Ben found a beige one with a fluorescent yellow stripe and a star -- a soldier lunch box! With an attached water bottle! As he swung his choice through the air with glee, I glanced up and down the aisle looking for the real lunch boxes. You know, the ones made of hard plastic, not this soft stuff. I saw insulated totes, bags, boxes and backpacks featuring every licensed character and color a kid could want, but none made of hard plastic.
I hesitated. Looking at the box's supple white interior and the delicate cotton threads holding it together, I knew it wouldn't last. But I had no choice. I bought it, and so began my struggle to keep it clean.
Strategy No. 1: Surface clean only. This worked, um ... once? Even though I've asked him to, Ben will not throw his lunch leftovers away at school, or even put them in a plastic bag to protect his lunch box. Therefore, on most days, his lunch box returns home with every crevice of its interior blanketed in granola and oxidized fruit guts.
Strategy No. 2: Wash it under running water, then hang from a cabinet knob to dry overnight. This worked OK for about a month. Except that I always had a lunch box hanging off my kitchen cabinet. Then one day, I realized the thing was rotting from the inside out.
Strategy No. 3: Pretend the lunch box's threads were always black, and that it didn't smell. This didn't work, of course. The damage was done. Ben had also chewed the spout on the plastic sports bottle into a mauled mess.
Strategy No. 4: Throw it away. Go online and find a real, hard plastic lunch box. Price is no object.
In the end, I shelled out $45 at Lunchboxes.com for a plastic lunch box and a stainless steel thermos. Sure, it still comes home covered in goop, but at least I know I can wash it and dry it without staging a multi-hour process that ends with it molding anyway. Even if the Batman sticker falls off, I can stick something else on there to replace it.
This whole episode left me wondering: How are soft, insulated lunch boxes an improvement over the hard plastic ones? I'm not the paranoid type, but have retailers and lunch box makers conspired to force parents into buying several lunch boxes a year? Or do I just have a sloppy eater on my hands?
Kris Clouthier is a stay-at-home mom and freelance writer living north of Boston.