While many kids are lucky if their parents send them off to school with a ham and cheese sandwich and an apple in their packed lunches, for some, the midday meal is a work of art.
Some parents include paper napkins with hand-drawn illustrations so elaborate that children have preferred to use their own clothing to wipe up spills. Others decorate the once-boring brown paper bag with fanciful dragons and scenes from Star Wars, or recreate great works of art in food. (Think Vermeer's Girl With A Pearl Earring rendered in sushi.)
Viewed one way, these art projects are simply a new manifestation of the age-old tradition of showing parental affection through meals. But thanks to social media, such private projects can gain lots of public attention – not all of it approving. And in today's world of hyper competitive parenting, outsiders can sometimes interpret lunch bag art as a sort of challenge to their own parenting skills.
Nina Levy, the Brooklyn-based artist responsible for the blog Daily Napkins, started doodling on her two sons' napkins over a decade ago. In the beginning, she drew with a simple black Sharpie. The illustrations have since gotten far more elaborate and colorful.
Levy's younger son, now 8, has grown up with ornamental napkins tucked into the lunches he carries to school — she started the project before he was born. And while her oldest, at 12, has aged out of packed lunches, both boys regularly made requests and offered suggestions on how they wanted Levy to depict their favorite characters.
Alas, other parents weren't always thrilled by Levy's projects. Years ago, she visited her oldest son's classroom and drew napkins in front of the students. Soon, other kids were demanding the same from their harried parents.
"It did not make me popular," she says. Today, most of the criticism lobbed her way comes from readers online. "They see it as indulgent and irritating and a sign that I have too much time on my hands," says Levy, who works out of a studio just downstairs from her apartment.
As an artist, she's always seen her napkin art as simply a daily exercise in drawing — one that has the added benefit of bringing her closer to her children. "Suggesting that other people need to do it or that it is a reasonable thing to do — it's certainly not," she says.
Caitlyn Collins, a doctoral candidate at the University of Texas studying contemporary parenting practices, sees the kind of criticism Levy has received as an outgrowth of our culture of "intensive mothering." The term describes not just a parenting style but the expectations placed on mothers "to be nurturing, unselfish, and sensitive to their family's needs," says Collins – all the time, at the expense of their own well-being.
Unfortunately, that pressure regularly erupts into skirmishes in the so-called "mommy wars" – a cultural battle zone over parenting styles and decisions. Breastfeed or bottle feed? Stay-at-home or work outside the home? And while dads are increasingly swept up in the conversation, the judging is still largely directed at moms. Against this cultural backdrop, elaborate works of art slipped into a lunch bag can be seen as another salvo in the war.
"It's [seen as] a form of gender performance," Collins says. "It's showing that you're doing a better job carrying out this role than those around you."
What the audience for these art projects sometimes forgets is that the artists are getting something out of it, too.
Samantha Lee, a mom based in Malaysia who makes edible recreations of everything from Totoro to Tinkerbell, has become a professional food artist as a result of all the attention generated by the visually dazzling lunches she crafts for her daughters. She started posting photos of the ornamented meals to Instagram in 2011 and soon gathered a large following.
"I love what I do," she says. "I will continue to create stories on a plate, even if my children grow out of it." Though the plates look like time-consuming endeavors to the non-artistic among us, Lee says that they take her the same amount of time to prepare as any other meal.
Derek Benson, the father of two behind the Lunchbag Art project, is one of a handful of men we found online who create similar food art projects for their children. Professionally, he makes art for video games, but in his spare time he draws cartoons of everything from Mr. Spock to dinosaurs on the brown paper bags his kids bring to school.
He started a Tumblr with the purpose of creating a visual record of his creations, which get tossed out once lunchtime is over. At first, his blog didn't list any personal information about him, so many commenters assumed he was a mom, he says.
"A lot of moms were very critical," says Benson. "They'd say things like ... 'Must be nice to have a maid so you can have all this free time.' "
But that hostility vanished once he added the fact that "I'm the dad" to the bio section on his Tumblr. "Suddenly, the Internet was all smiles, because we expect so little from dads," he says.
Indeed, Collins says that's one of the other troubling aspects of the mommy wars: the double standard that gives dads a pass while pitting mother against mother.
Like most parents, these lunch artists are just trying to find a way to connect with their children — and in the process, maybe get a little affirmation for themselves, too. Both Levy and Benson say their lunch-based projects have generated more interest and feedback both on- and off-line than their projects as professional artists.
Tove Danovich is a writer based in New York City.