The art of the lunch note

A blank index card is the start of a conversation.  PC: Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

A blank index card is the start of a conversation. 

PC: Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

Already having exhausted Twisty Noodle's deep well of fall materials, my activity-sheet-obsessed preschooler and I went Pinterest hunting for another dozen dot painting printables. Wedged between pins for Halloween bats and Thanksgiving pies, we found a set of printable lunch notes. 

I printed a stack of leaf and letter pages to keep my son busy while I checked out the lunch notes. There were cute cartoons. There were jokes. There were notes for good days, but also for failed tests and friend fights. No color printer? No problem. I could buy lunch notes on Amazon. [This is an affiliate link, but I hope you'll deny snackdinner the commission and not buy lunch notes.]

It's not the notes themselves that bother me. Have a great day. There's only one you. I am proud of you. Those are all lovely sentiments, even if the writer was wrong about days of the week, because as we all know it's not "wonderful" Wednesday, it's WACKY Wednesday. 

The notes are more technically impressive than anything I could produce. The joke notes are far funnier than my own. The cartoons far outpace my sketching skills. I don't own a letterpress machine, or an embosser. I've been learning calligraphy, but so far I can only manage "A" and "B." 

But these beautiful, funny, notes miss the point. 

The Pinterest lunch note is even worse than all of those pinned preschooler crafts that were clearly not made by three-year olds. When you make your child's craft for him, at least one of you made something. When you let someone else make your lunch notes, both you and your child miss out on a chance for conversation. 

I have a white Bankers Box full of childhood treasures. The box actually used to be multiple boxes, which followed me from a comparatively luxurious midwest college apartment to an ever-decreasing size of city spaces, which is why I've whittled the contents to just the essentials. There are handmade gifts my siblings made in our school years. There's a note from my friend about meeting the man I was certain would become her husband. (They now have two kids.) There are thank you notes from my first students. I'm embarrassed to admit the box still holds a New Kids on the Block CD (the wrong one) that I somehow still can't throw away, even though I don't own a CD player. Until recently it held my copy of Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, until I trusted my son not to destroy it. 

One of my most treasured treasures is a lunch note, in my mom's all caps style: 

STEPH,

EVEN WHEN
WE'RE MAD AT
EACH OTHER, I
STILL LOVE YOU

                    MOM

I have no idea what the fight was about. I don't even know when the fight was, as there's no date on the note. I do know from the creases that I folded my mom's index card into a small enough rectangle to fit into a jeans pocket. And that I've carried it to a dorm room, eight apartments, and now my first house. 

There's nothing Pinterest-worthy about an index card and ball-point pen, but this note has something those printables don't: it's part of a very real conversation, a back-and-forth that takes place even when we're not with each other. On those rare occasions when we're mad at each other, the note is a reminder we are so loved. Maybe we're so mad precisely because we love each other so much. 

I've seen the charge that the lunch note is a symptom of helicopter parenting, of parents not being able to let their kids be even for a few hours a day. But good lunch notes aren't a way to tell kids to do better in math, or make them feel better that they're trying really hard at math. They're physical evidence of an ongoing conversation. 

I started writing lunch notes to my child because I wanted to keep that same kind of conversation going. No lunch note is banked ahead of time or intended to be "special," because I'm not the one who gets to decide which notes will be special. I don't know which notes will resonate with my son, so I just write in response to whatever we're doing and feeling.

If he's singing the ABCs all morning, I write the ABCs. If he's inventing new phrases, I write them out phoenetically. Sometimes I tell him to have a Wacky Wednesday. Or I'll pretend to be a character from a book we're reading. (After we read Amy Krouse Rosenthal's Exclamation Mark, the notes were just strings of punctuation marks.) 

My approach occasionally backfires. Recently I got too playful and wrote 

This is not a lunch note. 

It's a HUG! 

Even though I view my lunch notes as metaphorical hugs, my son clearly does not: 

Today's lunch note just got some feedback. #juniorcopywriter

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He now retains editing privileges on all notes before taking them to school. 

Once the notes go to school, they're gone. I don't track what my son's doing with them, or if he's reading them, or throwing them away, or hoarding them. I don't ask whether he liked the note, or what the answer to my occasional note question is. I leave it to him to keep the conversation going in whatever way he chooses...

...which is why I was recently surprised to receive my first lunch note in decades: