Health

I Tried to Simplify My Life by Eating my Childhood Lunch for a Week

My first impression, upon looking at the lunch with adult eyes, was, "I can’t believe I used to eat this every day."

by Hannah Smothers
Nov 19 2019, 12:00pm

Hannah Smothers

For 13 years, I ate basically same exact lunch every single day (or at least Monday through Friday, from August to May). Within the strict regimentation of the school day, I created even more monotony in the form of my bagged lunch. And it was a perfect lunch: a relatively plain turkey sandwich, a baggie of Goldfish crackers, and a plastic cup of Mott’s applesauce. This was the collection of foods that got me through all of my tests, helped get me into college, fueled hours of sports practices, and comforted me through the blow of failed crushes. It brought me legitimate joy each day; I freakin’ loved this lunch.

Facebook screenshot
A real Facebook post by the author's mother.

And yet, for some reason, I promptly stopped eating it after high school. In college, I was too irresponsible to think of such things as “eating lunch.” And now, as an adult with a desk job, I loathe lunch. It’s a stupid meal, easily the worst one of the day. There are no definitive “lunch foods”—only less-good, often-leftover dinner foods that you have to eat at your desk, in order to “stay alive” and “not be bored.” The VICE offices are in sort of a lunch desert—none of the options are close by, and all of them are expensive; designed to be eaten by European tourists and rich people with leisure time. It’s astonishing to me that, with all our boundless technology, we’ve yet to hack our way out of needing lunch. Nothing makes me more existential about my corporeal form than requiring this meal each day. (In Norway, they deal with this dread by eating the same, very simple sandwich every day. Kinda like I did as a kid.)

This is all very heartbreaking, because I used to really like lunch. It was the best 25 minutes of my school day. Yes, the opportunity to socialize and flirt was nice, but biting into my same sandwich every afternoon was genuinely good. In search of a new source of joy, I decided to resurrect my childhood lunch for a full week. I can’t recreate the cafeteria vibe, but I can definitely still buy all of the foods that comprised this meal. Perhaps I’d find lunch’s saving grace, or even true happiness, in an oblong, snack-size baggie of Goldfish crackers? Or, if not, maybe returning to this simple lunch from a simpler time would make my least favorite meal a little more enjoyable.

For 13 years, I’d inherently understood the virtues of monotony—a concept praised by certain adults who like to wear the same clothes every day, or have a rigid morning routine. Eight years after I’d last bitten into the squishy, processed wheat bread of my youth and peeled back the aluminum lid of an applesauce cup, I returned.

Monday

My mom making my lunch
The adult author's mom making her childhood lunch in Texas.

I unexpectedly kicked the week off in the most appropriate place possible: My mom’s kitchen. A cancelled flight left me marooned in Texas for an extra day, and so my mom—inventor of the kid lunch! a celebrity chef!—made it herself. My first impression, upon looking at the lunch with adult eyes, was, I can’t believe I used to eat this every day. The ingredients include things I never buy now, like Borden cheese singles and the kind of packaged wheat bread that will outlive us in the apocalypse (I shop at WHOLE FOODS, for Christ’s sake!!). I watched my mom assemble it and felt simultaneously excited and terrified. This is gonna give me a stomachache on my flight, I thought. I wasn’t wrong.

Still, despite how depraved it felt to dump this assemblage of items (plus Almond Joys and stale Fig Newtons my mom snuck in as a surprise) onto my airplane tray, I liked this lunch. It was nostalgia in a bag; it tasted like stressing out about pre-cal, and learning what a “blow job” is. Also, it tasted good.

Tuesday

Back home in New York, I went to the grocery store downstairs from my apartment and got my kid lunch supplies. Here is maybe the largest benefit of this lunch: It’s cheap as hell. Four day’s worth of supplies cost $15, or about $3.75 per meal, with some applesauce cups, bread, and cheese slices left over. The sandwiches available near my office are in the $12–$17 range—a crime and a scandal. Even if eating my kid lunch didn’t make me “happier,” it would definitely save me money.

But where there is good, evil lurks nearby. As I packed the lunch for myself the first time, I realized how much waste it produces: two plastic baggies, plus the plastic cup the applesauce comes in. I started to feel really bad about the staggering amount of lunch trash I generated in 13 years of eating this food. Sorry, to the Earth. I recycle a lot now.

The lunch on the author's desk

I dumped the collection of foods onto my desk and my coworker, Katie Way, looked at the baggie of Goldfish and said something like, “Damn, that long bag of Goldfish… Brings me back.” The nutritional value of this meal may be questionable, but it was bringing people around me joy. What’s better than that?? The stomachache from the day before didn’t return, and instead, my body welcomed the lunch, accepting it graciously. Visceral memories came flooding back: The way the Nature’s Own whole wheat bread gets squishy and sticks to my gums, my habit of only eating Goldfish in pairs (one for each side of my mouth), the delectable sliminess of the Borden cheese single… I’m not a food critic, per se, but I would certainly say the lunch is a sensory experience, even if I looked like a giant baby eating it (thankfully, none of my coworkers made fun of me for this, though they could have).

Wednesday

By day three, I was back in the swing of the lunch, baby! I eased some of my waste anxiety by packing the sandwich in a Tupperware container, and only used one plastic bag for the Goldfish (the plastic bag is wasteful but it is also iconic!). I ate it joyfully in about 15 minutes, around 1 p.m. I worked as I chewed and slurped up the applesauce. I felt satiated; I felt alive. I felt 15.

But by 3:30, I was hungry again, and also really tired. I wondered if it was the lunch’s fault. As part of this experiment, I asked a couple nutritionists and dietitians to help me review the health qualities of my lunch. The first dietician I spoke to, Lisa Young, basically scolded me for this meal after I listed off its components: two slices of whole wheat bread, deli turkey, a cheese single, mayo, mustard, Goldfish crackers, and a cup of unsweetened applesauce (NB: I ate the sweetened stuff as a kid, but upon examining the sugar quantity, could not bring myself to purchase it as an adult.)

“When you eat the same thing every single day, you're not getting a wide variety of nutrients, so it isn't really my choice,” Young told me. “In the case of that specific lunch, it's very processed. Specifically, the Goldfish—there's no real redeeming qualities. It's not terrible, but it's not nutritious by any means.” Excuse me… What??? I definitely grew up with some understanding of Goldfish as “healthy.” By the grain-forward standards of the now-retired food pyramid, which was very much still relevant in 1998, when my mom created this lunch, Goldfish are an ideal snack. Also, how can a snack that literally smiles at you as you eat it be bad?

All three of the nutritionists I spoke to had something negative to say about the Goldfish, which sucks and is rude, because I love them so much. Juliana Cohen, an adjunct assistant professor of nutrition at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, was slightly more forgiving and understanding than Young, because her six-year-old son also eats the same thing every day. A comrade! “I’d limit the processed turkey deli to once a week or less, otherwise, a little bit of Goldfish once in a while is not a big deal,” Cohen said.

The lunch, audited by MyFitnessPal
The lunch assessed by My Fitness Pal.

For a final test, my editor ran the lunch through MyFitnessPal and added a sample breakfast and dinner, to see how it might stack up in a theoretical day of eating. The meal honestly fared better than I thought it would, after getting absolutely torn to shreds by the nutritionists. At about 470 calories, the lunch isn’t especially filling (this explains the afternoon drowsiness), but otherwise, it has some decent health value! There’s protein and fiber, and the applesauce definitely counts as “a fruit,” even if that fruit is mushed up in a little cup.

Maybe I could eat this every day… Is how this info makes me feel. Maybe...

Thursday

I ate this lunch again this day, but cannot tell you anything about it. I have no recollection of the taste; it was just there one moment and gone the next. I watched a coworker eat her Sweetgreen salad, and I stared and salivated and coveted it; I wished it were my Sweetgreen salad. Perhaps this was my body’s way of crying out for a vegetable.

I must have eaten my lunch of tan and yellow foods and continued to work on my computer the entire time, but I felt no sense of happiness. The gimmick of the kid lunch had worn off. No longer was I someone doing a funny thing. I was just an adult eating a pile of processed food meant for kids of a different, bygone era—an era where snacks were really just candy, and organic food was only for celebrities.

Goldfish in a baggie

Young couldn’t say what horrors might befall me for eating this lunch, exactly, but suggested a few tweaks to make it healthier: Trade out the turkey slices for turkey breast; replace the mayo with avocado (these two things aren’t the same at all…); ditch the cheese; replace applesauce with an actual apple; swap the Goldfish crackers for wheat crackers. I thought of this hypothetical lunch Young suggested, and it seemed more expensive, and also less fun... each healthful item a reminder that the body is temporary, we are all slowly dying, and eating a few “good” things will, at best, slightly delay that inevitability. It bummed me out.

I could grow the lunch up, make it more adult. But the items Young suggested aren’t as cheap as the ones I was using; “natural foods,” imbued with virtue, are way more expensive than the processed stuff I grabbed. Also, the whole point of this was to make lunch enjoyable again, and to put as little thought into it as possible. Having to think about which foods are healthier, which things can be substituted, sounds like it would do the opposite of that.

Friday

Friday morning was chaotic; I had a few early phone calls, some issues with a draft, and an afternoon meeting I couldn’t miss. I was stressed out, and despite the lunch requiring less than five minutes of my time, I couldn’t bring myself to make it. So, unfortunately, on my final day, I did not eat the lunch. But honestly, as I ate some warm empanadas provided at a company meeting, I kinda missed it.

Eating the kid lunch made me happier, though it’s hard to determine whether I got more joy from the gimmick or from the actual food. It was nice not to have to think about where my lunch was coming from, too—it was right there, in my green lunchbox, packed and ready. I enjoyed eating it; Goldfish still slap and I hope they’re never squelched by the mighty arm of Health Food. Sure, I got a little drowsy in the afternoons… But like, I always do. It’s called, “sitting for too long.” It happens. Having to drink some extra office coffee was worth the money I saved at the grocery store.

Goldfish crackers in some ugly soup
Goldfish crackers in the author's ugly, but delicious, soup.

Young refused to endorse my eating this lunch every day, on the grounds that it contains no real nutritional value. But what about the joy it brings me?, I wanted to know. “What would happen if I ate this every day, provided I had normal, unprocessed foods the rest of the time?” I asked. There’s more to lunch, after all, than merely filling the tank, adding fuel to your body so that you may keep typing or whatever. What if this was fun, what if I loved it, what if I craved it?

On Monday, the beginning of a new week, I got prepared sushi from store near the office for lunch. It was fine; unremarkable. I liked the walk outside to go get it more than I actually liked eating it. I haven’t packed the kid lunch again, and I don’t know if I’ll fully return to it, necessarily, but it’s extremely nice to have Goldfish in my home again. I brought some with me on Tuesday and dumped them into a bowl of some very adult soup I’d made the night before. They looked cute swimming around in there, and they tasted so good.

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