Paper Bag Lunch



Only yesterday, sitting on my son’s friend’s porch, I boasted about my near-perfect integration into American culture. 

“Yes, it’s true,” I told Susan when she asked if moving from Europe four years ago had been hard, “It was difficult at times. Mostly I felt like such an alien. Everything I did seemed not to match the customs. I am so happy I now know what is expected of me.” If only I had known what awaited me this morning!


I am preparing my 7-year-old son for a field trip to the National Museum of Natural History.

“Please pack a paper bag lunch,” his teachers’ note reads. And that’s really all it takes to throw me off-guard …


After scavenging through the mess of my bags-cupboard, I proudly produce a small, lunch-sized brown paper bag with handles. Thibaut, always very conscious of doing the right thing, does not seem convinced. 

“Are you sure this is the kind of bag I need?” he asks. 

“I’m sure this one is perfect,” I reply self-assuredly while I slice a buttered sandwich in half. And that’s when it hits me. I don’t know how to prepare a paper bag lunch! For how do you put buttered sandwiches in a paper bag? Do you just slide them in? Surely if you do, the butter will stain the paper, make it all greasy and prone to tearing. So maybe I need to put the sandwiches into a small plastic ziplock bag before slipping them into the paper bag? But then the whole recycling point of paper is gone, right? My son can’t make me any wiser.

“I don’t know how the other kids pack their lunch, mama,” he says, sighing. “Their moms probably know how to do it.” Oh, how I long for the Belgian field trips on which every child carries his own mini-backpack containing his own sturdy lunchbox! 

I decide to go for the small ziplock within the paper bag and throw in a liquid yoghurt stick as a dessert. 

“What about drinks?” I turn to my son again. “Can you bring your water bottle?”

“I don’t think so,” he replies, “I think we have to throw everything away after the lunch.” So I take a small plastic bottle out of the fridge. Only, with the condensation on the bottle, the paper bag will surely tear, right? 

“Should I put your paper bag in a plastic bag, so we’re sure it doesn’t get ripped?” I ask my son. 

“No mama! Then it’s not a paper bag lunch anymore.” Thibaut looks exasperated, so I decide not to push it and just slip the wet bottle into the paper bag, bravely ignoring the dark wet stains that immediately show. There, the lunch is ready. But what about transportation? Will it be thrown into a big basket with the other lunch bags before being hauled onto the bus? My son’s bag will surely spill all its contents if it is not held upright, by the handles. I quickly run to my daughter’s room to grab some tape.

“What are you doing now, mama?” Thibaut exclaims. 

“I’m closing your lunch bag,” I explain.

“Not with tape! You have to fold the top so that it closes,” my son instructs me. I look at the small bag with handles, from which the top of the water bottle protrudes. “There is no extra paper on the top, Thibaut. I can’t fold anything.” My son watches in horror as I tape the top of his bag. Then I take a Sharpie. 

“What is that for?” Thibaut asks, looking on the verge of a breakdown. 

“To write you name on your bag,” I explain. “How else will you know which bag is yours?” 

“Oh, no, now everyone will know the weird lunch bag is mine!” 

What? This bag is not weird! I just shrug, writing my son’s name in neat small letters. I take a step back to admire my work. The bag looks cute, actually. Almost like a small present. All it’s missing is a colorful bow. One look at my son however, tells me that a nice bow would be over the top, so I decide to let go of my creativity.

My computer, producing a joyful ‘Ping!’ to alert me of a new e-mail, averts my attention to more earthly matters.

“The government shutdown includes the DC Smithsonian museums. So, unfortunately, we need to cancel today’s field trip,” Ms. Gomez’s mail reads. Oh, that is sad. Thibaut will be SO disappointed.

“Bad news, Thibaut,” I turn to my son, trying to find the best words to break this news. “You will not be able to go on your field trip today. But Ms. Gomez promises  – “  My lengthy and empathic explanation is cut short.

“Great!” Thibaut grabs his paper bag lunch from the kitchen counter and tears it apart. “Then I don’t need to take this paper bag!” In two moves he transfers his food to his regular lunchbox, only leaving behind pitifully looking paper shreds on the stone counter. 


So much for my attempts at being an American mom. After dropping off my – very cheerful – son at school, I return home, determined to find a You-tube tutorial on how to prepare a paper bag lunch. Another step forward to my complete integration.



14 thoughts on “Paper Bag Lunch

  1. hilarious, as always ! at least you won’t have any trouble at all adjusting to living in a country that has no government LOL

  2. That brings back memories. I remember after arriving in the US and making my kids bring home their brown bags so they could use them a second day. I told them it was a waste of paper to just throw it out. Boy, did I embarrass them with that one.

  3. This is great and so funny, Helene. Thanks for sharing. I love that you have started a blog and look forward to more stories!

  4. Really funny! Now I don’t feel that bad for struggling to prepare the “paper bag” lunch for my kids for the first time last year.

  5. Lol!!
    Hélène, time to teach your son how to use a “brooddoos”!!
    Not to forget the “drinkebus””! Belgian ecology rules ;-))
    (at lunchtime anyway)

  6. Helene,

    As an American, I am sorry for any perminent stress this experience caused you and Thibaut! I think your instincts were right on! “Paper bag” is really code for “send a lunch with no items you expect to be returned.” From there, anything is really fine. I bag field trip lunches in anything I find handy that works – paperbag with top rolled and stapled with name on it or plastic bag with handles tied and name on it. Americans do have an infatuation with zip lock bags for sandwiches etc. I think I like the idea of putting all the lunch foods into one plastic bag – not individually wrapped. At least, that would reduce the amount of plastic thrown out and provide a more durable exterior for the lunch bag.

  7. Very funny! And just so you know, paper bags are sold in the “paper isle” in the grocery store! (wink! wink!)

  8. Lol! I remember my first time… Only i thought it was a concept, not something that actually existed… So my son was the only one with a ziplock plastic bag. And i had been so proud of my ziplock bag discovery only that same morning…

    • Inderdaad Cecile. En toppunt is dat die ‘lunch bags’ dan allemaal in 1 grote vuilzak gegooid worden die de ganse ‘field trip’ gedragen wordt door 1 ouder die zich als vrijwilliger had opgegeven om mee te gaan. Ik heb ondertussen geleerd om heel ver weg van de ‘lunch bag trash bag’ te blijven op het moment van vertrek 😉

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