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These Parents Make Lovely Lunch Bag Art. Not Everyone Is Pleased

  • Nina Levy, the Brooklyn-based artist behind the blog Daily Napkins, started doodling on her two sons' napkins over a decade ago. They feature handwritten messages from Levy along the side. This one reads: "The Clumsy Ninjas Say: 'Have A Well Coordinated Lunch Ansel!' "
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    Nina Levy, the Brooklyn-based artist behind the blog Daily Napkins, started doodling on her two sons' napkins over a decade ago. They feature handwritten messages from Levy along the side. This one reads: "The Clumsy Ninjas Say: 'Have A Well Coordinated Lunch Ansel!' "
    Courtesy of Nina Levy
  • Yoda and the Sphynx say: "Have a wise lunch Chase!"
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    Yoda and the Sphynx say: "Have a wise lunch Chase!"
    Courtesy of Nina Levy
  • Maxwell says: "Have a well rounded lunch Ansel!" (Love, Mom)
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    Maxwell says: "Have a well rounded lunch Ansel!" (Love, Mom)
    Courtesy of Nina Levy
  • A happy Easter message from Peeps. Levy often ends her handwritten notes with "Love, Mom."
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    A happy Easter message from Peeps. Levy often ends her handwritten notes with "Love, Mom."
    Courtesy of Nina Levy
  • The Ghost Dog Says: "Have a spiritual lunch Ansel!"
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    The Ghost Dog Says: "Have a spiritual lunch Ansel!"
    Courtesy of Nina Levy
  • Robin from Fire Emblem says: "Have a cool lunch Ansel!"
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    Robin from Fire Emblem says: "Have a cool lunch Ansel!"
    Courtesy of Nina Levy

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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 re-create 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 hypercompetitive 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.

  • Samantha Lee is a mother based in Malaysia who makes edible re-creations of everything from Totoro to Tinker Bell. Here, her take on Vermeer's Girl with a Pearl Earring, made of onigiri (white rice wrapped in nori, or seaweed), with cabbage and choy sam, an omelet and yellow capsicum. The lips and earring are crafted from crab stick.
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    Samantha Lee is a mother based in Malaysia who makes edible re-creations of everything from Totoro to Tinker Bell. Here, her take on Vermeer's Girl with a Pearl Earring, made of onigiri (white rice wrapped in nori, or seaweed), with cabbage and choy sam, an omelet and yellow capsicum. The lips and earring are crafted from crab stick.
    Courtesy Samantha Lee
  • Lee's Easter-themed creation, made with an omelet, zucchini, cheese, seaweed, ketchup and red capsicum.
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    Lee's Easter-themed creation, made with an omelet, zucchini, cheese, seaweed, ketchup and red capsicum.
    Courtesy Samantha Lee
  • Lee's "Winter wonderland in NYC," made with pancakes, yogurt, cereals and sugar powder.
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    Lee's "Winter wonderland in NYC," made with pancakes, yogurt, cereals and sugar powder.
    Courtesy Samantha Lee
  • "Annyeonghaseyo!" Lee's Korea-themed strawberry creation
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    "Annyeonghaseyo!" Lee's Korea-themed strawberry creation
    Courtesy Samantha Lee
  • Lee's "Snack-a-saurus," a dinosaur crafted out of a toasted tortilla in a salad "jungle."
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    Lee's "Snack-a-saurus," a dinosaur crafted out of a toasted tortilla in a salad "jungle."
    Courtesy Samantha Lee
  • Lee's food version of Snow White's Wicked Queen, made from rice and seaweed, yellow capsicum (crown), cheese, sweet corn and cherry tomato.
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    Lee's food version of Snow White's Wicked Queen, made from rice and seaweed, yellow capsicum (crown), cheese, sweet corn and cherry tomato.
    Courtesy Samantha Lee

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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. Breast-feed or bottle feed? Stay at home or work outside the home? And while fathers are increasingly swept up in the conversation, the judging is still largely directed at mothers. 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."

  • Derek Benson is the father of two behind the Lunchbag Art project.He started the Tumblr to create a visual record of the paper lunch illustrations he creates for his kids. Here, Benson's take on Groot, from Guardians of the Galaxy.
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    Derek Benson is the father of two behind the Lunchbag Art project.He started the Tumblr to create a visual record of the paper lunch illustrations he creates for his kids. Here, Benson's take on Groot, from Guardians of the Galaxy.
    Courtesy Derek Benson
  • One of Benson's creations, featuring Darth Vader
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    One of Benson's creations, featuring Darth Vader
    Courtesy Derek Benson
  • Three of Benson's lunch bag paintings based on Balinese sculpture
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    Three of Benson's lunch bag paintings based on Balinese sculpture
    Courtesy Derek Benson
  • Powerups from the various Mario games
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    Powerups from the various Mario games
    Courtesy Derek Benson
  • R2D2, scanning on Hoth from The Empire Strikes Back
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    R2D2, scanning on Hoth from The Empire Strikes Back
    Courtesy Derek Benson
  • Benson captioned this one "Thanksgiving: Problems in 1600s Plymouth."
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    Benson captioned this one "Thanksgiving: Problems in 1600s Plymouth."
    Courtesy Derek Benson

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What the audience for these art projects sometimes forgets is that the artists are getting something out of it, too.

Samantha Lee, a mother based in Malaysia who makes edible re-creations of everything from Totoro to Tinker Bell, 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 on 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 nonartistic 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 offline than their projects as professional artists.


Tove Danovich is a writer based in New York City.