Food videos are one of my main vices. Show me a vertical video of someone making a meal, and I’ll slip into a trance whether it’s healthy mason-jar instant noodles or decadent layered burgers. I love this New Zealander chef who turns his girlfriend’s cravings into Michelin-level courses, but I’ve also been hypnotized by easy pastas and ramen hacks. I’d like to think I'm looking for inspiration, but mostly I’m just procrastinating. And probably hungry.
Still, there’s one trend that has fascinated and occasionally flabbergasted me: The Lunchbox Wife.
“Let’s pack a lunch for my husband,” Heather Cox (@heathercoxzzz) announces as she sets a pair of containers on the counter. “Today I made him a dip with some softened cream cheese, pulled pork, jalapeño cheddar sausage, some barbeque sauce…” She blends it all up, tops it with more cheese, and lets it bake while filling another compartment up with veggies and fruit. It all fits snugly into a self-heating LunchEAZE set, and it looks absolutely delicious.
Cox has 111,000 followers on Instagram and 291,000 on TikTok. (A video where she packs a lunch of tacos in hard shells — “nothing special today” — has more than 500,000 views.) And she’s far from the only woman packing thoughtful lunches for her spouse and posting them for the world to see. The hashtag #Lunchformyhusband has more than 2 billion views on TikTok. Hannah Lee (@Bentonoods) goes for elevated bites like kimchi pork ribs, crab inari, and little carrots cut into stars. Meanwhile, Cheyenne Singh (@cheysingh) offers sassy commentary about her husband’s ability to care for himself as she packages leftovers and sandwiches.
These women typically narrate each step, but I almost always watch them on silent — the joy isn’t in learning to re-create what they do, it’s watching the food fit into aesthetically pleasing containers like one tasty Tetris game. Then pure envy kicks in — not for the wives, but for their partners, who are sent off with splendid-looking meals and one less thing to worry about. Pre-pandemic, when I used to work in an office, I would start thinking about what I’d get around 10 a.m. and spend too much money ordering Sweetgreen or Chopt. Now that I’m homebound, midday sustenance is a slog. As much as I like the way lunch breaks up days of staring at a screen, I’m often disappointed by the results. I make tuna sandwiches. I make tuna rice bowls. I try to make other things that don’t involve tuna. And, sure, if my boyfriend happens to want what I’m having, I’ll make enough for him too. Often, we just resort to ordering delivery. What I wouldn’t give for Chinese braised pork belly with a side of kiwi cut into a cute shape! I’d never cut fruit into a cute shape!
There’s also another more judgemental part of my brain that kicks into gear: The videos are all a little “trad” for me. In the last few years, particularly during the pandemic, “tradwives” — women who promote the traditional values of cooking, cleaning, and letting their husbands provide financially for their households — have taken off on social media and inspired plenty of trend pieces debating their content: Is it empowering or anti-feminist?
I’m not sure the women I watch would identify as “tradwives” — they’re not exactly doing Donna Reed cosplay. But the Lunchbox Wives clearly take some pleasure in the ways their videos can strike a nerve. Recently, Cox jumped on a popular meme format and filmed her husband tossing his lunchbox from atop an animated boat as the instrumental opening of “My Heart Will Go On” plays. “Off to throw away the lunch my wife made me because @user74853252 says my grown a$$ can make it myself,” the text reads.
In one post last summer, Singh, who is white but whose husband is not, recalls a comment that said she was “pathetic for packing my husband’s lunch” and that “clearly he was only with me for a green card.” So Singh has made a habit of addressing videos to the “Karens” frequenting her posts. “Tonight for dinner I made a chicken tikka masala, and I know how you [bleeps] love your boiled unseasoned chicken, so have fun choking on this one,” she says. In others, she parodies the idea that she’s somehow doing this against her will, including a spoon for him, she jokes, to “shove up his ass.” It’s unclear who’s getting under whose skin more, but her schtick clearly is working: She has more than 870,000 followers on TikTok.
I’d like to think I’m not one of the [bleeps] that Singh is addressing, but I sort of am. I don’t really know anything about these women’s lives, but I realize I pictured them as suburban and subservient, even if they are anything but. Hell, not all Lunchbox Wives are even in straight relationships: Madeline of Mad About Food documents the process of organizing snacks and breakfasts for her wife, who works lengthy shifts as a nurse. How I fill in the blanks about these creators’ lives maybe says more about me than their carrot sticks and fruit medleys say about them.
The online food video space is vast, and there’s a clear divide between the trendy chef-influencers and recipe makers and the Lunchbox Wives. People like Emily Mariko or Dan Pelosi (aka @grossypelosi) aim at my demographic: millennials without children who go to farmers markets and Whole Foods. Content creators like Cox and Singh are playing a different game for those who provide for families. Their meals are more utilitarian but look no less delicious — it’s comfort food, literally and figuratively. Instead of pretending I’m going to fix myself a meal, I just get to imagine it’s already been done for me. And when I’m scrolling on the couch, hungry and ready for a break, there’s nothing I crave more.