What's For Lunch?

For Michelle Park, Packing Her Kids’ Lunches Is A Celebration Of Culture

The pandemic prompted Park to re-think feeding her kids... and the results were pleasantly surprising (and delicious!).

Going through Lifestyle expert Michelle Park’s TikTok account will make you want to change your life... at least the lunch part of your life (which, frankly, is definitely in our Top 10 favorite parts of living for sure). The Emmy-award winner and NBCLX host, regularly seen on The Drew Barrymore Show and Access Hollywood, narrates — stories about her daughters, Madeleine , 6, and Eloise, almost 4, cooking tips, stories from her own childhood, current events — all while putting together a gorgeous assortment of adorable but mouthwatering bento boxes for her girls.

Soba noodles serve as “hair” for a face made out of cold cuts. Bento-pick eyes adorn a hardboiled egg. But this isn’t just about aesthetics: it’s a way to get her girls excited about food and their own culture. “Food experiences really are kind of a centerpiece of my family,” Park tells Romper by phone. “And I think it's helped my kids become global citizens in a way that's not super didactic.”

Below, Romper talked to Park for about her family dinners, celebrating culture through food, and how the pandemic changed how she feeds her kids.

What was the food culture like in your home when you were growing up, in terms of family dinners, snacks, cooking, and things like that?

I was really fortunate that every night my dad would make it home in time. My dad's a physician and my mom's a psychotherapist, so they were able to kind of work with their schedules to make it possible.

My mom... I'm going to say this on the record and she's probably going to kill me, but my mom is not a great cook. She never enjoyed cooking. Most of the time would be like, “Oh, it's more spaghetti and butter.” But she has these four really solid Korean recipes, and once in a while it would be like, “Oh she's making tak toritang!” Those were the nights that we would look forward to, me and my brothers, because not only were we able to eat the food that she grew up with, that my grandma used to make and her mother used to make, but also it was one of her four recipes that actually tasted good.

And what about now that you have kids of your own?

Not to pat myself on the back, but I am a very good cook, and my husband's also a really good cook. So we kind of make an effort to incorporate lots of different cultural cuisine. And my kids know what Asiago is. They also know that when it's Passover, we also grab some matzo and cover it in chocolate.

So if you and your husband are both good cooks, what does that division of labor look like? Do you meal-plan or have set jobs?

I think that there was a lot of shame involved with bringing Asian food to school when I was growing up.

I wish I was more organized and I could give you a better answer to this question. I work in television, my husband also works in television, so our schedule is all over the place. So some days I have to work late or I have to go to a dinner somewhere. Some nights he has the same situation. So we sit down every week on Sunday night and we're like, all right, who's doing what when? And take-out definitely happens at least once. The rest of the week, I really do want my kids to eat food that we've cooked just because who knows what's going into the food that's coming from other places. We also make a really concerted effort to cook Korean food at least once a week.

On TikTok, you’ve talked about having sort of an ambivalent relationship with Korean food growing up. Would you mind talking about that a little bit?

I think that there was a lot of shame involved with bringing Asian food to school when I was growing up. My parents are immigrants, so to my mom, the best lunch that she could pack me, the most beautiful and thoughtful and loving lunch that she could pack me, was a bento box with rice and kimchi in it and some sort of Korean meat, like bulgogi or galbi or something like that. And I would open it up and it would just be completely made fun of. And the kids would be like, “What is that?” “That smells funny.” “Why are you eating that?” “Who eats like that?” “Where are your Lunchables?”

There were moments when I would throw away my lunch, or I would just skip lunch because I didn't want to hurt my mom's feelings, either. She spent all this time putting this together for me. In early elementary school, I remember asking my mom, “Can you please just pack me ham and cheese?”

Have you found that your daughters have similar experiences?

What I've noticed about my kids, particularly my older one when she goes to school, is that it's so normalized to bring in seaweed and to bring in chicken teriyaki and to bring in sushi. I mean, when I was a kid, it was like, “Sushi? Ew, who would eat raw fish?” And now the kids are like, “What's your favorite food? My favorite food is sushi!” And they're not Asian kids! And it's so beautiful to me. My kids don’t understand why that’s strange to me. But it is, every single time I see it. That's not what I experienced growing up.

So I make a concerted effort to include at least one Asian item in her lunch box. I feel like every time I do I'm able to reinforce that embracing your culture is not a bad thing. It's a cool thing. And it's something that people should be curious about and not making fun of you about.

It sounds like your daughters have pretty good palates. Did you ever struggle with them being picky eaters?

Funny story, actually. Before the pandemic, my kids were really just standard mac and cheese, chicken nuggets kids. And then the pandemic happened, and now I'm looking at what my kids are eating every meal. And I'm like, “We can't give them this food every meal of the day.”

So I started just serving the things that we wanted to eat that they weren't eating. I noticed that as I would give them these plates of food, they still wouldn't be interested in trying it. And so that's why I started the bento boxes. Because I thought to myself, “How can I make this fun and interesting and also a little bit distracting?” Like, if I give them dragon fruit and I cut up these little pieces of white fruit with black specs in it, they're going to look at it and be like, “What is this? I don't want to try this.” But if I stick bento picks that have little eyes or they look like little pandas or a black cat or something, and I'm like, “Today’s theme is Black and White” they were interested.

One of the big things that I am focused on is introducing new food as often as possible to my kids. Our philosophy is you have to put it in front of them. Don't just assume they're not going to eat it.

The great thing about a bento is you have all these compartments. So you're not giving them anything huge and it's not overwhelming. And that completely changed the way that my kids eat. Now they will try anything. It took us a while to get here; for a while they would look at it, be like, “nah.” I would serve it again, they'd be like, “nah.” By the third time, they'd be like, “all right, let me give this a shot.” But now we're at a place where they'll just try whatever at least once.

On every single level, I don't know that I have ever been more jealous of another parent than I am in this moment right now. Do you have any advice?

One of the big things that I am focused on is introducing new food as often as possible to my kids. Our philosophy is you have to put it in front of them. Don't just assume they're not going to eat it. I wasn’t expecting my kids to develop elevated palettes but, like yesterday: I was eating these crackers that I loved and Eloise comes over and she's like, “Mama, can I have one? Can you put the little black eggs on it?” And so I'm thinking in my head, what is a black egg? A salted egg? Preserved egg? Poppy seeds? What could be shaped like an egg and black?

And then she goes, well, “You served it at Paula's birthday.” And I'm like, “...You want caviar?” “Yeah.” So I happened to have one last jar of caviar, so I put them on this cracker for her. And she goes, “Mama, you forgot the whipped cream.” Crème fraîche. Like I stock crème fraîche in my fridge. So I put sour cream on it and she was so happy. But if you had asked me when my kids were babies if I would be serving them caviar at 3, I would've said no.

So there's hope, is what you're saying?

There's hope for everybody.