The morning of Feb. 26 was like any other Wednesday for Jessica Woo. The 33-year-old mom of three nursed her 1-year-old while her two older daughters got ready for school. She washed her face, put on a little makeup, and then headed into the kitchen of her Las Vegas home to do something she does almost every day of the week: pack lunches for her kids. Only this time, she decided to document it.
Woo clipped her phone to a stand on her kitchen counter. She pressed record, then she uttered the words that would soon become her catchphrase: “Let’s make some lunch for my kids.”
She layered folded pieces of salami and nubs of string cheese onto toothpicks then placed them in a pink bento box. Next, she filled a small pink silicone cup with Triscuits and Ritz crackers. She used a heart-shaped tool to cut little hearts out of cantaloupe to fill another cup. She added grapes to another and then covered the empty space in the box with sliced cucumbers and kiwis she adorned with tiny whale-shaped food picks. She finished by writing a note to her daughter that read: Have a great Wednesday. Humpday. I love you. Be silly. Be honest. Be kind.
She shared the video on the TikTok social media app, and then went about her day. Within 24 hours, more than 5 million people had watched.
“It was so crazy I didn’t really know what to think,” Woo says. She had started the account in January, mostly to post DIY crafts and makeup tutorials. “It was just another one of my lunches,” she says. “I didn’t make it special for the video.”
The TikTok food world is filled with snappy editing tricks (quick cuts from whole ingredients to neatly chopped mise en place) and trendy foods such as mini pancake cereal (exactly what it sounds like), cloud bread (a bread-ish/meringue-ish dessert made from sugar, egg whites and cornstarch) and dalgona coffee (whipped instant coffee). But Woo has built her following of 3 million people by packing lunch for her kids.
This is not fancy stuff. In one video, Woo unwraps a Smuckers Uncrustables sandwich and arranges it in a bento box with salt and vinegar chips, dinosaur-shaped chicken nuggets and fruit snacks. Fourteen million people watched. In another video, she packs ramen noodles with pork belly and steamed broccoli. Sometimes she shares the egg salad sandwiches she makes for her boyfriend, a recently unemployed chef who worked at David Chang’s Majordomo in the Venetian Resort.
“Honestly, I just kind of randomly think of stuff,” she says.
There is no planning or special equipment. She usually makes something out of whatever is in the fridge, “like a regular mom.” She tries to always have a main dish, some kind of fruit, greens or vegetables and a sweet treat. She unwraps anything that needs to be unwrapped and pre-peels citrus — anything to make eating lunch more efficient for her kids.
Woo never worked in food and doesn’t consider herself a chef. Her mother ran a series of now-closed restaurants in Koreatown, but Woo says she never liked cooking, only learning out of necessity when she got to college. She has a degree in journalism and media studies from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. She worked in marketing before quitting her job last year to spend more time with her kids and focus on freelance makeup gigs. Since then she’s started a digital art studio called Booshkababe, where she creates digital portraits of people, and a handmade accessories brand (think hair clips, keychains and scrunchies) called Love Juliet.
Her videos, which often feature artful presentations of food and decorated notes, routinely draw hundreds of thousands of views on TikTok. Most start the same way: Woo says, “let’s make some lunch for my kids,” then she puts together a bento box with an inspirational note, quote or song lyric.
Her tone is always conversational, never lecturing, like she’s using her TikTok account for a virtual school show-and-tell. She comes off as down to earth and relatable, prompting many fans to ask her to adopt them.
“Can you please pack my school lunches from now on?” writes @kevserozdil — on a recent video.
“Will you adopt me? Asking for a friend … ?” asks @jasoncavan.
“Are you adopting cause I am willing to be ur child?” writes @shadowwolf357565
The boxes are something she started doing around four years ago as a way to make her kids’ lunch and persuade them to try new things.
“They are not magical kids that love everything,” she says. “Cutting things into shapes so that something doesn’t look like a vegetable or presenting something in a fun way definitely helps.”
Her daughter Maxine, 6, doesn’t like carrots, so Woo cuts them into flower shapes or tucks them into homemade kimbap rolls. Adeline, 9, doesn’t care for tomatoes, but she eats them wrapped tightly into Woo’s pinwheel sandwich rolls with turkey, ham and lettuce.
Even after her daughter’s schools shut down and transitioned to virtual learning in March, Woo continued to make the bento lunches.
“I wanted to keep their routine at home,” she says. “Having some of the little things that remind them of school can really help.”
The success of her TikTok videos couldn’t have come at a better time, as all her freelance makeup gigs were canceled because of the pandemic. She signed with a talent agency and a manager and has been able to monetize her following, working with brands such as Thrive Market, Home Chef, Smithfield and Netflix. She also has an Instagram account called @packmylunchmom that’s dedicated to lunch ideas. According to the Influencer Marketing Hub website, TikTok influencers can make between $200 and $20,000 per branded video, depending on their following.
But with a larger platform comes more criticism from other parents, who sometimes disagree with Woo’s parenting choices.
“It’s hard because I know a lot of parents are very critical of each other, but I just want to break down that barrier and say ‘hey, you don’t have to be perfect,’” she says. “I’m a normal person, and this is just what I do. I’m in no way telling anyone to be like me.”
Woo tries to curb some of the criticism by talking through her choices in her videos, but it doesn’t always help. She’s received comments on everything from the way she draws stars on her notes to her insistence on using spoons to scoop snacks out of their respective containers, to the way she uses chopsticks.
“These are things I would never even think about, but someone will point it out,” she says.
More exposure also means Woo is able to use her platform to bring attention to issues that reach far beyond her kids’ lunches. In recent videos, she’s talked about racism and support for the Black Lives Matter movement. But President Trump’s recent TikTok ban, scheduled to take effect on Sept. 15 if the company does not find a U.S. buyer, may jeopardize her newfound celebrity.
“I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t worried about it,” she says. She’s thinking about starting an account with Triller or Byte, two competing social media apps. But the plan is to keep documenting her kids’ lunches, regardless of the platform.
“I get a lot of messages from people saying that I help with their anxiety, depression and eating disorders,” she says. “If I can help someone in any way, even if it’s something little like making my kids lunch, that makes me want to continue what I’m doing. It’s something I do anyway, I just have to record it.”
WOO’S TOP 5 GO-TO BENTO LUNCHES:
Grilled cheese sandwich with tomato soup
WOO’S ESSENTIAL BENTO LUNCH TOOLS:
Stacked bento lunchbox
Silicone divider trays
Food shape cutters
Animal food picks
Lunch letter notepad
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