TikTok's Jessica Woo Spills The Details On Her Bento Box School Lunches - Exclusive Interview

There are the parents who pack their kids Lunchables ... and then there is Jessica Woo. One of the few foodie creators to make TikTok's coveted Discover List, the mom of three sends her daughters to school with intricately assembled bento box lunches, in which you'll find everything from shrimp alfredo pasta to sushi ... and always, a thoughtful note. It's admittedly a little mesmerizing to see Woo spoon meat, noodles, and other kid-pleasing (if unconventional) vittles into those pastel bento box compartments. Amping up the virality, Woo often themes her lunches based on current cultural phenomenon–like her "Squid Game" lunch, or over the summer, a rainbow spaghetti tribute to Pride Month.

So how long does it take Woo to make these mini masterpieces — and do her kids always eat them? In an exclusive interview with Mashed, the TikToker known as @sulheejessica answered these questions and more–including how she really feels about some of the rage comments she gets from the parents who only have time to pack Lunchables.

This is how long it takes Jessica Woo to pack lunch in the morning

How long does it take you to make your bento box lunches?

So when I cook in the mornings, I try to do things that are under 30 minutes. I can boil eggs and I can time it right to where it's nine minutes long, you know? So things like that. I try to keep my lunches under 40 minutes — the time limit I give myself — because I don't want to wake up too early. Yeah, you don't want to obviously cook anything crazy in the morning and then you're like, "Oh man, they're late, you know?" and everything's crazy.  So just simple recipes I do under 40 minutes. And then if not, I cook everything beforehand, like I said before, dinners. Or if I know they want something special, sometimes they'll give me special food requests, lunch requests, and I'll just have that ready the night before.

How often do you make these lunches for your kids? Is it every day?

There are times where I'm like, okay, every day. And then there are times where I'm like, "Okay, no, I'm going to give myself a break, like one or two weeks." My girls are really good about packing their own lunch, too. They like it! They're like, "I'll do it, Mom. You can take a break." ...Obviously, they like it when I do it every day, but sometimes I'm just like, "I can't. I'm too tired." I'm a real mom and just like anyone out there, I throw Lunchables in there, too!

Do you ever just pack a plain sandwich? Or do you ever let them buy the school lunch?

Yes! My middle one, Maxine, she's seven, she's in second grade. She loves school lunch, especially their pizzas! So when it's pizza day, she's like, "I'm good. I'm going to get school lunch." But my oldest one loves my lunches. So she's like, "No, I don't want school lunch. I want your lunch." Or she'll be like, "Can you just drop me some Taco Bell sometimes?" We get that, too!

That was actually my next question! I wanted to know if you ever ate fast food!

Yes, of course. I think it's a part of modern family. Obviously, I don't want to eat as much fast food, but sometimes it's just like, I grew up on it and I crave a Big Mac! And my littlest one loves fries, so yeah. I can't say no every time.

Do you enjoy making your kids' bento boxes?

I love cooking for people I love and entertaining, stuff like that. I don't personally love cooking every day. People get surprised when I say that, but it's like anything. You overdo it, or you're doing it every day, [and] it does become a chore. So I do love it because they get so excited, and it's like their favorite part of school. So that just makes everything worth it and makes me love cooking in that way.

How Jessica Woo's daughters feel about her lunches

What are your kids' favorite bento box lunches?

I make kimbap rolls a lot. Kimbap rolls are basically like the Korean version of sushi, or like a burrito or anything in other cultures — it's like that staple. And then I can always change up the ingredients inside. So I'll surprise them with either tuna or bulgogi, or just even rice and kimchi. You just roll it up and it's a winner every time. All my girls really love those.

What would you say is the most unusual thing you've thrown in a bento box?

The most unusual thing I put in a bento box? I try to put in a lot of weird things! Especially fruits, if I can find some exotic fruits ... One of the weird ones that my kids tried for the first time was rambutans. They look like garlic, but slimy, you know? But they're good! That one was a little weird for my kids. They were just like, "What does this look like? I don't want to eat whole garlic that's slimy."

And then I did a really bougie bento box for my daughter. She's a New Year's baby. And so, I did a really special one because it was New Year's and it was her birthday. I did wagyu steak and I put quail egg on top.

Do other kids ever ask their parents if they can pack them lunches like yours?

They do a little bit. It's not too much, as much as people would think. In kindergarten, there was a time where I packed her all candy for Valentine's day. I remember some of my [kids' friends'] parents were like, "You!!!" because all the kids wanted all the candy! And I was just like, "I'm so sorry." I didn't even think about the other kids! I was just like, I want to surprise her and it's Valentine's day. But yeah, they give me, they're just like, "My kids still talk about that lunch till this day." So yeah. I'm sure it happens, but not as often as everyone thinks.

When did you first pack your kids a bento box for lunch?

I've been making lunch since my daughter was in kindergarten. She's in fifth grade now, almost in middle school already. So it wasn't just like, oh, let me make a bento box. It was basically just like, oh, let me make lunch. I wasn't thinking of making it a certain way or anything like that, but I just like art and making things pretty. So even though I just used regular Tupperware containers, but I would still make it look cute, and I would try to section them off in different courses.

One of the first lunches I made was cauliflower fried rice and fruit. So, I don't know. And then it just kind of developed throughout the years. Like I said, it was a chore and mundane so I was like, "What can I do to make it special and cute and fun for me?" And even cooking-wise, I was just like, let me challenge myself into making different kinds of cuisine because I love eating, and that's a big motivator for me is I love trying new things, I love eating and I want to share that with my girls.

How Jessica Woo decides which foods to put in her kids' bento boxes

You've exposed your kids to all different types of cuisines and different foods, but are there any things that your kids won't eat, no matter what kind of shape you put them in?

Let's see what I can think of. They're not big on vegetables, just like any other kids. But it's hard because my oldest will eat certain things, and then my middle one won't eat certain things. So it's kind of like a give and take between all my kids. My oldest doesn't like avocados, but my middle child loves avocados. So between them, it's just a random mix of vegetables and stuff that they like and don't like.

When you have one who loves avocado and another who doesn't, do you give avocado to everyone? Or are you customizing your boxes for each kid?

I customize them to a point. I'm not making whole different meals for each one. But if I'm making a sandwich and one likes turkey, cheese, and avocado, I'll do that. And then if the other one likes extra lettuce and pickles, then I'll do that. But yeah, no. This isn't an all-you-can-eat buffet kind of place here!

When did you start adding notes to the lunches?

I started from the beginning. So I started because I was just like ... it was kindergarten, it was my first child. She didn't really go to preschool or pre-K or anything, so it was my first time being away from her and her being away from me for that long ... She was just starting to read. They learn everything in kindergarten. So as the year grew by and my notes just started getting better — since she can read and stuff — she'd have a test and I'd be like, "Oh, good luck on your test." Or just a little note to say like, "Hey, I miss you and I love you, and you're doing fine without me," and just little stuff like that. And then, obviously, I can't write, "I miss you, I love you," every day!

And so, I just incorporate what's happening around us, pop culture stuff, lyrics, or any movie. If we're watching a movie, I'll put stuff like that on there. My oldest loves them and she's literally saved almost every note I've written. I have a big bag of them. I don't know, maybe we'll just make a scrapbook or something with them.

Jessica Woo's tips for making food special for kids -- even when you're busy

What are your top tips for feeding kids when you're a busy mom?

Busy mom, top tips: So, I always like to say if you're cooking dinner already, use your leftovers in the morning. That's always an easy go-to, and you can already pack it the night before, have it ready to go. You can even make multiples. If you're making a huge lasagna, obviously you can separate that into a few days out of the week.  But if you can't do dinners, I would say meal prepping is probably the best way to go. Meal prepping got really big, and I think it's the smartest thing to do because you're just prepared. You get your groceries for the week or two, and then you know what you're making, you know what you're packing. Just planning ahead definitely helps with busy schedules. I think everyone knows this. It's just kind of routine.

And then just picking one or two things that are special. So maybe giving them their special treat, a little note, any kind of little food pics you can put in there, or a shape that you can cut out. Kids enjoy really anything that you do, even if it's little.  So you don't have to, obviously, go above and beyond or go do anything crazy. You don't have to spend hours and hours on lunch. But just the little things, and yeah, make it fun. You know? It seems like a chore sometimes because you have to do it and you have to feed your kids. But make it fun and make it something that you enjoy, and it'll be a better time for everyone.

Why do you think it's important to make food look beautiful for your children?

I think I just am that way because if it looks pretty, it probably tastes good! That's with anything. [Humans] love visually pretty things. So why not? You know? Why not eat carrots in a shape of a flower?  Food is another art form that I've learned that, I didn't know because I've never had culinary training or anything. But yeah, I think eyes eat first, and most of us, our phones eat first! So make it look pretty.

When you were growing up, was the food that you ate beautifully presented?

It was beautiful in a way that it was good food. Obviously, my mom didn't have these food pics or cookie cutters. I don't think that even was around, or they probably didn't even think to be like, oh, I'm going to do this. But my mom always packed my lunches. It was mostly Korean traditional lunches with kimchi and rice and stuff like that. Before, you just don't appreciate those things. But as you grow up and become a mom, I always think back and I'm like..iIt's just another gesture of love. I think Asian culture does that a lot, with sharing food, and being with family. And the presentation–yes, it's really pretty.

Do you try to make breakfasts and dinners special in your family, or is your focus mainly on lunch?

Yes. I try to make everything special if I can, realistically–not every day, or anything. But holidays are fun for me! We do snowman pancakes every Christmas, little things like that. And obviously being a content creator now, I have to be more special–which is great, because my kids love it if we get to do fun activities together, making treats together. We're lucky to do a lot of special things, and my girls definitely appreciate it.

What it's like to be a viral TikTok creator, according to Jessica Woo

What's been your most viral on TikTok bento box so far?

Most of my viral ones, I think for sure is my "Among Us" one. The "Among Us" pancakes, I basically just made pancake art into little "Among Us" characters. That was when everyone was playing that game. All my kids were obsessed. That one really got a lot of views. I think it was 30 million, which was pretty crazy.  And then another one, it was a traditional Korean lunch with seaweed and kimchi and sides and stuff. But I made the rice into little balls, and I think that's what people loved. That one got a bunch, millions and millions of views as well. But yeah, mostly they're all my lunch videos, they do crazy. I still don't even know what that number means. It's crazy. Yeah. It's so crazy!

Do you ever get any negative pushback about the boxes being too time-consuming for other parents to make?

Yes, I do. All the time. I did, in the beginning, a lot more than I do now. Last year, 2020, when I was first getting big, there were a lot of moms that were like, "She must be a stay-at-home mom, she must be a trophy mom. She doesn't do anything!" And all this stuff. Even what I pack: it's too small, it's too much food. There were a lot of opinions!  But, it's fine. I think that just comes with the territory. I think once people realize, they stay and watch my videos and get to know me and my family — they know oh, she's not some rich, crazy person that does lunch all day just for content.

I'm a single mom. I take care of these girls on my own. And I enjoy it. I keep it under 30 minutes. People think I wake up at like 5:00 in the morning and do these. And I'm like, "No, that's not realistic." So yeah, it's funny to me when I read these things. People did a lot of duets like, "Oh, I just throw Lunchables or whatever, a piece of celery." They're all funny and I enjoy them.

You laugh at them at this point?

Right. Because sometimes it's just so outlandish and I'm like, I don't know who these people think I am!

Do you think people misunderstand the intention of the video — that you're trying to tell other people, "this is what you should do," rather than "this is what I love to do?"

Right ... especially my first video: it was just another day for me. I just filmed it and kind of explained what I did. Yeah, I wasn't trying to be like, "Oh, this is what everyone needs to do! This is the perfect portion or the healthiest meal." No way! I'm definitely not a nutritionist. I'm not encouraging people to have their kids eat only vegetables or [be] vegan or whatever it is. I'm just here to show you what I do, and what I love doing for my family.

Jessica Woo dishes on the TikTok chefs who inspire her

Who is your favorite TikTok food creator?

My favorite? I've met so many amazing creators, especially in the food space! The Korean Vegan is one of my favorites. [We] became really close just online, and I got to actually meet her in person. Chef John Kung, he's another one. He's based in Detroit. He specializes in Chinese cuisine. Who else? A Cook Named Matt. He's one of my really good friends now, too. Yeah, there's so many people that I've met. ...What I love about TikTok is that there's so many talented people out there.

Have you discovered any new recipes through TikTok?

Yeah. If I'm looking for something I want to make, I go straight to TikTok — literally! I'll look for my friends' videos, because I've met so many of them, and I know how good they are in real life. They're not just "making stuff." They're actually cooking and it's good! So yeah, I definitely learn a lot from all the other creators.

Has there anything about being a viral TikTok creator that has surprised you?

I think I kind of expected a lot of it, but I guess the biggest thing is how much work it is. I'm doing it full time and I'm doing basically everything. No one really tells you. There's no instructions on what is right, what is wrong and what's the good formula. No one knows what's happening! Social media is all about being on trend and knowing what's happening next. I think those are kind of the things, like the unknown, I guess, to everyone. You just have to put in the hard work and spend the time. Yeah.

So what's next for you?

Hopefully, I will be doing a cookbook soon. That's one of the things that I have on my list of things I want to do, and maybe a bento box line would be amazing. So yeah, hopefully in the future, I am working towards those things!

Follow Jessica Woo's amazing bento boxes on TikTok.