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Senior Correspondent

“This looks really good, but how the heck do you open it?”

This may be the defining cry of our time as famished people try to open ready-to-eat food items.

The assortment of prepared fresh dishes means that we can choose from loads of mouth-watering items without spending any time preparing. Not the most economical way to shop but tempting, especially when we are really hungry and don’t have much time.

These packages come at a price, however. When attempting to open them, we take our lives in our hands.

Recently I sighted a beautiful fresh spinach salad at my favorite market. I could hardly wait to get it home for lunch. It looked super healthy, with quinoa, edamame beans, grated carrots, and a miso dressing. This salad, sealed top and bottom in a plastic container, looked to be no problem, with a “pull here” tab sticking out on front.

Pull where? This was a lock box!

I started on it with my fingers — never mind the broken finger nail — then attacked it with scissors, and finally took aim with a sharp knife. After 20 minutes of frenzied assault, I was a bedraggled mess. Hair in my eyes and sweat on my forehead, I was fighting a package that showed no sign of yielding.

And now I was beyond hunger. I HAVE to eat lunch, and pretty much on time, or I get weak and woozy and feel faint. “Don’t press it,” my doctor has warned. A niece has a similar need-to-eat problem, but she just gets crabby, not ready to drop in her tracks.

I was about to resort to the most primitive tactic — using my teeth to tear open the package — but the thought of explaining to my dentist why two front teeth were missing calmed me for a second. Suddenly, another option came to me.

I phoned my next-door neighbor. He considers such problems fun because he enjoys a challenge. He came by and worked mayhem on the package 10 more minutes before it finally gave up its contents.

“If you get this thing again, make the store open it for you,” I heard him say as I devoured the salad.

Now that’s the sort of practical suggestion which often eludes people like me: I buy a package; I assume it will open. This fellow, however, grew up with challenges and welcomes them. He was raised by a grandmother and was the youngest of the other relatives in the household. “It helped when I figured out I was smarter than some of them,” he told me. 

Now in his 90s, he recently traveled to Europe and offered to help a baker in Vienna produce a strudel. When the baker asked if anyone in the travel group wanted to try tossing the dough, my neighbor volunteered. That's how helpful he is. 

One of his ongoing challenges comes with the tiny packets of crackers that accompany soup ordered in a restaurant. They look easy to open because they are so little, but they put up big resistance. My neighbor carries a Swiss Army knife in his pocket for just these predicaments. The tiny pair of scissors always frees the crackers.

Equally frustrating are the little packaged condiments that come with a lunch order – individual packets of salt and pepper, sugar and sugar substitutes, catsup, mustard, and soy sauce. In simpler times these items were in their own containers. Now one must exercise some control to open the packages and avoid having the contents spray out in every direction.

A friend learned this the hard way when a luncheon dish needed soy sauce. When she yanked on the little packet, soy sauce flew right into her eye, coating one contact lens. She thought she had gone blind. It took a paramedic to convince her it was not so.

If there were a competition for the highest frustration level for packaging, the hands-down winner would be the finger-shaped string of cheese. It resists from any angle. In fact, just one bit of sturdy plastic at the end teasingly promises access. So how do you open it? Once more the teeth are called into action.

Very recently I again spotted the inviting spinach salad in the market and remembered my neighbor’s advice to have the store open it for me. The manager was more than willing, pulled the tab off the front, and opened the dish with no trouble. OK, fellow, is this a trick?

This time I could really enjoy the salad, but I still cast a wary eye at containers like this, and equally small ones for little items like eye drops or allergy sprays that appear to be entombed in their packaging, as if designed never to be opened.

The many styles and sizes of containers for foods-on-the-go comprise a global industry. The demand for convenience is driving growth, and container manufacturers are responding with all kinds of options. I researched and found a plastic clamshell online that, according to the supplier, “allows the visual impact of your food to be fully imparted to your customer.”

Is it just me, or does that sound like a setup?

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