enny Mollen is setting the bar too damn high. It’s July, and the writer, actor, mom of two, and
creator of the enormously popular Dictator Lunches Instagram account is enjoying a moment of downtime between promoting her two — yes, two — new books. Her first novel, a supremely readable skewering of social media, momfluencers, and toxic friendships called City of Likes, was released just a month earlier and quickly hit bestseller lists; her first cookbook, Dictator Lunches, will be released on September 13th and is already a number one new release
The actress, comedian, and lunch-making social phenom
dishes on taking the momfluencing world by storm this year
with not one but two books, City of Likes and Dictator Lunches.
By Erika Janes
Creative Direction: Jennifer Ciminillo
Photos: George Chinsee
VP, Video: Reshma Gopaldas
Videographer: Jacqueline Soller
Videographer/Editor: Allie O'Connell
Styling: By Alana Peden and Olivia Marcus
Makeup: Laura Ann Mele
Hair: Olivia Halpin
Floral Suit Set: Alice + Olivia
blazer + pants
Black T-Shirt: Zara
Mushroom Necklace: BRENT NEALE
Shoes: JLO Jennifer Lopez available at DSW
Tiered Dress: Alice + Olivia
Mushroom Necklaces: BRENT NEALE
Shoes: JLO Jennifer Lopez available at DSW
Purple Dress: MVB
Mushroom Necklace: BRENT NEALE
Purple Heels: Black Suede Studio
Plaid Blazer: Kate Spade
Shoes: Jenny Mollen Personal
Jewelry: Jenny Mollen Personal
“If we're going to invest in their minds, we need to invest in their bodies as well.”
“Being a workaholic isn't all it's cracked up to be; it isn't necessarily the noble thing I used to view it as when I was younger and striving and hungry for something.”
on Amazon. And in between, she’s gamely posing with produce for the SheKnows photoshoot.
Balancing a pineapple on her head? Why not? Balancing a pineapple on her head while holding a bell pepper in each hand? No problem! Mollen, 43, even busts out some dance moves that look practically Laker Girl-worthy. Basically, she’s as funny and irreverent IRL as you’d expect (and hope) she would be.
Two days later, she’ll be leaving on a transatlantic, multi-country family vacation to Germany — where Mollen briefly lived and a frequent destination for her, her husband, actor Jason Biggs, and their sons Sid, 8, and Lazlo, 4 — and Thailand. It’s a mix of old and new, familiar and unfamiliar, and is sandwiched between book tours, with the one for City of Likes having just ended and the one for Dictator Lunches beginning when she gets back.
Downtime? Sure, if you want to call it that. But Mollen is looking forward to the change of pace. “It really does feel like a pause,” she says between outfit changes, noting that the trip will be something to look forward to after the letdown of being “done” with the novel that took four years to bring into the world and is deeply personal for Mollen — in some ways, even more so than her two previous essay collections — and before the excitement surrounding her other baby kicks into high gear.
Mollen was a social media phenomenon well before Dictator Lunches — The Huffington Post has hailed her as one of the funniest women on both Twitter and Instagram — but the Instagram account dedicated to showcasing the elaborate and uber-healthy lunches she created for her little “dictator” (that’d be then-4-year-old Sid) helped her express a different creative side of herself — and engage in a little therapeutic self-help in the process. A self-described latchkey kid who packed her own lunches as a child of busy, divorced working parents, Mollen writes openly of feeling like she missed out on the whole food-as-love experience growing up.
“I think that in making these lunches for my kids, I'm somehow healing myself and whatever deprivation
I had in childhood,” she tells us two weeks later, over a Zoom call from Bangkok, where the family has just arrived. “I'm somehow having a corrective experience by providing my kids with these moveable feasts — or at least, that's what I tell myself.”
Mollen also desperately wanted to raise a child who didn’t just eat “white foods or chicken nuggets,” and these lunches, she writes in the book’s introduction, were a “testing ground” of sorts to see just how far she could go. (The answer — especially to those of us who grew up brown-bagging a PB&J and a Capri Sun — is pretty far.) As Mollen captioned one early dictator lunch Instagram post: “Sid... Yeah, you know, the asshole with edible flowers in his lunch.”
That honest and self-deprecating humor is a hallmark of Mollen’s brand, and it’s one reason why Dictator Lunches has found a growing audience. “Given Jenny’s hilarious voice and relatability, I was never really surprised at how quickly it grew,” Biggs, who calls himself a Dictator Lunches super fan, told us over email. “The book is a perfect next step.”
Mollen is not into mom-shaming and insists that her lunches are not meant to make anyone feel bad, or like they aren’t doing enough if they aren’t packing bento boxes filled with coconut rice molded into the shape of a bear, complete with seaweed eyes and eyebrows. Her book gives detailed instructions, as
well as a difficulty guide ranging from one avocado (“Even your dog could make this!”) to five avocados (“Outsource this shit!”). And even she doesn’t go five-avocados every day.
“Some of this stuff is leftovers,” she explains. “I'm curating. I'm not a professional chef. I'm left-handed. I'm dyslexic. I don't do
anything that doesn't usually burn at least one pan. So it's definitely not meant to shame you in any way. My whole point is, if I can do this, you can do this,” she insists.
And yet, her message to the parent who maybe does feel a little bad is that teaching our kids to eat healthfully is deserving of our energy. “I think sometimes moms don't want to get into this stuff
with food because it's annoying, and you want the path of least resistance sometimes, especially at the end of the day with a kid that has already given you a run for your money on every other issue,” she says. “The last thing you want to do is argue over, what are you going to have for dinner? But I believe it's a fight worth waging. And I think in the end it will pay off tenfold. If we're going to invest in their minds, we need to invest in their bodies as well.”
That said, Mollen doesn’t take being that mom to extremes. Peek closely at her Dictator Lunches and you’ll see a square of chocolate, a few M&M’s, a marshmallow Peep. She also willingly posts the “dictator’s response” to her lunches in the form of photos of what came back home — and sometimes the broccoli comes back home. The edible flowers aren’t always eaten. Mainly, Mollen wants her kids to learn to self-regulate.
“From my own relationship with food, I've learned that if I try to restrict, I'm just going to binge out of control later on, so there's really no point,” she says matter-of-factly. “I will always believe that the best thing you can do is listen to your body. If you want to eat the fucking bread basket, and then a second bread basket, you kind of have to do it. When somebody tries to tell me ‘no,’ I swing in the other direction. And so I've learned not to do that with myself, but also to let my kids kind of learn as they go.”
Not yet 9, Sid “really understands and appreciates good food” and listens to his body, she says. “I love that he's fearless. He tries things but also he's really eating intuitively. And that's been awesome to watch.”
Mollen and Biggs strive for that same kind of balance in other areas of home life, especially with a new school year starting for the kids in September. As with many families, it requires a divide-and-conquer approach. While Mollen does lunch, Biggs does mornings. “Jenny does the lunches, and obviously kills it. I can’t compete with that, so I don’t even try,” he says. “I’m more on the front lines of the morning routine. Specifically, getting them out of the house and off to school. We sometimes split up the boys’ commute since they go to different schools, but I’m still the one standing at the door like a drill sergeant counting down the minutes to departure. Jenny doesn’t really believe in clocks, or time in general.”
Mollen also deals with the mental gymnastics of after-school scheduling — something she calls “a nightmare right now” given that her boys are three and a half years apart in age. “Lazlo has had the short end of the stick in terms of outside social life and activities, but this year, now that he's more of a human being, I'm gonna have to also think about where he's going and who he's with,” she says. “And it's just a giant chess game.”
And when it all gets to be too much? “We make sure to tap out when we’re feeling overwhelmed,“ Biggs says. “[We] just have to pass the baton when we’ve hit our limit, as opposed to trying to fight through and getting stressed and becoming not the best versions of ourselves.”
Where other moms might feel like failures if they’re not creating elaborate lunches, Mollen is open about the areas she considers her own shortcomings. Bedtime, for example, is a thing. “We've never just left them in a room and said, ‘Go to bed,’ she admits. “We're really whipped in that way. Every night one of us is stuck in their room until probably nine o’clock at night. So I might be super hardcore about the food, but truly, I am a mess in so many other ways.” She’s also honest — relatably so — about when she’s not the mom she wants to be.
“I feel like a failure whenever I'm playing with them and I'm getting bored in my head,” she admits. “Like, today we made a makeshift donut shop in the hotel room with toothpaste and shaving creams and some coffee pods that Lazlo stole from the minibar, and I had to sit there and pretend to make the donuts over and over again. And I feel guilty whenever I'm losing my desire to do [that and] thinking, ‘Oh, I could get on my phone right now and check my email or surf the Web — that's when I feel the worst.”
The phone brings us back to City of Likes. Promoting the book during an appearance on Live With Kelly & Ryan, Mollen explained her reasoning for writing it succinctly: "I knew that if I didn't write it, I'd become it."
The book follows the story of Meg, a mom of two little kids who is trying to rekindle her creative career —
and her identity as something more than “Mom” — while finding her way in a new city with a flaky babysitter and a very busy husband. A chance encounter in an elevator kicks off a friendship with a fabulous, famous momfluencer named Daphne Cole, who helps propel Meg to her own growing fame as an influencer. And as she gets sucked into the world of constant posting, counting ‘likes,’ and
being sent free stuff, she — not surprisingly — ends up deprioritizing her real relationships. We won’t give anything away, but let’s just say that Meg discovers that
her friendship with Daphne — and in fact Daphne herself — isn’t what it seems.
It’s a cautionary tale, taken to entertaining extremes, that’s
deeply rooted in Mollen’s own experience. Indeed, between her two Instagram accounts alone, she has more than 500,000 followers. She is funny and photogenic, relatable and real. She is an influencer. And yet, as she told Kelly Ripa and Ryan Seacrest, she realized early on, "If I'm so busy curating and performing motherhood online, how present am I for my kids?"
By her own admission, Mollen owes her career to social media, and that fact isn’t lost on her as she has taken to social media to promote and sell a book that’s a condemnation of social media fame. Don’t think for a moment that she doesn’t get it. She’s also empathetic to the fact that, for many moms, gaining influencer status is a legitimate way to earn a lot of money and provide a comfortable lifestyle for their families. Beyond that, it can provide the validation, friendships, and sense of community that so many of us crave — and that’s not nothing.
“Instagram has given so many women agency over their lives, financial independence, and a sense of being able to share artistic fulfillment,” she says. “But I do think it's a slippery slope. Nobody has the ego strength to not be a bit affected by all of this crazy, constant validation. And I think that you [can] lose touch. Whatever your boundary or threshold is, in the beginning, it will always go further than that.”
Social media, like her character Daphne, “is this insatiable narcissist. As long as you keep feeding it, it keeps feeding you. And I think that that is a dangerous, toxic relationship to be in.”
At the moment, Mollen’s phone is locked in a hotel safe. These days, she tries not to be on her phone in front of her kids if she can help it. Sometimes she can’t help it. “I get really defensive because Sid'll be like, ‘Get off your phone’ and I'll say to him, ‘I'm ordering groceries!’ He has no idea why I'm so triggered
by him saying that. But I don't want them to grow up thinking, my mom was always scrolling on her phone while she was making dinner. You know, I don't want that narrative.”
Like her protagonist in City of Likes, Mollen had her own sort of come-to-Jesus moment that — coupled with the absurdity of just how much we’re all oversharing these days — has spurred her to change her behavior. As she explains it, it was when a younger Sid started saying, ‘Mom, take a picture of this! Mom, take a picture of this.’ “And I said, ‘I'm just gonna take a picture with my eyes’ and it almost didn't make sense to him. And I remember thinking like, oh my god, this is dark. This is, like, some Black Mirror shit, if he doesn't feel seen unless we've taken the photo.”
Putting down the phone goes against Mollen’s workaholic tendencies, which kicked into high gear as she was promoting the book, but even those are mellowing a bit at this point in her life. “Being a workaholic isn't all it's cracked up to be; it isn't necessarily the noble thing I used to view it as when I was younger and striving and hungry for something,” she says. “Now, I'm really striving more towards being a balanced human being.”
With that, Mollen is off. It’s nearly 11:30 p.m. in Bangkok, and there will be plenty of exploring and eating to do in the morning and in the days ahead. Just don’t expect to see every moment on Instagram.
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