How to stop packing your kids’ lunches (and get them to do it instead)

By Erin Atkinson

I teach high school in a facility where the majority of students bring their lunches to school—we have no cafeteria, so students either bring a lunch box or buy an overpriced restaurant meal from down the street. I love food, so naturally I check out what my students pack. Parent-assembled lunches stand out in a good way: they have more fruits and vegetables and often are last night’s leftovers (my students have access to microwaves and refrigerators, too). But these lunches also stand out in a bad way: Mom and Dad are still packing lunches for kids who can obviously do it themselves. I’m of the mindset that teenagers should pack their own lunches.

This pattern got me thinking—how can I get my own kids to pack lunches by the time they are in high school? Even more than that, how can I get my kids to pack their own lunches now, in elementary school?

So I did what every good parent does. I made them do it. Because I’m the boss.

Lunch periods are short. Lunch lines are long. My kids, a first-grader and a fourth-grader, are prone to hangry moments and definitely function better with full bellies. So managing the lunch circus starts with packing lunches, ensuring they get as much of their lunch periods as possible to eat. I love the cost savings from packing a lunch and I want to control the nutritional content, too. They’ve been packing their lunches (mostly independently, and often for each other) since kindergarten. Here’s how I made that happen.

  1. Timing matters: We pack lunches while I’m cooking dinner or immediately after dinner, when we’re all close together and cleaning up. We always do it the night before. Then they put their lunch boxes in the fridge, and in the morning they add an ice pack from the freezer. My kids are growing more involved in sports, music, and other after-school activities, so sometimes I have them pack lunches before their activities, and sometimes they pack lunches for each other.

  2. Train them young: My kids didn’t pack lunches for daycare (the facility served them meals). So when they entered kindergarten, I emphasized that packing a lunch was a “big kid” skill that they needed to learn. It is not difficult for little ones to put some items in a lunch box. My daughter likes the applesauce pouches and cheese sticks. My son likes an orange and a fruit cup. In the beginning I helped them with their sandwiches, but by the end of kindergarten they could do it themselves (it really is just ham and bread, after all). They still need a little help with getting the sandwich in a plastic bag, but even that problem can be solved with a plastic sandwich box. I made sure it was a box they could open independently. I put the goldfish into snack baggies, because that is legitimately hard for them to do without making a giant mess.

  3. Give kids some control over what they eat: I explain to them that they need a source of protein and plants. Ultimately, I let them pick it out. I’m not in love with the sodium in lunch meat, and I don’t love fruit cup sugar content or waste. I wish my kids would put a vegetable in their lunch. However, I know they get a home-cooked dinner and a good breakfast, so I have to give them control over their lunches. When we go to the grocery store, I’ve been known to make them read the nutrition labels and determine if their selection is a good decision.

  4. Let them pick out a cool lunch box: My kids pick out whatever it is they are into—Mario Brothers, Trolls, My Little Pony, and in one case, a Zelda lunch box ordered online that must have shipped straight from the factory in China. I replace them as needed. The right lunch box can make them exited to take it to school and show it off to their friends.

  5. Check in periodically: About once a month, I ask my kids if we’re packing the right amount of food. I ask them if they throw any of it away (don’t even get me started on the food waste problem in schools!). I ask them if they want to make any changes. It seems we have found just the right amount of food for the time they have to eat it. I’m assuming they aren’t lying to me.

  6. Buy smart: I have made an accidental discovery about kids’ drinks. CapriSuns come in packs of 10. Other brands come in packs of eight. I have two kids who go to school five days a week. I WANT A PACK OF TEN. All kids’ drink should be sold in multiples of five. . I hate that many of the applesauce packages and fruit cups come in sets of four. I’m pretty darn sure this is intentional, and the food manufacturers aren’t fooling me. So when I can, I opt for the packages that will get me through the week. To make the CapriSuns last, store them in the pantry. Trust me, your kids won’t drink all your lunch beverages if they aren’t in the fridge. Because we pack lunches the night before, the kids’ drinks have plenty of time to chill before lunch.

These tips have worked well for my elementary school kids, and I am of the mindset that to get older kids to pack their lunches you may just have to tell them it’s time—coach them through the process for a couple weeks and then cut them off (I am not the type of mom who wants to do everything for her children. I am a big fan of promoting independence). Other people may have gentler suggestions on how to get older kids to pack their meals, but in working with teenagers as long as I have, it’s pretty apparent to me that they don’t want to go hungry and will eventually concede to packing their own meals, especially if you give them more independence in making the choices themselves.

I hope some of these suggestions can help your family navigate the lunch circus. I usually pack my own lunch as the kids’ pack theirs. Sometimes I put leftovers in a container for my husband’s lunch, but I don’t pack his either. I will pack the kids’ lunches on particularly chaotic days. I look at food intelligence as a marathon, not a sprint—I want my kids to make good choices most of the time throughout the rest of their lives, and coaching them through lunch packing (and meal planning and label reading) is how it starts. I want to raise adults, after all, and it would be nice if they aren’t hangry.