If you have children in school, then “lunch” might be a trigger word for you. I have four children, all of whom are in public school, and all of whom take their lunch to school. For a lot of years, I hated with a white-hot passion the stress associated with packing lunches.
What do you want for lunch tomorrow?
Do we have the right ingredients?
Do we have something to put it in?
Does it need to be kept cold?
Did you remember to bring home your lunch box?
Who ate all the chips?
Do we have extra bread in the freezer?
Hurry, we are going to be late!
Do you want cheese or yogurt?
Where’s your thermos?
Why didn’t you clean it out?
Do you have a napkin?
Why is your sandwich from yesterday still in here?
Excuse me while I take some deep cleansing breaths.
Packing lunches for school is not for the faint of heart. It takes major oversight, and if you’re not careful, anger management. Sure, with one child, perhaps a toddler or early preschooler, packing lunches can be a delight. However, throw in multiple children with multiple years spent developing food preferences and hair-trigger emotional responses to the wrong flavor of juice box, and school lunches become a mine field of terror.
Today, I am going to unpack for you (pun intended) all my favorite lunch box strategies. This is not a post about what to pack for your children for lunch. This is a post about how to think about school lunches in a way that will hopefully yield long term positive results for both you and your children. There is also a free printable at the end of this post that you might find helpful as a tool. Here we go!
Pack lunches immediately when your children get home from school.
Packing a lunch for the next day is the first thing my children do when they get home. No snack. No playing. No homework. No computer. No “down time.” Pack. Your. Lunch. The answer to every after-school request they make is, “You may do that after you pack your lunch.” This one strategy alone is a game changer. The work is done. Problems solved ahead of time. Stress eliminated. No more rushing around in the morning looking for sacks and bread while you brush hair and tie shoes.
Teach Your Children To Pack Their Own Lunch
Imagine a life where you instruct your children to pack their lunch, and it requires nothing from you. This is my current reality, and it comes after years of investing time and attention towards teaching my children to independently pack their lunch.
This decision is about more than passing the lunch packing torch. This is about teaching ownership and personal responsibility. There was a sweet little season where I lovingly took pride in perfectly tucking pristine sandwiches and fruit and crackers and love notes into everyone’s cute clean lunch box. That season lasted about a minute before I realized I was doing all the work and keeping them from knowing how to execute a vital life task. So I began to hand over the job to my children. We did this in stages, and obviously a lot of this is age-dependent. I would say four is a good age to start asking your child to participate in the process.
At first, I would have them help me by getting out the ingredients we needed. They would get the grapes out of the fridge, I would put the grapes in the bag, they would put the bag in the sack. Then, we took it a step further. I would individually package everything we needed for the week (lots of bags of grapes, for example), store them in the fridge or pantry, and have them pack their own lunch by grabbing what they needed. I did the prep work, and they executed. For a while I would make their sandwich, because undoubtedly this was the trickiest part. But it wasn’t long before I removed myself from that process and let them learn by doing. Slowly but surely, this morphed into them taking complete ownership of the entire lunch-packing process. Yes, they might make a mess. Yes, I could do it faster, better, tidier. But I stopped making lunches years ago, and haven’t looked back since. They know how to do it, and now fixing lunch is something they all have mastered.
Allow your child to take ownership of their lunch menu.
Don’t miss what I’m saying here. I’m not saying to let your kids pack whatever they want. I am saying, allow your children to express their preferences in the context of their lunch instead of forcing them to pack what you want them to pack.
I have four children with four very different lunch preferences. One of them packs a salad. One of them packs hot lunch in a thermos. One of them packs a peanut butter sandwich. I stopped mandating the specifics of what they choose a long time ago. I do encourage certain base-line nutritional standards, but the expression of those is up to them.
For example, my son, Jake, went through a phase where he didn’t want to pack a sandwich. I insisted that a protein source be a mandatory component of his lunch. We compromised on beef jerky. I could have forced him to pack a sandwich, but it more than likely would have landed in the lunchroom trash can. Let you child (within reason) take ownership of their lunch choices.
Let your kids forget their lunch.
Around second grade, we began to remove the training wheels in this department. It was a process, but remembering their lunch became something my children became solely responsible for. I let them know up front (expectations are everything) that if they forgot their lunch, they were welcome to call me or their dad, but we were not going to guarantee that we could bring it to them. Sometimes we are free. Sometimes we are not. All four of them have had a situation involving a tearful phone call about a forgotten lunch. Yes they were hungry when they got home, but they were quickly fed, and, news flash, they were fine. They quickly learned the lesson of remembering their lunch every day. Allowing your kids to forget their lunch without a guaranteed safety net is a gift. Natural consequences are powerful teachers. When possible, it is also a gift for my husband or me to bring their lunch to them and show them grace in the face of certain hunger.
Use school lunches as a teachable moment to positively discuss nutrition and healthy choices.
I have written a lot about how I speak to my children about their bodies, and the same positive rules of modeling apply here. We do not label food as “bad” foods, and I do not use negativity when referring to food choices. “Those chips will make you fat” is not in our vocabulary regarding food. What I might say is, “Chips are delicious. You also need to choose a protein, a piece of fruit, and a healthy fat so that your body has the fuel it needs.” Everything needs to be positive in this regard or you’re potentially planting damaging seeds in their little minds about food.
Way before my children were old enough to be in school we came up with our own vocabulary for lunch food, and it has stuck. I told them they had to choose a “main thing,” a “fresh thing,” and a “crunchy thing.” What I didn’t tell them in the beginning was that all of the main thing choices had protein, the fresh things were always a raw fruit or vegetable, and the crunchy thing was portion controlled so that they weren’t consuming tons of empty calories. As they grew older, I started to expand the vocabulary to include more nutritional terms, educating them on what constitutes a healthy choice and what doesn’t. School lunches are a wonderful place to begin a positive conversation about nutrition and healthy choices.
Perhaps a bit obvious, but definitely worth mentioning, one secret to stress-free school lunch packing is planning ahead. The planning process is a two-way street. Your children need a mechanism to communicate their needs to you (“I don’t like taking yogurt in my lunch. I do like taking string cheese.”), and you need to communicate to your children what choices you are willing to provide (“I will buy apples and oranges. I will not buy raspberries.”).
Good news! I have a tool to share with you today that can help with this process. It allows you to determine what choices you are going to give your child, it allows them to communicate their choices with you, and it provides a framework through which you can begin to discuss nutrition as discussed above. I call it the Lunch Box Request Form, and I started using this about ten years ago. Here’s how I have used it in our family.
On a designated day (usually Friday afternoon after school), I have my children fill one of these out for the coming week. I use these forms to then build out my grocery list based on their choices, and then I go shopping over the weekend. It eliminates the need for guess work. If all four of them have chosen an apple every day, then simple math tells me we need twenty apples next week. If no one has chosen string cheese, then I’m not going to buy string cheese. I keep their form on the fridge so they can see what they chose and use it as a reminder when packing their lunch. For me, with four children who pack four different kinds of lunches, this tool is so helpful for keeping it all straight.
As a word of wisdom, start simply. I am including a version of our Lunch Box Request Form from years ago, and we grew into this many options over time. Particularly if you have younger children, you might give two options in each category and decide when you want to offer more. You can create your own version in any word processing program, or you can write it by hand and make copies!
I truly hope these strategies help you and your children gear up for all the lunches in the coming year!