Alicia Dougherty of “Dougherty Dozen” Shares Her School Lunch Strategy for 10 Kids

Dougherty Dozen Family

The Spruce Eats / Alicia Dougherty / Julie Bang

Alicia Dougherty started her popular TikTok account "Dougherty Dozen" to raise awareness around adoption and foster parenting (she is a mom to six adopted and four biological children). As she shared more of the behind the scenes of caring for her children, she watched her follower count grow to over two million. Sharing those day-to-day family moments connects her with her audience in a unique way. “I get a dozen messages a day saying something along the lines of ‘watching you feed and care for your family is healing my inner child of not being fed and cared for properly,’” Alicia says. “So we just keep going.” 

Alicia’s videos of her 5 am lunch box packing and griddle breakfast marathons are particularly popular. (And ironically set to the tune of Dolly Parton’s “9-5.”) I recently chatted with Alicia about how she handles packing lunches for her 10 kids as they transition back to in-person school for the first time since March 2020.

You packed lunches even through the pandemic. How has the transition back to in-person school been? Any lessons learned during the time at home?

It was a little bit of a tough transition for all of us. Most of my kids were in remote school last year. I would still pack their lunch in their morning, but they had it available and they could just graze all day. Now at school, it’s structured and they have to eat at an exact time. It’s taken some time for them to adjust to the schedule of “I’ve gotta fill my belly when I’m able to fill my belly.”

Is there a formula you follow or goal you have in mind when packing lunches?

My first goal is that it’s going to fill them up. I honestly pack more than they would probably need. I’d rather have them have too much and bring it home than have them hungry the second half of the day. The next thing I look at is, is it a well-rounded meal? Is there a fruit and vegetable, is there a drink? I make sure they have every component to try and be as balanced as possible. Even though I know they’re gonna go for that cookie first anyway, as a mom I feel better that I packed that apple. 

Do your kids ever make their own lunches?

Six of my adopted kiddos have been neglected and have food issues from when they were babies. Typically the foods they were fed were not very nutritious. We have tried to let them pack their own lunch, but they’ll pack three packs of Pop-Tarts and five cookies. They don’t have the capability to realize what a well-balanced meal is, what they need to fuel their body for the day. They lack that executive functioning to pack their own lunch. And if I’m already packing six lunches, I’m obviously gonna pack the other four. 

How do you handle pickiness or food aversions? How do you hold empathy for them when they’re the result of trauma?

With the sensory processing disorders can also come food aversions and pickiness, and it literally comes down to the sensory issue of taste. I had a six-year old move in with us who had never experienced the sensation of eating whole chicken. It’s kind of chewy if you think about it. We actually learned from one of our therapists that they can lack the saliva to swallow foods like that if they’ve never experienced it. So we always offer condiments like ketchup and ranch. My kids love to dip because it helps activate their salivary glaves which helps them eat their foods.

People always ask how I get them to eat a variety of foods. When people think of a variety of foods they think they have to make these gourmet meals. That’s not it. Find the foods that your kids will eat. Find their three favorite vegetables you know that they will eat and rotate those. Every fourth day add in something new for them to try. You don’t have to have 30 different vegetables for every day of the month.

"Even though I know they’re gonna go for that cookie first anyway, as a mom I feel better that I packed that apple."

Do you include the kids when it comes to planning lunches and meal planning to account for any of the pickiness?

So the kids and I actually meal plan together. Which is fun, because they help me decide what we’re going to eat that week. I’ll get the ideas of what they’re hungry for, and I’ll make the menu for the week. 

As far as the lunches go, they tend to get into a certain type of food. Right now the teenagers are into ham and cheese sandwiches. So I know I gotta buy ham and cheese. We go through a loaf of bread per day, which makes 10 sandwiches. My middle kids are into just jelly sandwiches. I know that’s weird. 

They can have sandwiches for lunch every day. They’ll be ok.

Yes! People put so much pressure on themselves, they get so overwhelmed by the idea of making homemade meals that they don’t do it. And that’s my thing. I’m all about simple and basic and easy. 

Food is such an emotional and tricky topic for people. You never want to cause insecurities around body image because of food, and there are just so many little things that could inadvertently cause a body image issue. We always try and be mindful about that. And I do get comments that my kids are fat because I don’t feed them better. Some of my kids are trauma survivors and are on medications that cause weight gain. I get really worked up about it. We are just trying the best we can, can we just support and love each other? I really struggle with the body stuff online.

How did you figure out a lunch packing schedule that works for you?

I mostly multitask the entire morning. I figured out that when breakfast is lined up on the counter, I can’t make lunches there. If I make the lunches first, then that counter is clean, I set the breakfast out, and then get going with the day. 

I get up at 4-5 in the morning and make their lunches, before they even wake up. They have to tell me the night before what they want. If they don’t say anything I just go with their typical favorite. 

I do struggle with having to get up early. As much as I just wish I could sit down and drink a cup of coffee, it’s not going to happen. I’m chugging that iced coffee while I’m packing lunches. I love my kids dearly, but if I don’t have my own brain when I wake up I’m frazzled the whole day. 

How does budget factor into the food you buy or gear you use?

I use an Amazon lunch box that is indestructible. We’re on at least year two of these same lunch boxes. I get a lot of hate over using Ziplocs. I buy the reusable pouches but they slowly disappear. But I do buy them and try. I have yet to find a thermos that doesn’t leak that they can also open, they tend to spray all over them. 

One thing we do save on is our meat products. We get that from an actual butcher, like the whole cow and put it in the freezer. We probably spend most of our money each week on fresh produce. They love their fresh fruit. We save some money on vegetables in the summer because we have a vegetable garden. 

We used to stress over the amount of money we spend on food. We spend more a month on food than we do on our house. And we just realized it wasn’t worth stressing about. So we just make it work. We cut expenses in other places. I don’t get my hair and nails done. I cut back on me so I don’t have to stress about my kids getting what they want to eat. I’m sure I could do it in a more affordable way if I wanted to. I’ve tried couponing, but it's a fulltime job. 

"We spend more a month on food than we do on our house."

Do you pack snacks?

I pack snacks too, but I do that the night before. That’s usually a granola bar, we go through a lot of those. 

I do snack boards for the kids every afternoon. My kids were just snacking from the minute they got home from school until dinner was ready. So I created this snack board with a variety of foods they can munch on without constantly going to the pantry. There’s usually 10 cookies or another treat so they each get one, the rest of it is mostly healthy stuff. So that has really saved my sanity in the afternoons. As the day gets later they’ll complain that there’s just the carrots left. And I’m just like, “well it’s that or nothing,” and then of course they eat the carrots. 

It sounds like we are all struggling with a lot of the same problems, no matter how kids we have.

It’s so true! People are always like, “how do you do it with 10 kids?” It’s the same even if you just have one. They’re the exact same problems.