Packing lunches loses its novelty fast. While you may have started off stamping cute cookie cutters into Pinterest-perfect sandwiches for your preschooler, by your 957th lunch you’re ready to throw a PB&J in a bag and call it a day.
So when your child is old enough to slice some bread, it’s time to hand over the reins. Giving kids ownership of their lunches fosters independence, teaches them about nutrition, and helps develop their palate. Plus, it gives you one less thing to do. This fall, whether school takes place in a classroom or virtually in your kitchen, empower your kids to put together their own afternoon meal. Follow these expert tips to get them started.
Teach Them About a Well-Balanced Lunch
Left alone, kids would stuff their lunchboxes with Ritz crackers and applesauce. So it’s up to you to give them guidelines for a balanced meal. Talk to your kids about what this looks like. Ideally, their lunchbox should include a mix of protein, carbohydrates, healthy fats, fruits, and vegetables explains culinary nutrition expert, Jessica Levinson.
Putting this mix together in a lunchbox is easier than you think. “Take a sandwich for example,” explains the registered dietitian. “The carbs are your bread, preferably a whole-grain bread, something high in fiber because fiber is going to keep you more full. Top it with a lean protein, like cheese, tuna, peanut butter, or sunflower seed butter (if your school is nut free). Round out the meal with a pop of color in the form of fruits and veggies.” This could be orange peppers, cherry tomatoes, apple slices—whatever their favorites are.
Compile a List of Food Options
To avoid kids standing in front of the fridge staring into the abyss, parents can type up a list of different foods to include in the lunchbox, says Amy Palanjian, founder of Yummy Toddler Food. “Have them write a list of lunches they like, including sides and snacks, she says. Once you have their input, separate the list into categories: Protein, carbohydrates, fruits, and vegetables and add additional nutritional options. Next, hang it on the refrigerator door and tell them to pick at least one item from each of those sections. “This way the kids have a checklist of what they know they need to get,” says Levinson.
Now that you’ve curated a list of parent- and kid-approved lunch options, it’s your job to make sure everything is available and accessible. Create a lunch bin in your refrigerator to stash their choices for the week. We like clear plastic containers with handles that are easy to pull out. Fill them with pre-cut fruits and vegetables if your child isn't ready to use a knife yet, a bowl of washed grapes so that they can just put them in the lunch box, yogurts, cheese sticks, and of course any containers with leftovers they’ve decided on the night before.
“After dinner if there are leftovers, have the kids fill up a container of what they want for the next day,” says Palanjian. “They can literally go get a lunch box and put a quesadilla or put some pasta in it. They can take ownership of it without it being a giant production—and then it’s all ready to go in the morning.”
Designate a Healthy Snack Bin
Lunch packing stations don’t just stop in the fridge. “I label my pantry with sweet and salty snacks so my kids know where to go for the foods they enjoy most,” says Catherine McCord cookbook author and the founder of Weelicious. Set up snack baskets with items like whole grain crackers, pretzels, and applesauce in your pantry at eye level so kids can see what they have available. Bonus: Labels will help keep things where they’re supposed to be.
Dedicate Space for All the Gear
No one wants to be stressed out in the morning looking for a missing water bottle. Whether you’re a bento box fan or prefer a more classic option like Hydro Flask’s insulated lunch box, dedicate a low shelf or drawer for storing packing essentials such as lunch boxes, thermoses, and water bottles. Add a smaller container to corral extra straws and bottle cleaners.
Figure Out the Best Packing Schedule
If your kid is an early riser, packing lunches in the morning is totally doable. However, most people prefer to avoid saving the task for the morning of. Ultimately you have to figure out the time that works best for your family. “I always make and pack lunches at night, so I can have relaxed mornings hanging with my family,” says McCord. “Whether your kids are going to school or learning virtually, making lunches the night before can be a lifesaver.”