Teaching my kids to pack their own lunch was a total game changer. Here's how to make it work for your family.
Credit: Getty Images / Milkos

The first day of school will be here before we know it, so now is the perfect time to rethink lunch-packing and pass the task off to your child. This may seem a little “tough love” to some parents. For others, the thought of giving up total control over the foods packed is a little scary, or it seems like an idea for that would just complicate the already-hectic morning routine. But the overall result at my house has only been positive, and it's convinced me that kids not only can, but should, pack their own lunch.

I actually hesitated in writing this story about my experience because I never want to suggest that I'm a parenting expert (or even a model parent.) I'm just an average mom trying to navigate this parenting thing while also keeping my head above water with the rest of life.

Yes, I am a dietitian, but that doesn’t mean my nutrition knowledge automatically creates kids who eat healthy. In fact, frustration and exhaustion are what led me to start requiring that my kids to be involved in packing their lunches, but it has evolved to be a really good thing. All this to say, I’m sharing what I’ve learned in case it helps a few parents avoid the frustration I felt a few years ago.

Benefits of Involving Kids

Here are a few positives that have come from getting my kids involved in their own lunch packing.

It teaches responsibility.

As a parent, finding age-appropriate tasks that teach responsibility and self-sufficiency can be hard. This is why the daily, sometimes monotonous, but quick, chore of lunch-packing has been a good one to adopt.  My 11-year-old daughter has been packing her lunch for two years now and my 8-year-old is currently "in training". Watching them take responsibility has been rewarding for both them and me. The task is also one that provides a natural consequence if it is neglected. While I am always available to help, my daughter quickly learned that purposely running late to avoid packing her lunch did not mean I packed it. It just meant she ate in the cafeteria.

Ownership leads to less food waste.

A lot of my past lunch-packing frustration stemmed from my kids’ “I don’t know” or “I don’t care” answers when asked about food preferences. What compounded this, though, were the uneaten components (usually unsalvageable at that point) that came back home. So one of the best, but perhaps unexpected, surprises to come from the kids being involved is that it has led them to take ownership—something that's significantly reduced the amount of uneaten food that comes home.

It teaches healthy meal planning.

I want my kids to make good eating choices—without the feeling that I'm forcing my work on then. So I try to tread carefully by simply keeping healthy food in the house, gently guiding their choices, and trying to set a good example. What I love about getting the kids involved in their own lunch-packing is that it has opened the door to lots of questions and conversations about nutrition, our bodies, and healthy eating—mostly all initiated by the kids.

How to Teach Kids to Pack a Healthy Lunch

Even though these benefits may sound great, are you at a loss as to where to start when it comes to teaching your kids how to pack a healthy lunch? Here are the top tricks that have made it work at my house.

Teach them a basic plan or formula.

A few years ago when I decided it was time to get my daughter involved in the lunch-making process, I realized that I needed to provide her with a basic blueprint or formula to create a healthy lunch. I wanted to make the process super simple, while also maintaining some nutritional integrity and balance. This is the basic one we started with and still use at our house: 1 protein food + 1 starchy food  + 2 other food choices + water

The “other” food options are a fruit, a vegetable, a dairy product, or a healthy fat or dip (but at least one “other” must be produce). My formula is not perfect, but it guides them towards a good balance of nutrients most of the time and is simple enough for varying ages.

Make a list with formula options.

Once you have a formula, make a list of ideas for each category with your child to incorporate their preferences, as well as initiate their buy-in to the whole process. These lists will be this will be unique to each family or child and will change as food preferences and tastes expand. Here are a few examples of items that my kids have on their lists:

Protein foods: turkey slices, hard-boiled egg, edamame, chicken salad, cheese stick, or cheese slices

Starchy food: whole-grain bread slices, sandwich wrap, popcorn, pretzels, tortilla chips, pasta salad, whole-grain crackers, beans, corn kernels, granola bar, and occasionally chips

Fruit options: apple slices, grapes, clementine, peach, pear, berries, fruit salad, or fruit cups in water or juice

Vegetable options: baby carrots, cherry tomatoes, leftover roasted vegetables (such as green beans or carrots), cucumber slices, salad greens, lettuce wrap for sandwich, or salsa

Dairy Options: yogurt, cottage cheese, cheese stick, or milk

Healthy fat or dip: hummus, guacamole, salad dressing, trail mix or nuts, or a small piece of chocolate

Set boundaries by being the gatekeeper.

One of a parent's top fears is that kids will pack lunches full of junk. While creating—and sticking to—a formula helps to establish parameters so this doesn’t happen, controlling what comes into the house from the grocery is a key component, too. Parents are the gatekeepers when it comes to what comes home from a grocery trip, and kids can’t pack junk if it isn't in the pantry and fridge. While I’m not suggesting that all less healthy foods are off-limits, be careful that those items aren’t easier to pack, or more tempting than healthy items. Also, define expectations—maybe giving permission for them to pack a favorite treat one or two days a week in a healthy portion size.  

Create an environment that enables.

Set the kitchen and food storage areas up so that packing is easy and at a kid’s level. I’ve designated a low drawer strictly for lunchbox containers and water bottles. I also try to keep a section in the pantry and fridge where there are easy-to-grab, mom-approved foods—things like yogurt, cheese sticks, bags of baby carrots, or trail mix.

Expect food ruts.

Most people—including kids—are creatures of habit, so you can expect many repeated lunch items. Sure it’s ideal to get variety on a daily basis, but don’t stress if the only fruit your child eats for a week are oranges. They will get eventually get tired and move on to apples or strawberries. I think it is better to monitor incorporation of all the food groups over a week’s time rather than the variety of those individual choices. Plus, you’ve always got breakfast and dinner to fill in any nutritional gaps!

Let go of high expectations.

Teaching a child to pack his lunch means letting go of some nutritional quality and control. This is where parents have to trust the formula, and let kids learn. This is not easy to do, but what helps me is focusing on the bigger picture—I want my kids 1. to actually take responsibility and do it, 2. to make fairly healthy and balanced choices, and 3. to eat most of what they pack.

Individualize to your child’s age, maturity, and capabilities.

I have found that 1st to 3rd grade is a good window to introduce a packing formula and slowly incorporating them into the decision-making on food choices. Then, a child is usually ready to shoulder the full task between 4th to 6th grades. Every child is different, so phase the chore in gradually based on a child’s abilities and maturity. While my daughter took over her lunch packing in 4th grade, I’m not sure my son will be ready then.