Start your child off on the right foot for eating lunch at school with these easy to follow, practical tips for lunchbox packing!
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Back to school lists
Pencils, paper, glue, scissors, markers…it’s enough to make your head spin, isn’t it?! Honestly I don’t remember supply lists being this intense as a kid, but I probably wasn’t paying much attention to it either! We love our teachers though, and really want them to have all the tools they need to help our kids be at their best for school, and I think sometimes the school lunch thing gets a little over looked.
It really does matter
And I say this with all the love that I have for you dear momma. Because I know there is a lot on your plate, and I know what it is like to be an overwhelmed mom. But even more important than the brand of pencil that the teachers want your kid to have for the school year, is having a child that is well fed for a full school day. It’s that whole hierarchy of needs thing, ya know? If a child is hungry, they can’t focus for squat, and that fancy paper or folder you bought for them isn’t going to matter if they can’t make it through their afternoon. Those school days are long for any school aged kid, and we want to set them up for success with full bellies and fed brains so they can make it through.
Sustainable lunch packing rhythms
What goes into their lunch does matter, but, especially for any moms reading this that are newer to having school aged children, I want to help you be successful at lunchbox packing for the whole school year – not just the first week. So let’s dive into some practical thoughts I have for you, now that I have 2 middle schoolers and my last little one in elementary school!
Give your child time to practice using their lunch gear
Multiple years of being room mom in early elementary classrooms has taught me many things – and one of them is this tip! If you are reading this post and it is summertime, purchase your child’s lunchbox now so that you can pack it up for your summer outings (or even just lunchtime at home!) to practice how to use it! Latches, zippers, pouches, buttons, lids – those take time for little hands to figure out, and it will save them time when at school. Also be sure they know how to properly close their water bottles so you don’t end up with a soggy backpack on the way home! If you need lunch gear suggestions, take a peek through my Lunch Gear Resource Guide! It’s free!
Consider lunch gear & foods that don’t involve a lot of separate containers to open & close
Speaking of practicing lunch gear! One thing I have noticed in these classrooms, is that kids with lunches packed in multiple food containers, or lunches packed in containers with multiple compartments that need to be opened and closed, took longer to eat. If you are in the market for lunch gear, and have little ones, this is a good thought to consider before buying. If you need some lunch gear recs, here is my Lunch Gear Resource Guide with multiple suggestions to help you decide!
Pack familiar food
If you have been around here for a while, you know that I am all about helping your children become adventurous eaters! However, the first week of school is not the time to try out new foods. Think about your little one’s first days of school – even the entire first year or so. There are so many new things going on, rules to remember, friends to meet – it is SO. MUCH. Their little brains can only regulate so much at once! You throw a new food on top of all that and they may think “Hmm, I just can’t do one more new thing right now, and this feels scary, so I’m just not going to eat it.” And it really could be something they would like if they weren’t so overwhelmed! Just try new stuff out at home first. Serve it for dinner, and the talk about how you would like for them to help you pack it in their lunchbox some time.
Understand your child’s school snack and lunch schedule
This is a big one because everyone’s school schedule varies. Does your child have a morning snack time? When is snack time in relation to lunch time? This will all determine what and how much you pack for lunch. You know your child best. If the kids have a snack at 10 and eat lunch at 11:30, then perhaps you need to make the snack small so they are still hungry to eat their lunch at 11:30. Or maybe you split the lunch up into 2 smaller meals so they get part of their lunch at snack time and the other part at lunch. They may have lunch closer to 1pm, so you might want their morning snack to be a mini meal so they can make it to 1pm. Also find out how much time your child will have to eat that lunch. This will help you pack accordingly. Regardless of how we feel about a 10-15 minute lunch time (I think we would all agree that is pretty rough for a little kid!), if that is how it is at your school, you’ll want to be sure to pack easy to eat foods that pack a filling punch so your child is ready to focus for the rest of the school day.
The 2-minute lunchbox tour
Before packing that lunchbox into their backpack, open it up and show your child. Ask them what they think are the foods in there that will help them feel good for the afternoon and focus for school. Help them learn where the protein is, and important bites that will help them so they can start there. That way, if they don’t have time to finish, they will have at least gotten something filling in. This 2-minute lunchbox tour can happen the night before while you are packing the lunchbox together, or it can happen in the morning before you pack it up in their backpack! Before you know it, they’ll have so much more body awareness and independently know what kind of foods help them feel their best.
And speaking of foods to help them feel their best! Every child has different macro ratio needs – but all the macros matter for growing kids. So just take a quick scan of the lunchbox each day and be sure it’s all in there – fats, protein, and carbs. It all matters! If you need some great balanced lunchbox inspiration to see some examples, you can check out my cookbook, The Little Lunchbox Cookbook! Inside there are 60 different lunchbox examples, all balanced with what your child needs to get through their day.
My child is coming home with a lot of leftover food consistently – what should I do?
Kids’ appetites can ebb and flow depending on growth spurts, illness, life changes, sleep, etc. Noticing some food coming home every once and a while is normal, but if they are bringing food home day in and day out, here are some things to think about:
- Re-evaluate your child’s snack and lunch time schedule, and portions. Is your child eating a big morning snack only to have lunch an hour later? Are the portions you are sending realistic for your child? How long are they allowed for eating? Re-visit the above section called “Understand your child’s school lunch and snack schedule,” where you will find more information on addressing each of these.
- Help them realize their hunger after school. If they are crabby or emotional in the car on the way home, seem sleepy, or tell you they are “starving,” and you notice they didn’t each much of their lunch, help them make that connection! Kids aren’t always body aware enough to realize that not eating lunch is why they feel so crummy. Present it nicely – no shame. But remind them they will feel so much better when they focus on their food at lunch time.
- Ask them why! “Hey, I noticed that there is a lot of lunch left in your lunchbox – did something happen at lunch time?” Don’t make them feel badly for not eating – just ask them. There may be a good reason!
- Chatty Kathy’s or Ken’s! Sometimes that reason is that you might have a “Chatty Kathy” or “Chatty Ken!” Ask them who they sat with at lunch. This age does not understand the time management of lunch at school yet. Help them understand that with time, they will learn how to manage talking with their friends AND eating at the same time! Sometimes just making them aware is all you need to do.
- Reconsider hard to eat foods for little ones. As a health food leaning blogger, you know that I value getting veggies into kids. But there are so many ways to do it in an easy to eat way, OR maybe save larger veggie portions for at home when they have more time. Your goal in a school lunchbox is to get the most nutrient dense food into your little one in the amount of time that they have to eat. It is easier to eat cooked veggies versus raw, so my kindergarteners were rarely bringing raw veg and dip or salads. They were bringing blended soup purees to slurp with a straw, or leftover roasted veggies from dinner. Or frozen veggies that thaw. It is faster, and easier to eat, which leaves them less stressed.
- Help them prioritize with the 2-minute lunchbox tour. Leftover food is going to happen sometimes, but I’d rather them leave the strawberries than leave the sandwich – you know what I mean? That is the reason for the 2-minute lunchbox tour! See the above section about the 2-minute lunchbox tour and learn how to help your child learn what part of their lunch will help them feel their best for the afternoon so they start with eating that first.
- Some foods are just “at home foods.” Listen, my kids adore sardines and liver pate – but I’m not going to do that to them! Unfortunately, to most children, those are just really weird foods to pack, and it might make your child uncomfortable if they are constantly getting questions about unfamiliar foods. I’m definitely not saying pack junk food every day! But I am saying, if there is a food that is consistently coming home, check with your child and see if they are not comfortable with bringing it to school. I think I ask my girls yearly if they really do want me to pack tuna salad for lunch – one of their favorites, but clearly doesn’t smell the best! Every year they surprise me by saying they want it, but I am perfectly fine with making certain food “at home food.”
Tips for navigating lunchbox questions at school
It’s inevitable, that if you focus more on whole foods in your child’s lunchbox, you are bound to get a few wandering eyes and curious kids asking your child questions about their lunch. Here is how we have approached that at our house.
- Remember that kids are genuinely curious. Especially for younger children that truly aren’t at the “peer pressure” age yet, they might just truly wonder what it is! This age group is so blunt, aren’t they?! If they have never seen something before, they have no filter, and they are going to ask! Remind your preschooler through 2nd grader this, and help them understand that some kids might not have had the chance to try that food yet! In fact, I have found that the kids asking these questions are the ones coming to school with the same thing for lunch everyday…perhaps they are even wishing that they could have a variety of lunch like that.
- Ask them how they feel about the food. I always ask this question when one of the girls says “so and so asked what this was.” Nine times out of 10, when I ask them how they feel about “that green soup” or a pinwheel roll up, or even olives, my girls have answered, “well I love it” about that food. So we talk about that! Just because other kids might not like something, or don’t know what it is, doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy it! Positively start teaching them about gently standing up for themselves by eating foods they enjoy, even if others think it’s strange.
- “At home foods” are ok! In the section above, I described some examples of “at home foods” that we have labeled in our house. Leaving some of the “less popular” healthy foods for at home, is totally fine. We want our children to be confident in their food choices, but we don’t have to cross the line!
I’m all ears! If I didn’t hit on a lunchbox issue that you are having, please ask! And if there is something not listed here that you have found helpful with lunchbox packing, please share! Teachers, we want to hear from you too!