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How to Teach Kids to Make Their Own Lunches

Aug 27, 2018

It’s almost that time again — school-lunch time! Don’t worry — you’re not the only one who’s dreading it. Most of us are — even me, the pediatric dietitian. It can feel particularly daunting for first time lunch-packers. After all, for five days a week you’re responsible for providing a nutritious, balanced, school-safe, kid-approved lunch that fits into a tiny lunch box entrusted to a kid who sometimes (maybe on purpose) wears their shirt backwards. What’s there to worry about? As a lunch packing veteran (kind of), I am here with some tips to help make it easier for you. Hint — it involves the kids!

First off, it’s kind of a big deal to send kids off to school with a packed lunch! It means they’re growing up and becoming more independent. You know what else it means? They’re ready to start helping in the kitchen! And what better way to start than with school lunches?


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The more kids are involved in packing their own lunches, the more likely they are to actually eat them! Keep in mind that this doesn’t mean they can choose their own lunch, because — let’s be real — if an ice cream cone could be packed in a lunch box I’m sure my daughter would be packing one every day. Instead, teach kids to choose from a list of approved foods (perhaps keep a list of favourite lunches on the fridge — here’s an example), and teach them to choose foods from each of the four categories of lunch-box essentials (five foods in total — I call this “the rule of five”).

The Four Lunch Box Essentials:

  • Fruit (at least one) Pretty simple! Include one in every lunch box. This can be fresh whole fruit, a fruit salad, fruit sauce or squeeze pack or unsweetened dried fruit.
  • Vegetable (at least one). Cooked or raw works great. A vegetable soup or tossed salad are also yummy options!
  • Protein-rich foods (at least two). Try to include one or two servings. This can be meat, poultry, fish, eggs, milk, yogurt, cheese, beans, tofu, lentils, seeds or seed butter.
  • Whole grain (at least one). Include whole grain bread (sandwiches), pasta, quinoa, or even whole grain pancakes or waffles!

Instead of handing over all of the control, I suggest giving “structured control” over lunch contents. So, letting your child choose between cheese cubes or Greek yogurt OR a granola bar or homemade muffin, as examples. As long as they follow the rule of 5, and stick to the lunch box essentials, they’ll have a balanced lunch. The key for you is making sure you always have lots of options in the pantry and fridge for them to choose from.

Young school girls eating lunch.
Photo © rawpixel/123RF

To help make lunch packing even easier, here are a few of my favourite school lunch ideas:

  • Breakfast for lunch: French toast, waffles, pancakes…quick and easy!
  • Leftover pasta: mac and cheese, pasta with sauce. Can be served hot or cold!
  • Picnic lunch: Think bite-sized finger foods. Cheese cubes, tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, whole grain crackers.
  • Switched up sandwiches. Skip the bread and make your sandwich different. Try rolling in a tortilla or adding to a pita!

Get the gear:

This leads to my final tip: lunch gear. There are so many options out there when it comes to lunch gear. The essentials that you will need include a leak-proof lunch kit with compartments (or containers for different foods), a washable lunch bag or kit (preferably insulated), ice packs, thermos and cutlery. Zippers and lids can sometimes be difficult for younger children to open, so try testing out new containers prior to school starting. Also remember that all children are different. If you’ve got a clumsy child who might drop their lunch container, perhaps a single lid lunch kit with compartments isn’t your best bet! Pick lunch gear that suits your child and get them excited about school lunch by asking them to help choose their own gear. My nephew recently chose an insulated Star Wars lunch bag and a unicorn water bottle. Two of his favourite things!

Keep it safe:

Now that you (and the kids) know what to pack for balance, it’s important to understand how to pack lunch. This means, keeping food safe from bacteria. It’s bound to happen — we’ve all played the game “where’s that smell coming from” and often it’s a forgotten lunch container deep in the depths of the backpack. Knowing this, make sure to wash lunch boxes and containers as soon as the kids come home from school. Older kids can do this chore themselves! And when packing lunch, make sure that cold food stays cold and hot food stays hot. This means adding an ice pack to a lunch box that has food from the refrigerator and packing hot food in an insulated thermos. Again, all tasks your kids can do!

So, as you can see, kids can help at every step and stage of lunch packing, if you give them the chance. And even though it may take a little extra time and patience on your part in the beginning, it will save you time, food and your sanity involving your kids in lunch packing. Not to mention, it will boost your kids confidence, independence and hone their kitchen/food prep skills (which will help them out long term). It will also increase the chances of them actually eating their lunch!

Happy lunch packing!

Article Author Sarah Remmer
Sarah Remmer

Read and watch more from Sarah here.

Sarah Remmer, RD, is a pediatric registered dietitian and owner of Sarah Remmer Nutrition Consulting, a nutrition consulting and communications company based in Calgary, Alberta. Her website and blog contain practical tips and advice for parents and families on feeding and nutrition (everything from pre-natal nutrition to teens), as well as nutritious and easy recipes and videos. Follow Sarah on Facebook for free advice, tips and family-friendly recipes!

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