If you’re looking to lighten your load this school year, look to the kids. With these tips, you’ll have your kids making lunch in no time at all! I’m not a morning person. If your personality also improves throughout the day, you’ll understand why my life’s goal as a parent has been to get my kids to make their own lunches.
And they can!
– This post has been updated for 2022 –
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Related: 7 brilliant ways to use labels to empower kids in the kitchen. And get them to do your bidding. (Really.)
Preschool and kindergarten lunch packing tips
Start them as toddlers. The first step to lunchtime independence? Don’t make lunch prep a mystery. As soon as a toddler can talk, they can make some choices and start to understand the process of making lunch.
So make sure you have a sturdy step stool of some kind in the kitchen that raises them to counter height, then let your young child watch and talk out loud while you do the lunch-packing. You’ll be amazed how much they pick up.
Related: 5 inspiring, easy preschool lunch ideas for toddlers. No molars or utensils required!
Photo by CDC on Unsplash
On to kindergarten! Kindergarteners are totally ready to actually help.
While you make the sandwich (or the wrap, or the container of leftover pasta), ask them to choose a piece of fruit. And if you offer a “third thing,” like a snack or a dessert, set those items in a designated area — like a produce drawer, a fruit bowl, or a low pantry shelf — and ask your four- or five-year-old to go choose one.
Since children at this age also have more fine motor skills, you can also expect them to help clean up after making lunch and to empty out their own lunchbox at the end of the day, tossing the trash, sorting recyclables, and putting reusable containers in the dishwasher or sink.
Hold the criticism. Resist the urge to rearrange their dishwasher-loading handiwork – at least in front of your kids. (As they get older and messier, you’ll appreciate cleaning in any form, trust me.) You don’t want to discourage them. You can, however, offer helpful tips, like asking them to place containers open-side down, so they don’t fill with water, or to place forks prongs-down so no one gets accidentally poked.
And, fine, you can always rearrange the dishwasher after they go to bed if you’re like me and just can’t help it.
Related: Everything you need in your pantry and fridge for back to school lunch packing
Elementary school lunch-packing tips
Now it’s starting to get fun — for both of you. A kid in elementary school is ready to start making lunch for real and, it can be as easy as you want it to be.
Also, here’s where picky eaters can become very valuable. Because the simpler the sandwich, the easier it is to make. Even a six-year-old can spread peanut butter or sunbutter and jelly on bread or, even easier, one slice of turkey between two pieces of bread, with no condiments.
If your kid isn’t quite ready for sandwich assembly, they can certainly pick out fruit, load a container with pre-sliced carrot sticks or pepper strips (a little pre-planning doesn’t hurt with young kids), and fill a Thermos — being sure to screw that lid on tightly.
Because this is a great age to start talking about nutrition and a balanced diet, be sure your elementary school kid is starting to make lunch choices, like whether they want a wrap or a container of leftover spaghetti. To make this easier, introduce a lunchtime formula, like one serving of protein, a piece of fruit, something green, and something fun – or whatever you think is important.
To help your kid with this balanced formula, you might want to upgrade their lunch container to something with more compartments like this Bentgo box we love.
Related: DIY Lunchables all kids go crazy for
Middle school lunch-packing: Put them to work, big time
Bigger kids = bigger responsibilities. Middle school is when your job gets much easier, because most kids can be responsible for their own lunches entirely. And I mean top to bottom — starting with making a grocery list for you. It makes them feel more independent and responsible when it comes to their own nutrition and health, and even helps them develop meal-planning skills for when they’re older.
(Don’t know about you, but it took me a while to get good at meal planning and avoid daily trips to the store. If I can help my kids develop that skill early, I’ll have done something right!)
If they forget to jot down watermelon or the type of pretzels they like on the list? That’s their loss. And there’s no better way for them to remember to do it the next week, than reaching into the fridge or pantry for something that isn’t there.
Consider the friend factor. Another reason to let middle schoolers prepare their own lunches is that this is the age when they might care what their friends think about their lunch. And as parents we often have no idea what’s currently “in.”
One of my children loved egg salad sandwiches, until he whipped one out in sixth grade and got teased for the smell. There’s no stopping lunch shaming, so you might as well let your kid navigate those waters by making their own choices. Besides, it’ll prepare them for working in an office where microwaving fish is cause for totally justified shunning.
In some schools, kids are also eating out for lunch, so it’s a good opportunity to figure out how buying a slice of pizza or a frozen yogurt factors intersects with budgeting and allowance. For example, they may choose to pack drinks and sandwiches from home and buy snacks with their own money. Or, maybe they have a small food allowance and they need to learn how best to spend it while still making (hopefully) good choices.
It’s a great way to combine two skills kids are ready to start learning when they hit 12 and 13.
Related: 9 clever non-sandwich school lunch ideas for parents who desperately need to change things up
High school? DIY lunch all the way.
Whoo-hoo! You made it! Once your kids get to high school — let’s sing together — let it go!
Most teens have enough freedom to eat whatever it is they’re going to eat, no matter what you say. If your kid can get to the grocery store alone, consider giving them a budget so they can buy exactly what they want to eat for the week ahead. Or if they need a little nudge, teen chef Josh Reisner offered some great tips to get them motivated. It also helps if they have a lunch bag they love like this ROXY Lunch Hour Insulated Lunch Bag from Tilly’s above.
And just like that, lunch-packing is no longer your job at all. Don’t worry, you’ll be okay. And so will they.
But, wait a second. What if preparing food for your kids is your love language and you love surprising your kid with specially prepared treats?
Just know you’ll have plenty of other chances to nurture your kids through cooking. Right now, it’s important your teens are capable of making good choices all by themselves so that *gasp* one day they’ll be able to entirely feed themselves.