Why Kids Should Pack their Own Lunch this School Year | + 3 Helpful Tips

The school year is practically here and you may be scrambling to figure out how to squeeze in time to do one more thing during the day—assembling all those lunch boxes! 

I’m a few weeks away from becoming a parent myself and our already busy evenings are just about to get busier! Perhaps you’re feeling the same way as you transition from summer (still busy!) to fall (busier still!). There can be a lot of pressure on parents to make that perfect lunch for their kids, to include a note, or make sure there’s variety. But then, there’s the very real concern: Is your child going to even eat what you pack? How do you add variety and new foods when you want to make sure the lunchbox doesn’t come back home untouched—and your kid isn’t coming home hungry.

For better or worse, parents usually carry the burden of preparing the lunches, but not anymore! With a little guidance, kids can start making or assembling their own lunches beginning in elementary school—giving you a few extra minutes to clean up from dinner or even make your own lunch. Praise hands for that! 

Teaching your kids to pack their own lunches helps them build autonomy and independence, but it also gives you as the parent the opportunity to trust your kids to know how much they need. They know their appetite best!

So often we assume our kids need larger amounts of food than they actually do, which results in worry or frustration when food comes back uneaten at the end of the day. Having kids pack their own lunches can naturally cut down on food coming back, since they’re packing the foods and in the amount that feels right. Some days they may overpack and other days not enough—that’s a normal part of learning to listen to their body and what it’s needing!

I recently had a client share with me that when her kids packed their own lunch, she thought for sure it wasn’t enough. She wanted to intervene and have them pack some more, but, sure enough, everything came back eaten and there were no complaints of feeling hungry later in the day.

As a parent, your job is to provide the opportunity for your kids to eat and to determine what food is available, but it’s the kids’ job to decide whether or not they’re going to eat and how much. This is easier said than done, but by not pressuring your kids to eat more or asking them to eat a few more bites, it helps kids be the intuitive eaters that they are. They’re eating until they’re satisfied rather than learning to eat just because it’s on their plate or because they want dessert later—leading them to possibly eat more than they need.

Of course, kids aren’t going to know what and how to pack right from the beginning. That’s where your role of teaching and giving them some parameters to go by comes in. 

Here’s what may help:

  1. Get bins to categorize food. Place them in the pantry for shelf-stable foods and in the fridge for perishable items. For example, let your kiddos choose from the bin of ready-to-eat fruit, pre-cut and packaged veggies, and the pantry items like trail mix, crackers, or granola bars.
  2. Brainstorm with your kids. Find out what mains they’d like and what you’d feel comfortable having. Provide some of your own ideas to the list to help expand the options. Have this list handy for inspiration and as a built-in grocery list.
  3. Help them get started. Guide them at the beginning to help them pick from each bin and get their lunch packed and ready to go. Just remember to let them decide how much they actually want to include.

Doing this helps your kiddos see how to assemble a balanced lunch, but also provides them with the autonomy to decide how much to pack and what fruit or veggie sounds good for that day. As a parent, you can continue to choose what you want to provide in those bins to encourage variety throughout the school year—you’re still the ultimate decision maker of what you feel comfortable going into those boxes!

Sure, it’s going to take some upfront work and may be an adjustment for everyone. And yes, the lunches may not look as balanced as you’d like sometimes. But in the long-run, it saves you time, helps you and your kids trust their bodies to know how much is needed, and adds responsibility for the school year ahead!

About the Author

Kara Hoerr is a registered dietitian nutritionist and a family nutrition expert. She’s originally from Iowa, but has called Madison home for the past 8 years. When she’s not helping families and individuals end mealtime battles or quit diets for good, she’s usually baking or cooking in her kitchen, running or biking on the Madison trails, or relaxing with a good book. She never expected to start her own business, but here she is with Kara Hoerr Nutrition. She offers nutrition coaching and online courses to help moms (and dads!) out at the dinner table. To learn more or to set up a free discovery call, email Kara at [email protected], or find her on Instagram.

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