Teach your child to make a school lunch

Making school lunches isn’t difficult and teaches your child important lessons about nutrition and responsibility. Use these tips to teach your child how to put together a simple lunch they will love to eat.

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The first day of school is only about a month off. One more month of summer! And while I’m trying to soak it all up because it is rather fun having all five kids home all day (although very loud as well), I’m trying to use the last month to prep so our transition back to the school year goes smoothly. This year we will have THREE kids heading off each morning so it’s even more vital to create routines that are easy enough to follow while still accomplishing our daily tasks. 

One of the most basic steps of getting ready for school each day is packing lunches. When our oldest was in kindergarten we were also adjusting to life with newborn twins (they were born about two months into the school year) so we did not have the best system, or any system for that matter, for getting ready for the day. Breakfast was often rushed, we were all rather frazzled, and his lunch was frequently thrown in a bag at the last minute. At least we never forgot it! 

A better plan for making lunches

Thankfully by the time the next school year rolled around and we had two in school I had developed a significantly better plan. 

1. The kids needed to make their own lunches. I’m busy making breakfast and getting the house going for the day, I cannot and don’t need to be putting their lunch together when they are capable of doing so themselves. I’ve learned that giving kids simple responsibilities is so much easier in the long run because they learn what they are capable of instead of thinking they need help with EVERYTHING. 

2. It needs to be done the night before. There is too much going on in order for us to get out the door by 8am for them to also be making lunches. We have a small kitchen when it comes to fitting seven people in it. When it’s done the night before all they need to do is grab it out of the fridge, maybe add an ice pack, and stick it in their backpack. 

3. They need to know exactly what belongs in a lunch. By giving them clear expectations about what belongs in their lunch bags they can easily handle the task themselves most days. I will help if it’s needed, but it’s pretty rare these days. Although now with a new kindergartner, I might be needed again. 

What does our school lunch making look like? 

We make school lunches in the afternoon, before play time and dinner time. This obviously doesn’t work for every family, especially those with working parents and after school activities, but making lunch only needs to take a couple minutes, so it can easily get done the day before, rather than the morning of to take one extra thing off the morning checklist. 

I have a list on our microwave so the kids know exactly what they need to pack. Yes, I wrote it on our microwave with dry erase marker. My fridge is filled with other things so I didn’t want to add another paper that would end up getting lost. My kitchen is about function, not about looking like an HGTV model home. We live here, y’all. 

Our lunch requirements: 

  • Main dish
    • This can be a sandwich (pbj is only allowed on Friday), roll up, or some other main meal type food. My kids have taken soup, chili, and other leftovers. We love these small thermos containers for taking hot food. That is the only time we do any lunch making in the morning. The only requirement about their main meal is it must contain some type of protein.

  • Healthy choice
    • Fruit or veggie. We always keep carrot sticks cut up in the fridge for easy packing and I also like having grapes, mandarin oranges, and bananas on hand for this item. Occasionally my kids will bring an apple but I will cut it and put a rubber band around the outside to prevent browning.
    • We keep our fruit in this awesome closet organizer (for real!) that we bought from IKEA. It keeps everything handy and off our already maxed out counters. If you have a small kitchen like us or just want to maximize your space, I highly recommend it or something similar.
  • Healthy snack item
    • Crackers, pretzels, cheese sticks, and yogurt tubes are favorite choices for this category. Anything that’s not overly packed with sugar is fine by me!
    • This seems to be the most confusing item because our kids will sometimes bring crackers, cheese, and meat for their main dish and want to know if they can bring extra crackers. I try to steer them towards the other options in this case but it’s not a huge deal in my mind, even if they sometimes make it one!
  • Dessert
    • Occasionally I will let them pack a piece of candy around various holidays but otherwise I tend to keep the freezer stocked with homemade cookies and bars that they can easily grab (but are out of sight for me) and that last longer than sitting on the counter. Other options would be a granola bar, fruit snacks, pudding, or other treat we might have in the house.

packing school lunches

Some school lunch questions answered

What’s your set up look like?

snacks for school lunches

I have my pantry set up with a large bin of snacks, often that I’ve bought in bulk and used snack sized bags to divide up. This makes the grabbing easier and also helps keeps portions a good size. As the boys got older I let them dish out their own crackers or pretzels so we will see how it goes for the girl this year. When I started letting them fill their own bags I encouraged them to reuse their bags for the same items so we weren’t wasting so many bags each week. 

I don’t do anything special in the fridge for lunch making. The kids help in the kitchen often enough that they know where to find what they need. We don’t have enough space in our fridge for all of our food at times let alone a whole extra set up for school lunches! I can dream, but that simply seems like extra work that I don’t really want to do 😉

Do the kids use knives and other items?

They really only need butter knives and usually only on Friday when they bring a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. They aren’t big on mayo or other condiments on their meat and cheese sandwiches. We do have packs of IKEA kid utensils but they usually go for the real butter knives when they need one. They aren’t sharp and we’ve done supervised teaching of them before this point. 

Why so little food?

In four years we have never had a kid have an issue with not having enough to eat. Unfortunately (this is the only issue I have with their school), the kids only get 20 minutes to eat lunch. It’s a big reason why we pack lunch and don’t buy lunch – they’d have to stand in line before getting to sit down! This amount seems to be enough to fill their bellies without the risk of wasting food. Occasionally one will come home with a small portion of snack or dessert left, but usually it’s all gone. They also usually eat a good amount of dinner this way! 

Why don’t you use the fancy lunch boxes or reusable containers?

I can’t justify dropping that amount of money on each kid. There are a good variety of choices out there like the Planet Box, Bentgo Kids, and YUMBOX but ultimately I just can’t do it. Plus, their options change frequently and might not always fit the preformed little cut outs.

They do frequently use small Rubbermaid containers for items in their bags, just not every single day. In the photos above Mercedes is using an old Rubbermaid container that is similar to these.

We also use these small Thermos containers for sending hot food. I fill them with HOT water when I get up in the morning. Once we get close to “go time” we microwave the food a little extra than normal. By the time they get to lunch the food is still warm but not too hot to eat. 

Someday, when I can trust that our containers won’t get thrown away, I might invest in more reusable lunch containers, but for now we will keep doing what we are doing! 

Do your kids make their own school lunches?

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