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  • Writer's pictureKathy Yeiser

Have Your Kids Pack Their Lunch: The Complete Guide

By first or second grade a child is typically capable of packing their school snacks and helping with lunch. By 6th grade they can be completely responsible for their lunch and snacks. While the exact timeline varies by family, complaints about their lunch, wasted food coming home or your own busy schedule signal a good time to turn over the responsibility. In doing so, your child will gain confidence, tune into their body’s hunger cues and develop planning skills, while giving you time to do something else.

Giving up the control can be a scary deviation from your norm, so a little structure will help everyone be successful.

First, make a list of what belongs in a healthy day of eating and brainstorm, with your child, foods they like in each category. Try to include at least one item from each category between lunch and snacks.

Protein: Protein provides prolonged energy and the building blocks for body tissues. The fat that naturally occurs with many proteins like hummus, nuts and cheese also slow down the stomach emptying and help you feel full longer.

Try eggs, edamame, nuts and nut butters, beans, cheese, meats, hummus, some yogurt (check the label to find higher protein and lower sugar varieties), dark chocolate covered nuts and pumpkin or sunflower seeds (shelled). Read the beef jerky package and pick only those with little sugar and no nitrates. For concerns about nut restrictions in your child’s school, clarify which nuts and then look to for more ideas.

Fruits & veggies:

Fruits and veggies provide stable energy, are packed with vitamins and minerals and are key to keeping the digestive system moving along.

The options can be endless depending on what season it is. Frozen produce and unsweetened dried fruit is just as healthy as fresh. If you are looking for more variety in unsweetened dried fruits, try Costco, Natural Grocers or Trader Joe’s.

Fresh apples can be protected from browning by storing in an airtight container, misting with a few drops of lemon juice diluted in water or cutting in half and placing the cut side down on the bottom of the container. Berries will be best if rinsed the day of or the night before and kept cold. Processed “veggie” chips are a treat food since most of the goodness has been processed, removed or masked with lots of sugar and salt.

Whole grain or starch: Whole grains provide stable energy, vitamins, minerals, some protein and fiber to help prevent constipation. Starches are a longer lasting energy source then a sugary snack. Try whole grain pasta, brown rice, corn tortillas, corn, potatoes with peel, sweet potatoes, beans, olive oil drizzled popcorn, graham crackers or other whole grain crackers, and occasionally white bread, pasta, rice, crackers, pretzels, etc.

Water or milk: Water is the best thirst quencher, add lemon or ice cubes or infuse with fruit for variety. Plain milk is also a great lunch choice. Last year, we went through a phase where my son didn’t want to take a water bottle and insisted that he drank enough from the drinking fountain. He ended up with the digestive consequences of dehydration (ie. constipation). The doctor helpfully explained to him that it’s hard to get your daily water from a drinking fountain and that a water bottle would make him feel so much better.

Chocolate milk, Vitamin Water, Gatorade, juice boxes, etc. are treats for occasional enjoyment. A typical 20 oz bottle of Vitamin Water has three times the sugar of a glazed donut!

A mix of the major food groups will give your child the energy and satisfaction they need to get through their day.

If they settle on a favorite lunch that hits all the categories, and they like making it, let them keep it up, even if you can’t imagine eating that every day. It builds their confidence and encourages their creativity. One of my children ate cold quesadillas with an apple and a carrot for months, and then switched to cold oatmeal with almonds, a pear and a carrot. The other one went back and forth between daily ham sandwiches with fruit and veggie sides to yogurt and granola for most of a school year. Good nutrition occurs over the course of time, so seek variety in other meals.

Gently expand the list by letting them pick something new from the grocery store and then keep it, and all lunch items, in a place your child knows to look for it. Let them pick something from the weird fruit section of your store and ask for their healthy suggestions for the grocery list. Encourage their creativity by challenging them to pack a full day using just one color and another day using as many colors as possible. A lunch of all orange foods could be carrots, pumpkin bread, almonds, cheddar cheese and an orange. Green food day might be spinach and cucumbers dipped in greed goddess dressing with edamame and a pear. With some freedom and encouragement your child might invent a healthy version of the next bacon on a glazed donut craze!

If they already enjoy baking or some other kitchen task, build on that. Encourage them to make a healthyish banana bread or granola on the weekend and package it in single servings for the week.

Challenge yourself and your child to limit processed foods to one per day or less—eek, scary if you’ve been relying heavily on them—but totally worth it. It will boost nutrition and your grocery dollar and begin to expand your child’s preferences. Most granola bars, fruit snacks and packaged products are high in sugar and digest quickly, likely leaving your child hungry or grumpy in less than an hour. Real foods will give more sustained energy for the growing body and learning brain. A meal that mixes all the items on the checklist can sustain them for 3+ hours. If you bring limited quantities into the house, then they can only pack limited quantities during the week and will be challenged and encouraged to reach for an apple instead of a packaged fruit snack.

Packaged food companies spend millions on product testing so you fall in love with their foods. Frequent exposure to these foods trains us to a narrow palate and we come to rely on the sugar hit for a quick fix. Variety and gentle exposure to new foods will reap many benefits in the long run.

Second, teach them to use a vegetable peeler, an apple slicer and a knife. Practice these skills with them. YouTube has several helpful videos on knife skills for kids, and you might pick up a few speedy tips yourself. This 5 inch Santuko knife is my kids’ favorite. It’s light and fits in their hand and comes in fun colors. We’ve had ours for longer than we’ve had kids!

Third, organize the tools they need. Divided dishes or a series of small containers with lids that they can affix, stored in a place where they can reach them are key. Containers will also protect the food from getting banged up in the backpack and an insulated lunchbox will help, too. Stock up on ice packs or freeze mini water bottles. (Refill and refreeze at home for less waste.) Store a permanent marker in the same place, so they can put their name on lids and containers, increasing the likelihood that they come home. I like Laptop Lunches, or similar bento box styles to help beginners visualize how many items they need to pack.

Food safety standards say that four hours is the limit at room temperature, so use an ice pack to keep things chilled until lunch and pitch perishables that sat outside the fridge for the day. Thermoses are good for both hot and cold items. You can preheat or pre-chill the thermos with boiling water or ice water before filling it with already hot or already cold items.

Fourth, agree on a regular time to pack lunches and stick to it. Is it best to do it right after dinner or do some preparation over the weekend? If your child is a dawdler, set them up for success with lots of lead time, and then wander off somewhere else so you don’t feel the urge to prod. Remember, this is a creative process for them, like when they first started dressing themselves and wore both a pants and skirt at the same time but felt so accomplished with their work. Wander back in the kitchen when it’s time to coach and praise their good work in packing and cleaning up.

The 15 minutes before they are supposed to leave the house is usually a tough time to do the lunch packing.

Like any new skill, this will take trial and error for your child. The great thing is that it comes with its own natural consequences, so you just need be too busy to completely bail them out during the struggle. While many kids in our country sadly don’t have enough to eat, those who have plenty will not be harmed by an occasional day with a modestly packed lunch or forgotten snack. If they are hungry at the end of the day or didn’t enjoy their lunch, encourage them to pack more or different foods the next day and to keep trying. Practice is the fastest route to mastering this important life skill.

Start small, having everyone pack their own snacks for a month, then pitch in helping with lunch. Soon, they will be ready to take on whole the job and you’ll be enjoying a few more minutes for yourself. Here’s to healthy eating a few more minutes in your day!

A condensed version of this post originally appeared in the Steamboat Pilot & Today, September 2018.

Here’s a fun salad recipe with directions that you and your child can make together:

Cannellini bean and corn salad pita pocket

(adapted from Cooking Light We Love Cooking: Totally Tasty Food for Kids)

Serves 6.


1 15.5 ounce can of cannellini beans

1 ear corn

1 Shishito or Anaheim pepper (optional)

1 cup cherry tomatoes

2 tablespoons diced onion, green onion or chive

1/3 cup chopped cilantro

½ teaspoon salt


1 garlic clove

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice

1 teaspoon white wine vinegar

1/8 teaspoon ground black pepper

Pita pockets

3 pita rounds, halved

6 lettuce leaves

Prepare salad: place beans in colander, rinse with cold water and let drain. Pour drained beans into large salad bowl. Remove husk from corn, then pull away and discard silks. Stand corncob upright on work surface. Cut along side of cob to remove kernels, rotating cob after each cut until all kernels are removed. (You should have about ¾ cup of kernels.) Add to salad bowl. If using the pepper cut it in half and remove the stem, seeds, and ribs. Finely dice pepper and add to salad bowl. Cut tomatoes into quarters and add to bowl. Finely chop onion. Add to bowl. Add cilantro and salt to bowl. Toss salad gently to mix. If making in advance, mix everything except the tomatoes and add those the night before or morning of.

Mix vinaigrette: Finely mince garlic clove or press through a garlic press. Place minced garlic in a small jar with a tight-fitting lid. Add olive oil, lemon juice, vinegar and black pepper. Shake well until mixed. Pour vinaigrette over bean mixture.

Pack bean mixture in a container (adding chopped tomatoes if you didn’t already). Pack one half pita pocket and a lettuce leaf. When it’s lunchtime place lettuce leaf and spoon bean mixture into pita.

Put away ingredients, wipe counters and wash any dishes you used.

Let them try making my favorite no bake cookies:

No Bake Cookies (This is a lightened version of my childhood favorite – great for snacks or when I need a chocolate fix.)

¾ cup white sugar

½ cup milk

½ cup butter or virgin coconut butter

4 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder

½ cup of whatever nut or seed butter is permitted at your school (preferably a no sugar added variety)

3 cups of old fashioned or quick cooking oats.

1 tsp vanilla

In a medium saucepan, combine sugar, milk, butter, and cocoa. Bring to a boil and cook for 1 1/2 minutes. Remove from heat, and stir in nut butter, oats, and vanilla. Drop by teaspoonfuls onto wax paper. Let cool until hardened. Put away ingredients, wipe counters and wash any dishes you used.

Try this fun lunch for avocado lovers.

Double Dip Guacamole & Tortilla Chips

(adapted from Cooking Light We Love Cooking: Totally Tasty Food for Kids)

Makes 1 serving.

2 corn tortillas

Olive oil


1 avocado

Fresh tomato salsa or chopped fresh tomatoes.


Make tortilla chips: Heath the oven to 400 degrees. Cut the corn tortillias into wedges quarters (a pizza cutter works great for this). Toss in olive oil and sprinkle with 1/8 tsp salt. Place on a baking sheet and bake in oven for 7-8 minutes until turning golden; remove from oven and set to cool. Turn off oven.

Prepare avocado: Cut an avocado in half lengthwise (so each half is longer than it is tall). Cover one half with plastic wrap and place in fridge for tomorrow. Remove the pit from the half you will be using. Take a table knife and cut a grid pattern into the avocado, leaving the avocado in the skin. Wrap the avocado with plastic wrap, or place cut side down on the bottom of the lunch container.

Clean-Up: Put away ingredients, wipe counters and wash any dishes you used.

Assemble: Pack a third container with 1/3 cup of tomato salsa, or a mix of chopped tomatoes and cilantro. At the lunch table, pour the salsa mix over the cut avocado and scoop up with the chips.

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