Take the Hassle Out of Packing School Lunches

By , SparkPeople Blogger
Household chores teach children responsibility and self-sufficiency. Learning to pack their own nutritious lunch can be a perfect way to get them started with chores when they are young or add to their level of responsibility if they are older. There are other benefits as well. Allowing children to be in charge of their school lunch provides a wonderful opportunity to teach them about nutrition and healthy meal planning. It provides them with the opportunity to put decision making in to practice and takes the surprise out of lunchtime for them as well. Since they planned and prepared the meal, they should eat and enjoy it as well. This limits the need to bring any of it back home uneaten or trade it with someone else during lunchtime. This can be especially beneficial for children that are fussy eaters although it may take them a little time to "own" the meals they prepare.  For older children, packing lunches provides opportunities to reinforce responsibility and accountability especially if you don't pack their lunch or offer them money when they forget to do it. It also provides a wonderful opportunity for them to learn organization and financial responsibility as well by teaching them kitchen skills in preparations for life on their own.
To get your children on board with the idea of packing their own lunch, don't spring it on them as a new "job" for this year. Instead, talk with them about the importance of taking responsibility for their schooling which includes eating a healthy meals. Also include the importance of eating a healthy breakfast to start their day off right. Here are some ideas to help you develop a packing plan that will have children packing a their own lunch in no time.

Teach them to fish. Perhaps you have heard the quote, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” Remember you are teaching your children to fish and not simply getting a chore completed. In the beginning, you will think it is easier and quicker to pack the lunch yourself. If you can remember that you are teaching them life skills through the chore, it will help you resist the urge. Just as a school year has trimesters or quarters, so should the teaching and learning process for the responsibility of packing a healthy lunch. Children of different ages may start at different points depending on their level of independence and previous experience with chores. Agree on the starting point as well as the rate of progression for the complete job. If you have older children it might only take a few weeks until they have learned and mastered the process. For younger children it might take the entire school year before they have it down. Don't get discouraged just remember that you are teaching them skills that allow them to fish for a lifetime.

Have what they will need readily available. Nothing about the lunch packing process will frustrate children more than not having what they want available to pack. This provides a great opportunity to teach children about the grocery shopping process. Before you do your weekly shopping, sit down with your children and allow them to put their lunch preferences on the list. Print off and use the Tips to Pack a Nutrient Rich Lunch information as a starting point for teaching children healthy meal planning. Allow them to put healthy requests on the shopping list so they are available when it is time to pack lunch. Another step is to allow them to look for coupons for some of the items they are selecting so they establish that as part of a smart shopping plan. A last piece of this step is to take them shopping with you, allowing them to compare prices between brands and teaching them how to make the best economic choice. Be sure you teach them how to select produce as well as the proper way to clean and store it.
Don't forget the importance of food safety. Packing a nutritious lunch must include safe food preparation and food storage. Planning allows you to be ready with thermos options that keep hot food hot and cold food cold. Teach children to wash their hands and the food preparation surfaces before and after preparing their lunch. Teach them the correct way to package unused foods for freshness and safety before returning them to the refrigerator or pantry for use in future meals. Children can easily learn basic food temperature monitoring by using a food thermometer to check that cold foods are below 40 degrees F and hot foods are above 140 degrees F before they pack them. Print food storage charts and post in the kitchen to help them learn proper food temperatures for common foods.
When school is over help children learn to wash, rinse, and repeat. There is always a risk that the lunch bag doesn't make it home at the end of the day. However, since most school age children take a backpack or book bag to school, learning to put the lunch bag with that after lunch can help ensure that this doesn't happen very often. Teaching children to take care of their lunch bag when they get home from school helps them prepare for the next evening/morning of packing duty. Show them how to load plastic containers in the dishwasher and to wipe out the lunch box or the proper way to hand wash and dry containers. Once clean and ready, the lunch packing process can take place again for the next day.
As the school year progresses children will become better and better at the lunch packing process. Each will become independent with the process at different times but once they have mastered the process, think how much better they will know their way around the kitchen.  
How old were you when you began being in charge of your own meals? What circumstances created the need for you to take charge?

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Our school did not have a lunch program. I involved the kids in their lunches the summer before they started school. They treasured their lunch boxes and bags. They were as important as their books. We grocery shopped together just before school started and I kept their preferences on hand. Junk food was rarely allowed in our home. I bake and cook a lot from scratch. They had containers enough for the week. I put the pudding, jello and cut up fruit in containers for them. We rarely used plastic bags. They just loved string cheese. Our youngest boy had an immense weight problem - he could not put any weight on. He usually had left overs that had to be heated up for him. A teacher usually helped him with this. As he got older, he could handle this himself. I had to make sure they had a morning and afternoon snack too. The school did have a milk program that was very helpful. Many of the ideas that I used for their lunches also were available to them when they were home. Carrot sticks, cream cheese, raisins, celery, sugar snap peas, peanut butter, whole wheat crackers, cottage cheese - the list goes on and on. I wish I could list all the little tricks I did to help their lunches be interesting. There are so many and they do work! Our kids rarely brought anything home uneaten. Report
I started having the kids packing their own lunches by 3rd grade. I always made sure to have things they liked and that were nutritious around. We broke large packages down as soon as we got home from the store to make individual servings. The kids liked peeling carrots, washing celery, measuring & counting and using small zipper bags for individual servings. We also had some items, such as grapes, broken down and stored in the freezer to help other foods stay cold without utilizing cold packs.
As an alternative, and a "just in case," I gave the kids a weeks money for school lunches. They had to make a decision whether to spend it or not because what they did not spend went into their own savings banks.
They loved having different options as well as building up their banks and learning about personal finance! Report
School lunches are the bane of my existence! I finally streamlined the process by making the lunches ahead of time and freezing them. Works for us! Report
Depending on what was in them, you don't need to wash plastic containers every single night. For example, if it contained dry things (like pretzels) or damp but not-very-messy (carrot sticks), you can at most wipe it out and re-use for the same thing. The majority of our containers only get washed at the end of the week. Report
What an awesome idea! It didn't even cross my mind. My kids are still young (8, 6, and 5), but they can still get involved in part of the prep, like washing and bagging grapes and such. One of my girls is really into kitchen and cooking. I am certainly going to start introducing this even if not fully until they're older. Report
A nice advantage of kids packing their own lunches is that they only pack what they will eat! Report
I didn't take charge of my own meals, until I moved out the parental home, and lived with a girl friend..and worked.
I didn't know what hit me, but I slowly did learn, how to cook, and eat healthy meals. Report
I really like this. Most kids today don't have to do anything and they aren't learning any life skills. I think this is a very good idea.. Report
I packed my lunch in Junior High and High School. I was the oldest of 4, so I took over this chore b/c my siblings starteds school and my mom had to make their lunches. When I was 14, my mother went back to work (youngest sister was 6 and had just started 1st grade), and I had to start dinner before my mother got home. My four kids all know how to make simple meals (the youngest are 14) and one daughter can make full meals with some phone assistance. I am very proud of her! Report
My step-daughter who is now over 21 used to make her lunch in high school. My youngest on the other hand, is 16 and still asks me to make it. Because she is in marching band and burns way more calories than I could ever dream, I have to pack extra food on practice days. Fortunately, she likes things like prunes, dried apricots and fig newtons. Unfortunately, she will not eat vegetables. Report
This is a great and timely article - thanks! My son is 12 and we decided together that it is time for him to start taking charge of his own lunches. Last year, I made the sandwiches and he picked the sides. This year, he is going to be making his own sandwiches, as well. I can't wait to see his creative side start to show! Report
I didn't think of this. Wish I had of. Report
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