There are plenty of good reasons for wanting to pack a healthy, nutritious school lunch your kids will eat. Consider this: if fueling their minds isn’t inspiration enough, it’s inevitable that one of these days, someone is going to forget to clean their lunchbox, only to discover that come Sunday evening (or worse, Monday morning), the uneaten contents have sprouted new life.
Save yourself the trouble with these keep-it-real tips for packing school lunches with ease from real parents.
Train Your Sous-Chef Early
These are the two most-commonly cited reasons for including kids in the lunch process: they learn useful life skills and strip themselves of the right to complain.
Food blogger Sandra Hickman Simmons highlights the positive side: “Make it a fun thing you do together at least occasionally,” she says. “When the child opens the lunch they will get an immediate smile on their face remembering how they cut their sandwiches with a cookie cutter, or played a counting game with the grapes while making the lunch with mom or dad.”
Bonus: when kids choose the foods that go into their own lunch boxes, they’re more likely to actually eat them. “If they pack it, they own it,” writes Family Cook Off host and mother of three, Trish Magwood. She suggests laying out rules, such as ‘each lunch must include a fruit and a protein,’ then letting the kids choose the items within your pre-set categories. Best of all, studies show that kids who participate in home cooking are more likely to choose healthy items.
Make a List
Family life can get so hectic that sometimes we even forget our own bright ideas. By keeping a running list of favoured lunch items, you’re creating a grocery list and packing day inspiration. “When lunch making time rolls around in the bleary-eyed morning, it’s easier to look at a list and pick stuff than try for creativity before the coffee sets in,” says Toronto mom Lana Rayman.
Involve your children in the listing process so the options are parent and kid-approved; if they can read, they can use the list you’ve created together to guide their choices and do lunch on their own.
Mix It Up
“I usually pack lots of little things cut up,” says Kitchener mother Julie Barker. She says her son, Jack, is more likely to eat his lunch if it’s all “mini.”
Cut-up portions aren’t just cute — they’re practical, too. Kids have limited time to eat their lunches, and bite-size bits are easier to manage. They also create space for a greater nutritional variety.
That said, don’t get too upset if even the best packed food rainbows are occasionally returned home. “My son needs variety,” says mom Dawn Hill. “And it’s always a surprise what he’s going to eat and what he suddenly “hates.” I’ve given up worrying about it.”
Remember: It’s Elementary School, Not Top Chef Canada
Many of the parents we spoke to recommended cutting and arranging foods in cute shapes. It can be a fun way to bond with your kids while taking care of a necessary task. But crafting panda sushi and banana penguins isn’t for everyone.
Milton mom Lisa Weaver reminds parents to test out a lunchbox before buying, as some are easier to operate than others. “They don’t get a lot of time to eat,” she says, “and little hands need to know how to open latches and lids.”
Stay On Track
Above all, try not to stress. Yes, good nutrition is important, but dietitians frequently advise taking a weekly approach, rather than daily. If your kid is getting the right balance of fruits, veggies, proteins and fibre-rich complex carbs throughout the week, an indulgence here or there is totally fine.
When your kids inevitably do return with uneaten items, instead of asking why they didn’t eat a particular item, approach them with a neutral statement, like: “I see there’s still a lot of rice in here…” If you’re lucky, it might lead to a conversation about their current food interests, or their lunchtime social lives. Besides, at the end of the day, it’s just lunch.
Still hungry for fresh lunch ideas? Try these recipes: 16 Stress-Free Lunch Ideas