Turn your kids into independent lunch packers! Here are five easy steps to get your kids to pack their own lunch. Let’s make it happen!
This post was written as part of my partnership with Healthy Family Project. I’m happy to be part of their Power Your Lunchbox campaign to help empower kids in the kitchen.
Imagine, if you will, a morning that didn’t involve packing lunch boxes. Would you:
- Sip your coffee a little more leisurely?
- Sleep an extra 15 minutes?
- Not feel as frantic or rushed as usual?
I used to be a night-before packer. And when I stopped packing lunches for my kids, it was a huge relief to be done with all food prep after dinner. It felt liberating!
Teaching your kids to pack their own lunch allows you to reclaim a little slice of freedom.
But it also offers something else that’s pretty special. Your kids gain independence and autonomy in the kitchen as they learn an important life skill: how to assemble a meal for themselves. Let’s make it happen!
How to Get Your Kids To Pack Their Own Lunch
Day 1: Talk to your kids about the plan
Some of you may have children who love to do everything for themselves. Or maybe your kids are like mine and will happily sit back while you do it all. So their reactions to this news may vary! Here are some points to consider sharing with them:
- They’re old enough and capable enough to be packing their own lunches
- Everyone in the family helps keep the household running, and packing their own lunches is one way they do that
- Making their own lunches means they can choose what they pack (with some input from you)
- You will help them at first and set up ways to make it pretty easy
- If they’d like certain items for their lunch boxes, you will go to the store together and shop
Day 2: Teach them the basics
One big concern I hear from parents is the worry that their kids will pack a box of granola bars for lunch if left to their own devices. But you can teach your kids the basics of packing a well-rounded lunch while giving them some freedom to choose items they like.
Make a list with your kids of categories such as fruits, vegetables, protein-rich foods, and whole grains–or whatever categories work best for how you eat at home–and the kinds of foods that fit into each category. Explain that a balanced lunch, one that gives them energy and keeps them full for the afternoon at school, contains foods from different categories.
To make it easy, I created a free printable for you. Some lunch-packing printables are already filled out with choices. I designed mine so that you can fill it out with the foods YOU keep in your fridge and pantry. Print it, fill it out, and post it where your kids can see it, such as the fridge or inside a pantry door.
Teach your kids to pack a well-rounded lunch! Grab my free Pack Your Lunch printable.
Here’s an example of how to fill it out:
- Mains: Turkey or ham sandwich, PBJ, leftovers in a thermos, hummus, cheese, hard-boiled egg
- Fruit: Orange slices, banana, fruit cup, applesauce, berries
- Vegetable: Carrots, snap peas, cucumbers, cherry tomatoes
- Whole grain: Bread, crackers, pita, tortilla
- Extras: Popcorn, yogurt tube, chocolate milk box
This is also a good time to chat with them about the kinds of items they’d like to see in their lunches. I always recommend having an honest dialogue with kids about what they like, don’t like, or are throwing away (or trading away) from their lunch. Go to the store together to stock up on choices you both feel good about.
Day 3: Make packing stations or bins
Older kids will be better at finding what they need around the kitchen. Younger kids may need a little extra help.
One idea is to corral items in a one-stop spot that’s easy to reach. Gather lunch packing supplies your child will need–such as lunch boxes, containers, thermoses, water bottles, cloth napkins, reusable utensils, and accessories like silicone muffin cups to divide containers. Go to my online Amazon Shop for my favorite lunch packing gear.
For lunch box food, I keep one bin on the counter for shelf-stable items and one in the fridge for refrigerated things (see how this works: How to Make Lunch Packing Stations).
But you can divide it further into individual bins. Use the categories on the printable (mains, fruits, vegetables, etc) or your own categories, and show them how many to choose from each bin.
Note: It’s good to teach your child about eating all different kinds of foods, but let them take the lead on how much to pack. They know their appetite best!
Here are ideas for a fruit bin:
- Whole fruit like mandarins, apples, and plums
- Fruit cups and applesauce
- Freeze-dried or dried fruit
Here’s are ideas for a protein-foods bin:
You can also package snacks and sides (together with your kid) in reusable containers that are easy to grab and pack. Ideas for snacks:
- Crispy chickpeas
- Dried fruit
- Trail mix
Day 4: Pack lunch together
Using your printable and stations, build a lunch together. Let them choose their own portions, even if you think it’s too much or too little (trial and error is part of the process). Step in with gentle suggestions or reminders if needed.
Day 5: Hand over the reins
It’s time to let your child pack their own lunch. Try not to meddle too much!
When they come home, you can talk about whether the portions were right, what they liked and didn’t like, and what they might do differently next time. Use feedback to restock the packing stations or bins together each week.
Rinse and repeat for the rest of the school year!
At what age should kids pack their own lunch?
Each kid is different–and you know your child and their abilities best–so there’s no hard and fast rule. But most kids can start packing independently in elementary school.
Even toddlers and preschoolers going to daycare and preschool can help you load items into their lunch boxes, fetch a cold pack from the freezer that’s in reach, or help you make recipes to pack.
Remember: It’s never too late! Even high-schoolers can take over the job.
What if my kids don’t pack balanced lunches?
I’m a Type A micromanager, so it takes GREAT strength for me not to fuss too much over what my kids pack.
If I notice that their lunches are lacking, I sometimes step in with a suggestion.
- If my kid packs a sandwich, crackers, pretzels, and a cookie, I’ll suggest a piece of fruit.
- If I’m chopping carrots for dinner, I’ll ask my kid if he wants some for his lunch the next day.
Otherwise, I try to let it go. Believe, me, the lunches my kids pack themselves are not “perfect”. But they’re learning about balance and about their own appetites, about which foods sustain them and how much they need.
I can give them the building blocks for healthy lunches and guide them with occasional suggestions, but ultimately, I want them to make their own decisions–just as they’ll be doing on their own someday.
What if my kids don’t eat what they pack?
I hear from a lot of parents who are frustrated by the amount of unfinished food in their kids’ lunch boxes.
Having your child pack their lunch themselves should naturally reduce some of that waste, since they’re packing the kinds of foods they like and the portions that feel right to them.
I always encourage parents to talk to their kids about unfinished food–from a curious, not scolding, point of view. Is the lunch period too short? Were they struggling with a package or container?
If food is still coming home untouched, serve what’s missing from their lunch boxes at home, like veggies at dinner or fresh fruit at an after-school snack.
Help! Having my kids pack their lunches makes the morning MORE hectic, instead of less.
Be patient with your kids and know that it’s a process. You may need to help them at first, then slowly take yourself out of the picture. If morning packing is too stressful, have your kids pack their lunches the night before (or better yet, right after dinner when the kitchen is still strewn with food and leftovers are ready to grab and pack).
My kid’s running late and doesn’t have time to pack. What should I do?
On the one hand, kids eventually need to face the consequences of poor time management, something we all have to deal with in our lives. If buying school lunch is a safety net for mornings when they didn’t pack, that’s reasonable (especially for older kids).
On the other, I try to give my kids some grace. There have been some mornings when one is upset about something or really dragging from a bad night’s sleep, so I’ve stepped in to help. But that’s the exception, not the rule.
About my partner: Healthy Family Project
I’m the official Registered Dietitian for Healthy Family Project, a cause marketing organization dedicated to creating a healthier generation. Since their creation in 2002, they’ve raised more than $7 million to benefit children and families.
For their annual Power Your Lunchbox campaign, six health-conscious brands–Bee Sweet Citrus, Crispy Green®, Nature Fresh Farms, Pero Family Farms®, Shuman Farms’ Real Sweet®, and Yo Quiero!®–are giving $12,000 to United Fresh Start Foundation, a not-for-profit organization focused on increasing children’s access to fresh fruits and vegetables.
Want more ideas for packing lunches? You can get loads of lunch box-ready recipes and packing ideas on their Power Your Lunchbox page.