Northwest Colorado Food Coalition: Have your kids pack their lunch
September 2, 2018
Yes, your kids can make their own lunch.
By first or second grade, a child is typically capable of packing their school snacks and helping with lunch. While the exact timeline varies by family, most sixth-graders can be completely responsible for their lunch and snacks. 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 in to their body's hunger cues and develop planning skills, while giving you time to do something else.
Giving up control can be a scary deviation from your norm, so a little structure will help everyone succeed.
First, talk to your child about what belongs in a healthy day of eating, including protein, fruit, vegetable, whole grain or starch, water and/or milk. Brainstorm with your child foods they like in each category. Try to include at least one item from each category between lunch and snacks.
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. 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. Good nutrition occurs over the course of time, so seek variety in other meals.
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Expand their lunch menu by letting them pick something new from the grocery store. Keep the new item, and other lunch items, in a place your child can access them. Encourage your child to pick something unusual or different from the produce section of your store or challenge them to pack their lunch using one color one day and as many colors as possible another.
Challenge yourself and your child to limit the packaged foods to one per day or less. This boosts nutrition and stretches your grocery dollar. 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 and foods with more fiber will give sustained energy for the growing body and learning brain. A meal that mixes all of the items on the checklist can sustain them for more than 3 hours.
Second, teach them to use a vegetable peeler, an apple slicer and a knife. Practice these skills with them. Youtube is full of helpful videos on knife skills for kids, and you might pick up a few tips yourself.
Third, organize the tools they need. Store a couple of divided dishes or a series of small containers with lids that they can affix in a place where they can reach. Containers will also protect the food from getting banged up. Stock up on ice packs or freeze mini water bottles that you can 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.
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?
Like any new skills, this is a process that will take trial and error for your child. 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. Here's to healthy eating and a few more minutes in your day.
Kathy Yeiser promotes access to better eating as a member of the Northwest Colorado Food Coalition and is a personal trainer and mom of two. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.