School Lunch Tips from a Former Teacher

Does your child eat the lunch you pack?

The Truth About School Lunch

It's that time of year. The time when everyone posts beautiful photos and creative recipes for school lunch. I approach the topic of school lunch a little differently. Because in my seven years of teaching elementary school, here is what I learned about young children and school lunch:

1. Most kids spend less than five minutes eating lunch.
For children, lunch is what stands between them and playtime. They shovel a few things in their mouths and get out onto the playground as fast as they can. There are children (mostly girls) who will sit at the lunch tables and devotedly eat their entire lunch while chatting with their friends. But they are the exception to the rule.

2. You don't know whether your kid eats the lunch you packed or not. 
They might eat it, but they also might trade it for something else, or throw it in the trash. As a parent, you usually just don't have that much control over what your child does or does not eat during lunch time. For example, my vegan sister told me how her daughter, desperate to find out what meat tasted like, ate a hamburger patty off the floor of the cafeteria. My sister only found out because she has a friend who works at the school who saw it happen. I think it's important to keep in mind that the amazingly nutritious black bean dip you made with organic sprouted beans could end up in the trash. And the organic snacks you paid a small fortune for might get traded for fluorescent "yogurt" in a tube. All this and more could happen without you being any the wiser.

What I Pack My Son for Lunch

I'm packing a lunch for my eldest for the first time this year. Instead of trying to pack some amazingly delicious, nutritious, and innovative masterpiece for my child for lunch, here is how I approach the school lunch dilemma:

  • Serve a big homemade breakfast each morning. You can make your kid finish breakfast. You can't make him finish lunch. I make large batches of whole grain pancakes and french toast on the weekend, which are easy to reheat for a quick weekday breakfast.
  • Pack a school lunch that is super easy to make using foods that you know your child will eat. This increases the chances that your kid will eat the lunch you pack. It also decreases the odds that you will be really angry at your child for not eating the lunch you worked so hard making. Soon I hope my son will be helping me pack his lunch each morning and eventually packing it all by himself. For now, getting him to change into his uniform and eat his breakfast before we need to leave is challenge enough for us. 
  • Pack foods that are not temperature sensitive, so that your child can eat the leftovers after school or even the next day for lunch. I realize this greatly limits your options. It also limits the amount of food that will end up in the trash. For the past two weeks, my son has eaten more than half of his lunch on the way home from school. And I'm packing his lunch based on the amount of food he would normally eat if he were eating lunch at home with me. Just today I opened his lunch box after school to discover that the only parts of his lunch he had consumed were his milk and his treat (sandwich and fruit untouched).
  • The time to try to get your kid to eat a new or non-favorite food is dinner. Pack a lunch based on what your child will eat, not based on what you hope or wish she would eat. As a teacher, I saw a lot of unfinished and untouched food from home get dumped by kids in the trash.

This is the lunch (free of disposable packaging) I hope to eventually be packing.

So far, my son's school lunch consists of:

The jam sandwich plus nuts is my version of a PB&J. My son does not love peanut butter and jam sandwiches, so I agreed to make him a jam sandwich (he loves bread with jam) if he would also eat some nuts. I've been sending my son to school with special store-bought treats like Annie's crackers or Clif Kid fruit twists to make him extra excited about his school lunch, but it pains me to be using so much disposable packaging. Eventually, I would like to send my son off with homemade treats (like my healthy whole grain "cookies," chewy granola bars or even healthy-ish chocolate chip cookies) in reusable bags instead, but first I need to bake some. I also feel bad about the milk box that goes in the trash everyday. I would like to send my son with a 12 oz stainless steel bottle of water instead (he drinks plenty of milk at home). But I don't want him to feel too bad about not eating the cafeteria lunch which includes milk or chocolate milk, so for now we're sticking with the milk.

A few other suggestions regarding reusable lunch gear:
  • Practice opening and closing reusable containers at home before sending little ones off to school with them. You'll find out that some containers are too difficult for your child to open on her own, and that others require a bit of practice and coaching or all the food ends up on the ground once the container or bag is opened.
  • Don't send your child to school with expensive reusable lunch gear until you know you will get it back. Find out what the system for getting lunch boxes back to the classroom is and then wait a few days to see if your child reliably brings everything back home before sending him or her off to school with $50+ worth of reusable lunch gear. I, for example, did not send my son to school with Lunchbot containers (which I love because they keep the sandwich from getting crushed and are so easy to clean by hand or in the dishwasher) until the second week of school because they are $18 a pop.

How do you make sure your child eats a healthy school lunch?

Related Posts

Eco-novice's Back-to-School Guide
School Lunches Need a Food Revolution
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  1. I love your version of PB&J! I'll have to try that one. Your lunch looks similar to some of mine. To make sure my kids will eat as much of their lunch as I can, I get their input. Within reason, I will make what they will eat. We are not talking elaborate things - sandwiches, wraps, yogurt....

    1. Exactly. Ask your child what he will actually eat! An older child can help make purchasing decisions and prepare the lunch herself. When my son's lunch comes back unfinished, I ask him if he wants me to pack something different. Remember that you are competing with PLAY time. Insist that your child finish something and not bring it back home and it could just end up in the trash.

  2. Fortunately, my son's school last year switched to having recess BEFORE lunch (which makes so much sense, I don't know why most schools don't do it that way), but still they are only scheduled for 20 minutes for lunch which ends up being 15 by the time they all come in from the playground and find their lunchboxes.

    One benefit of having a picky eater is I know he will not trade his lunch. Today he got tofu cubes (cooked last night), cucumber chunks, and Late July crackers. Also a real spoon and cloth napkin from a set I made him 2 years ago for kindergarten. Sometimes he gets beans and rice or quinoa and peas in a thermos. I've learned not to pack a water bottle in his lunch because he doesn't drink at lunch; I've learned not to pack apple slices because he will spend 15 minutes eating 2 apple slices and then not have time for the protein part in his lunch.

    My biggest problem has been finding small enough containers that are not plastic but are easy for little fingers to open. He just can't eat much in 15 minutes and most bento-style containers are too big.

    1. Sounds like you understand how and what your son eats very well, which I think is a key to packing a lunch that will get eaten. I'm impressed that he will eat beans and quinoa, etc. I can get my son to eat quinoa at home but only with prodding so I would never trust him to eat it in a school lunch. I agree about containers -- ideally I would love to use all stainless steel over reusable plastic bags, but the stainless steel containers with metal lids are tough to open. We had to practice opening the LunchBots one many, many times.

  3. This is all such *great* advice - wish I had had it four or five years ago! My 11 yo son frequently brings home his lunch half eaten or eats it on the bus on the way home, unless he really LOVES it. Play time is too precious to waste on eating much for him! I have also focussed on breakfast and afternoon tea. It pains me though, to pack veggie sticks and avo sandwiches for my 7 year old (who asks for them, and will sit and eat them proudly) and then pack a jam sandwich for my 11 year old (even with chia seeds stirred into homemade jam, which is my version of PB&J since its a nut free school). Sigh.

  4. Thanks, whopper. I hadn't heard about that causing digestive problems. I do know they are UHP -- I buy pasteurized non-homogenized milk for drinking at home. But I think UHP is my only option for boxed....

  5. Really nice post and great to read this post. as a rice bags manufacturer i'm really happy to read this post.


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