I Pack My Kid’s Lunch (but Not Because It’s Healthier)

updated Sep 30, 2020
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(Image credit: Faith Durand)

September brings many things, chief among them the switch back to school — school wake-ups, school bedtimes, schoolwork, and school lunches. For many parents, this means asking a question about lunch, which theoretically constitutes about a third of the food our kids eat: Who’s going to make it?

I think it’s worth parents’ time and money to pack their own kids’ lunches, but perhaps not for the reasons you might think.

My son’s school, which doesn’t have a cafeteria or a specific lunchroom, has a nifty program: as late as midnight every day, parents can order nutritious, all-organic lunches for their children for the following day through a delivery program. It’s basically catering for kids, and includes more creative choices, like tomato soup with grilled cheese, burritos, and spring rolls. So I don’t pack lunch because it’s healthier than what he’d eat at school. And although the price is significantly higher than what we spend to make lunch — $8 to $10 per day, based on what I think my kid would want surrounding his catered mini bagel and cream cheese — that’s not what sends me packing either.

I make my kid’s lunch at home because I want him to see me caring about his food, and I want him to be part of the process.

Now, let’s get something straight: I’m not claiming the upper parental hand here. My lunches aren’t award-winning, low-budget, or even always all that healthy. But the back-and-forth that goes into making a lunch in the morning teaches our rising first grader that in our family, we are all responsible for helping each other. I learn what he prefers. He learns that we don’t always have his favorites. We negotiate carrot and cookie numbers. In our small family, it’s a spot in our day where we can learn a little more about each other.

But my friend Hilary makes a better example.

Hilary is a savvy cook and conscious eater who buys her food carefully. With three young children and a Navy husband who spends about half his time at sea, she knows what it takes to get three wiggling bodies and three lunchboxes out the door on time before school. Her kids almost always hit the schoolyard with a nutritious homemade lunch.

I’ve long thought that facing that task alone for months at a stretch must be exhausting, but on a recent visit, I saw her take an admirable shortcut. She had had visitors late the previous night (mea culpa), so instead of making lunches one morning, she planned ahead and provided her kids with the famous all-in-one boxed lunch option one can buy in the refrigerator section of most large grocery stores, yellow packaging and all. I was impressed, for lack of a better word, basically because an organic supermom had the guts to buy her kids pre-packaged hoagies of questionable nutritional value (judgment mine).

(Image credit: Faith Durand)

However, she did not simply stuff them into the kids’ lunch bags, as I expected. Instead, after breakfast, she informed all three kiddos that it was DIY lunch day — but instead of simply squirrelling the Lunchables away in backpacks, each kid chose a spot at the kitchen counter. In minutes, all three had made their own lunches using the contents of the packages more or less as directed; the nine-year-old helped the four-year-old open and spread mayonnaise on his bread while the six-year-old helped herself to extra mustard from the fridge. There were cheese and turkey trades. Mom kept half an eye out for flying cardboard while she organized the rest of the house for morning liftoff.

Ultimately, her timesaver had created something that buying them lunch never could have: those yellow boxes were teaching her children to take care of each other and themselves. They made their own lunches, giggling the whole time because they were so thrilled to get to play grownup. And rather than fighting them to hurry up already after rushing to make their meals, Mom left the house with three calm and collected kiddos, each proud of what they were carrying.

I’m not saying every family has to make their children lunch day in and day out, or that Lunchables are a great solution for every busy day (which for us feels like every day of the week). But before you buy the monthly meal ticket, think of what your kids might be getting out of the lunch-making process besides nutrition: family time, food sense, and even a little fun.

3 Small Tips for Keeping on Top of Lunch Making

  • Ask your kids for help.
  • Redefine your concept of the perfect lunch.
  • If mornings are difficult, try packing lunches at night, before or after dinner.