back to school

5 Lunch-Packing Tips We Learned from This TikTok-Famous Mom of 12

published Aug 15, 2022
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Child's lunchbox prepared for back to school
Credit: Joe Lingeman/Kitchn

Who knows more about packing lunches than a mom who does it 12 times a day? Just ask Alicia Dougherty of the Dougherty Dozen. She and her husband, Josh, are TikTok-famous parents of 12 children ranging from ages 3 to 15. They share tips for wrangling kids into doing chores, fun dance challenges, and the nitty-gritty of getting lunches out the door for their extra-big brood.

Their gorgeous family story includes eight adoptions, four bio kids, one big van, and about $1,000 in groceries every week — and we get to watch (and learn from) it all. Alicia does most of the meal prep. She is so organized, so supportive, and so good at feeding her crew, that I took notes with one particularly timely task in mind: making school lunches. These are my favorite tips from the Dougherty Dozen — all of which work even if your family comes in a smaller size. 

1. Find a flexible formula and use it on the regular.

On any given day, the Dougherty kids eat some combination of the same thing for lunch: sandwich, veggies, fruit, chips, and juice. Every day. All the days! And with 12 kids, it’s not hard to understand why. Having an adaptable formula in place makes packing lunches a snap and less mundane than you’d think.

Think: Taco Tuesday, where you have an idea of what to make, but enjoy the latitude to fill in the blank on exactly how it’s done. (Chicken, shrimp, crunchy shells, soft tortillas, and so on.) The Dougherty’s lunch formula works the same way.

Alicia changes up her kids’ sandwiches between deli meat, PB&J, and tuna salad. Chips could mean a bag of Ruffles, Doritos, cheddar popcorn, and so on. Everyone gets a banana today and an apple tomorrow. She’s got variety, with guardrails. Taking the guesswork out of what to serve makes meal packing (and planning) easy, which saves time, money, and food.

Credit: Joe Lingeman

2. Prep twice, clean once.

There she goes. It’s 5 a.m. and Alicia’s using a handheld mixer to whip up three loaves of banana bread to serve 12 kids along with a side of sausage links and fresh blueberries. With breakfast baking away in the oven, this mama makes a strategic move: She lays out sandwich bread for today’s 12 lunches. The first two meals of the day are prepped before even one kid wakes up.

Most of us won’t need to get up at 5 a.m. to pull this off, so don’t panic about her crack-of-dawn timing; an extra 30 minutes could easily do the trick. Or, skip the early riser routine altogether! I prep a one-two combo of breakfast and lunch every day. While my four kids wolf down/complain about breakfast at our kitchen counter, I make all their lunches. That’s because the best time to slice apples for lunch is when you still have the cutting board out from breakfast. It saves time and cleanup. 

3. Stash your bulk buys in clear bins.

Efficiency is key in the Dougherty kitchen, and nothing packs as quickly as pre-measured snacks. Chips, yogurt, fruit, drinks — Alicia has tons of nearly everything on hand. No wonder she can assembly line her way to 12 school lunches so fast. To pull it off, your pantry game needs to be strong; if you’ve got the storage space, make your way to Costco ASAP.

But that’s not all. The key to successful bulk storage is all about transferring your loot into clear bins. That way you can see what you’ve got to work with and what’s getting low.

4. Send a little love on very special napkins.

Just when you thought a mom who rises before the sun couldn’t get more committed to providing for her kids, you see them. Tucked alongside each freshly made sandwich is a paper napkin emblazoned with uplifting messages, like “You are enough,” “Be it great or be it small, do it well or not at all!” and “You are the coolest kid I know.”

So. Dang. Sweet. To send your kids a little sunshine at lunchtime, use a Sharpie to write messages on paper napkins, nab pre-printed cocktail napkins, or simplify with lunch-box notes. Either way, kids know you’re thinking of them, like a love note in the middle of the day.

Credit: Joe Lingeman/Kitchn

5. Spring for the monogrammed lunch boxes.

Of all the things to have your kid’s name stitched on, lunch boxes make a lot of sense. For one, they’re adorable, neat, and tidy. And like everything else in the Dougherty household, personalized lunch boxes are also practical. (You’ve never seen mayhem like two-dozen kindergarteners bumping into each other while trying to find their lunches, all before their teacher stops playing the lunchtime song.)

With “Riley” written on top, there’s no question about which dinosaur lunch box belongs to Riley. Monograms are also a practical way to avoid mix-ups at home. Thanks to a deer tick bite, one of my kids has a new food allergy to mammal meat, so grabbing the lunch box with a ham sandwich meant for her brother means breaking out in hives. Personalized lunch boxes are not only adorable — they’re actually safer.

Got a lunch-packing tip you’d like to share? Tell us about it in the comments below