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Credit: From Left to Right: Beau Coffron, Meghan Splawn, Laura Fuentes, Catherine McCord
back to school

12 Grades, 12 Lunches: 12 Parents on How They Pack Lunch for Every Age

published Aug 15, 2019
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Back to school means a new routine for packing school lunch for parents (and kids, too!). How you pack lunch for your second-grader certainly won’t be the same when they reach middle school — and we aren’t just talking about how much they eat.

What are the transitions like from year to year? How does school lunch change as your kid hits a new grade? We asked some of our favorite foodie parents what school lunch looks like for their kids, from first grade through high school, and the answers are so thoughtful.

Bonus Grade — Kindergarten

Since we are just getting started with all-day school, lunch packing is an exciting new thing for us. Our daughter’s excited to pick out a new lunch box, and now we just have to figure out what to put inside it! Of course I want to load up my daughter’s lunch box with smoked brisket, but that’s just not practical. Mini pulled pork or chicken sliders, on the other hand, will definitely be making an appearance!

We’re determined to pack healthy and nutritious lunches that she’ll actually eat, but we know that’s going to be a challenge! But we’re excited to take it on and learn a few things along the way. — Nick Coe, Smoked Meat Sunday

Credit: Jet Tila

First Grade

Amaya is going into first grade. The common thread is how sophisticated kids’ palates are. Packing Thai sticky rice and BBQ chicken is now the norm, whereas [in school] I was made fun of for having “weird” food.

My wife Ali and I are always trying to pack a balanced lunch: vegetables, fruits, protein, and grains in every lunch, but still keeping it fun. And portability is important! You want to make all lunches easy to eat and quick. If they have pull out utensils, they are less likely to eat at times. — Chef Jet Tila , Author 101 Epic Dishes: Recipes That Teach You How to Make the Classics Even More Delicious

Credit: Meghan Splawn

Second Grade

My second-grader is doing a combination of school lunches and packed lunches this year. We look at the school’s calendar and she picks the lunches she’s most excited about from the cafeteria and then we pack lunch together for the rest of the week. She’s currently Lunchables-obsessed, so we’re working on packing homemade versions with less sugar and waste! — Meghan Splawn, Kitchn’s Associate Food Editor and co-host of Didn’t I Just Feed You Podcast

Third Grade

As far as lunches go, Tessa will be allowed to order from the cafeteria three times a week since she’ll be in the third grade. Last year, she was allowed twice a week. On the other days, she packs her own. By third grade, we have a decent idea of what will be returned uneaten and are able to pack more quality and less quantity.

We help her prepare individual containers in the evenings and she has her own corner of the fridge and pantry set aside for her choices. She is responsible for packing and unpacking her lunch box daily, including ice packs, and for filling her own water bottle. The only time I am involved in the mornings is if something needs to be microwaved and put into a Thermos to keep it hot. The goal is autonomy and the reward is two Oreos! — Johanna Frank, mom to Tessa, Ramsey N.J.

Fourth Grade

Cooper’s school has pizza days on Mondays; this is very helpful when you don’t feel like making a lunch Sunday night, so I sign him up for that every Monday!

The rest of the week he makes himself a sandwich (yay!) and I finish the rest of the lunch boxes with meal-prepped veggies and packaged snacks. — Tracy Benjamin, Shutterbean

Fifth Grade

My daughter is going into fifth grade and is more active than ever. When packing her lunch I try to make sure it’s full of natural colors, protein, fruits, vegetables, and nutritious carbs. Most important I try to add plenty of different textures and flavors to keep it fun and engaging. — Catherine McCord, Founder Weelicious and One Potato Box

Sixth Grade

Isaac has been in middle school for two years now and I’ve watched him make less and less well-balanced choices. He tends to either eat a salad, which isn’t enough, or load up on carbs and sweet drinks. So this year, I plan on talking to him about how his choices impact his mood, sports, and, quite frankly, me (the person who has to deal with his mood, overseeing his homework, and getting him to practice every day!).

I’d like to propose that he bring in an unassuming brown bag lunch — or something to add to his cafeteria lunch — just a couple of days every week to balance things out. — Stacie Billis, Author of Make It Easy, co-host of Didn’t I Just Feed You Podcast

Credit: Beau Coffron

Seventh Grade

For my seventh-grader we are continuing our tradition of me making fun character-themed lunches for her on Mondays. However, we are going to give her much more freedom during the week to make her own lunch and start making her own healthy lunch choices (with some guidance from us) as she enters this new school year. Her mom and I will be much more hands-off in this area. — Beau Coffron, Lunchbox Dad

Eighth Grade

My son is one of those kids who doesn’t seem to eat much at lunch, no matter what’s in his box. He’s 13 now, which means any illusion of control I used to have has long since dissipated. So for me, gearing up for school lunch season means having some casual conversations with him — we talk about what kinds of foods he might want to pack, and strategies he can use to psych himself up to eat instead of just hanging out with friends. It also means I keep the kitchen stocked with mini-meal-type foods for him to eat as soon as he gets home: flatbreads and mozz for pizza, smoothies, deli turkey, fresh fruit, and popcorn. — Debbie Koenig, Author Parents Need to Eat Too

Credit: Lunchbots

Four Parents on High School Lunch

I pack lunches and snacks for my hungry teen every day. To keep things simple, I follow a formula of a sandwich plus two sides. I also bake a batch of chocolate chip pumpkin bread once a month, slice and freeze it, and send it for his snack. Yes, the same snack every day! My priority is to pack Quincy a nourishing, filling lunch that he can eat quickly so he has plenty of energy for his day. — Jacqueline Linder, founder Lunchbots and author of The Simple Lunchbox

When you have to pack a variety of lunches from small to bigger appetites, I often suggest to parents to pick one ingredient, like hummus, which is high in fiber and protein and it holds up well in the lunch box, and serve it in a variety of ways. For little ones, a bistro-style box is great because it’s an interactive lunch they can eat while talking with their friends.

As kids get older, the contents have to get a bit more satiating like stuffing an avocado (which will keep a child full a long time) to using hummus in a wrap or sandwich. And for the salad eater, thinning out hummus with a little water and using it as a dressing is also a delicious lunch idea. — Laura Fuentes, Momables Founder

Scott is going into the eleventh grade, and for the most part we don’t make a fuss about lunches. His school provides healthy options and he can leave campus for lunch so I will give him lunch money each week. At least once a week, I try and make him a healthy sandwich. It usually has uncured ham, since ham is his favorite meat, sprouts, and avocado. He sometimes swaps the sprouts for lettuce and avocado for cucumbers if we carry it.

We also only live about a three- minute drive from his school so if he wants, he can come home and make lunch. I always stayed stocked up on sandwich items in case he does that. PB&J is always on the menu since it’s one of our family’s comfort foods. He always comes home and wants to snack, so if he doesn’t come home for lunch, he makes himself a sandwich after school. I keep baby carrots, cucumbers, and humus during the school year so he can have somewhat of a healthy snack.

I don’t fight him if he wants to get something from the vending machines at school. I see it as a treat for being at school all day long.  — Toni Osmondo, founder and photographer Every Damn Bite

My youngest daughter, Virginia, will be a junior this year. When she started high school, she wanted to simplify her lunches. A lot of her friends eat lunch off campus, so she didn’t want to have to bring along a big, complicated lunch. She prefers to keep it to one main, such as a salad or wrap, and then just a fruit or vegetable on the side. Getting her lunches packed is a team effort. Some days I do it, some days she does it, some days we tackle it together. I check in with her before the school week starts to agree on a couple of main dishes and shop for the ingredients. She’s a vegetarian, so that informs what goes into lunch. Often we’ll pull out my book, Best Lunch Box Ever, which helps when we need some inspiration. Just adding one or two fresh ideas each week is a good starting point, and then we fill in with leftovers or basics, such as a PB&J. — Katie Morford, author The Best Lunchbox Ever

What do you make your kids for school lunch? How has it changed as they’ve Let us know in the comments!