10 Ways to Plan for a Year of Packing Lunches (Now That School Lunch Isn’t Free Anymore)

published Oct 11, 2022
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You’ve probably heard the news that this school year, lunches will no longer be free for all students, as Congress has chosen not to extend the federal program that provided school food for any student, regardless of their family’s economic status. The news comes as a huge blow to both those working to end childhood food insecurity and to parents who want to improve the quality of the school lunch program overall, as providing free meals to all students helped close gaps in coverage, fed more kids whose families were unable to pay for lunches, and increased participation in the school lunch program. 

For families who relied on school lunches for the last two years, but who may not want to or be able to purchase lunch regularly this year, this change will also affect everyday life. How did we get here? What can we do to push for change? And how should we plan for a year of packing school lunches again?

The Issue

As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, food insecurity rates across the country jumped in 2020 and 2021, and households with children were particularly vulnerable. According to a report from Feeding America, in Louisiana – the state with the highest rate of childhood food insecurity in 2021 – more than one in four children were food insecure last year. In Texas, almost 300,000 children became food insecure in 2021. School meals are an important source of nutritious, high quality food for households experiencing poverty, and although the process of qualifying for free or reduced-price school lunch should be simple, the paperwork required can be a barrier for some families. In other cases, families may exceed the income threshold, but are still unable to afford school lunches, which can lead to “lunch debt shaming” as schools attempt to collect on unpaid lunch fees. This issue disproportionately impacts BIPOC families, as nearly 60 percent of children whose households are just above the threshold for free school meals are children of color.

Providing universal free school meals not only addresses these gaps and inequities, it also means more kids overall eat school lunches, and increased participation in the program means a lower per-meal cost, which “increase[s] the resources available for food and labor, resulting in better, fresher, more appealing food — and thus further increasing participation,” according to the Food Research & Action Center. When kids from all different socioeconomic backgrounds eat school lunch, it also reduces the stigma of receiving free or reduced-price meals, and ensures all families are invested in the success of the school lunch program.

What Can Parents and Other Caregivers Do?

If you are feeling frustrated about the lack of federal legislative action around school lunches, you are not alone. Some state governments are stepping in to fill the gap: California and Maine passed School Meals for All legislation; Vermont, Massachusetts, and Nevada approved one-year extensions that keep school meals free for the 2022-2023 school year; and legislatures in Colorado, Maryland, Minnesota, New York, and Wisconsin are looking at similar bills. If you live in one of the states that is considering a Healthy School Food for All bill, you can get involved with the campaign to spread the word, tell your story, and advocate for change.

No matter which state you live in, you can contact your state or federal legislators to let them know how important it is to keep all kids fed at school, without stigma or shame. The Food Research & Action Center (FRAC) has a Healthy School Meals for All page that has more information about the issue and makes it easy to email your legislators about it. After all, as California State Senator Nancy Skinner puts it in the FRAC blog, “We provide our students free textbooks, access to computers, and other learning tools, so it only makes sense that we would provide free school meals as well.”

Until then, we have the school year ahead, and many, many lunches to pack. Here’s how to tackle that short-term problem while we wait for long-term change.

Credit: LunchBots

10 Ways to Plan for a Year of Sending Lunch to School

1. Make sure you have the right equipment.

If you haven’t touched your kid’s lunchbox in a couple years, or you have a young student who hasn’t had to bring lunch since preschool, it’s a good idea to take stock of your gear. Your exact needs will depend on what your child likes to eat for lunch, but a basic list might include a lunchbox (this is a Cubby favorite), an insulated carrier, a couple ice packs, a water bottle, a thermos for hot foods, and waterproof name labels. For more specialized equipment, check out our recommendations for the best lunch containers for every kind of lunch.

And remember that kids’ eating habits change as they grow. When my older son started second grade, we got him a bigger lunchbox with fewer compartments and his little brother inherited the lunchbox with smaller sections, for toddler-friendly grazing.

2. Think about timing.

When will you (or your partner or your kid) make lunch? I’m a fan of making it the night before and keeping it in the fridge, while my husband prefers to make it in between breakfast-making tasks in the morning. Another option for the extremely organized or the extremely short on time: prepping a week’s worth of lunches on the weekend.

Whatever you decide, having a plan and budgeting in the time to make it happen is key, especially during the hectic first weeks of school.

3. Get your kids involved.

Depending on their age and skills, kids can help with planning lunches, preparing some or all of the lunch, grabbing ice packs from the freezer, making sure their lunchbox goes into their backpack, or other tasks big and small that give them some control and accountability over their lunches. Smaller kids love to have Very Important Jobs in the kitchen and bigger kids benefit from seeing the amount of work and care that goes into keeping them fed every day.

4. Revisit your weekly meal plan.

If you’re working in the kitchen to get dinner on the table, you may as well maximize your time and prep for lunch at the same time. If your child enjoys hot foods at lunch, that might mean making sure some of your dinners will make good school-lunch leftovers, or choosing dishes that taste good hot or cold in a lunchbox.

Even if their usual go-to is a cold sandwich and sides, you can plan dinners that include ingredients that double as lunch side dishes – such as sliced vegetables, cheese, edamame, or hard-cooked eggs – and prep a little extra while you cook.

5. Adjust your grocery shopping lists.

With all the additional food going out the door every week, you’re undoubtedly going to need more from the grocery store, and possibly some new weekly staples. This is also a good time to comparison shop to see if your kid’s lunch favorites are cheaper at certain stores, or if it is worth buying some items in bulk.

6. Ask about allergies.

Many schools are very clear and adamant about which foods are not allowed due to allergies, but some students have transitioned to eating lunch in their classrooms rather than the cafeteria  in the last couple years, so food allergy guidelines are not always straightforward. If your child’s school or their teacher haven’t mentioned any restrictions, it’s a good idea to play it safe and ask.

7. Follow a formula.

Emily from One Lovely Life makes packing school lunches simple but never boring by following a formula: protein + carb + fruit or vegetable + something fun. She even has a printable list of different foods her kids like in each category, which makes it easy to mix and match, to come up with new combinations. I especially love this idea for getting kids more involved with planning their lunches, as it allows them to choose combinations they like, but keeps their lunches balanced – and even includes something fun!

8. Have 1 or 2 “emergency” meals.

Sometimes you forget to stop by the grocery store after work, or you hit the snooze button one too many times, or you just can’t today…and yet you still have to send your kid to school with lunch. Having a back pocket option or two that you can throw together quickly with items you normally keep in your freezer, fridge, or pantry is essential. And who knows? Maybe these last-minute meals will end up being one of their favorites.

9. Surprise them.

It might feel like a small thing, but tucking an encouraging note or silly drawing into your kid’s lunchbox, or adding an unexpected (school-approved) treat can really make their day. School days can be long and difficult sometimes, and reminders that you love them can be just what they need.

And whatever you do, remember it doesn’t have to be Pinterest-worthy; I still remember what it felt like to see a simple “I love you” written on my brown paper lunch bag in my mom’s looping script. It was more than enough.

10. Buy school lunches from time to time, if you can.

The school lunch program needs widespread support, now more than ever. If you can afford to, show your investment in the program’s success by purchasing the school lunch occasionally – or even regularly. You’ll have a better understanding of what the students in your child’s school district are eating, you’ll be financially contributing to your local lunch program, and you’ll ensure that school lunches aren’t just for financially disadvantaged families. School meals should be for everyone.

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