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Credit: Joe Lingeman/Kitchn
back to school

Parents: You’re Doing School Lunch Right (No Matter What)

updated Aug 6, 2020
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When my daughter started preschool, I got really into packing her lunches. I found a lot of joy (and plenty of stress, sure) from choosing just the right lunch box, trying the latest lunch gear, and finding new and interesting recipes to surprise her with. I loved sending her off with a little love (in the form of food) each day.

Then last year something wild happened. On the very first day of school, I forgot to pack her a lunch! To be clear, I thought it was a half-day and that she’d have lunch at home. Luckily her school will provide lunch for every student free of charge (it’s one of the perks of a Title I school in our state). And the surprising part (to me, anyway)? She really liked eating the cafeteria lunch!

For the first time in five years of preschool, pre-K, and kindergarten, I stopped packing her a daily lunch — at her request. It hurt a little bit, but having that time back freed up some much-needed mental space too.

Yes, I was concerned that she would end up eating nothing but processed food and pizza. But that was unfounded. “There’s a whole bar of vegetables and I can eat all the broccoli and carrots with ranch I want!” she told me. She fell in love with lettuce (romaine and iceberg, the best gateway lettuces). And what’s more, my first-grader tried foods I hadn’t even thought to serve at home — things like spicy beef empanadas! She even added other dressings besides ranch to her veggie dip repertoire. These little lunch victories made us both feel more confident; I had given her enough knowledge and autonomy to find her own tastes, and she grew braver in that.

It feels, sometimes, like everything — even packing a school lunch — has become extra complicated these days. A parent can easily obsess over packing the cutest (and healthiest and most enjoyable) lunch, and see every returned snack as a failure, until it becomes just another burden in the endless list of parenting responsibilities. Meanwhile distant relatives on Facebook are sharing stories about the poor lunch choices their schools serve or the dangers of poor eating choices. And we hear condiments are being counted as vegetables. And we can’t trust our kids to make healthy choices at school.

I want to tell you something, though, parent to parent. Whether we send our kids to school with cheese sandwiches and apple slices, or they’re choose Uncrustables in the cafeteria, we’re all doing a much better job than we give ourselves credit for. And I know this not just because I’m a mom, but because I speak regularly with the folks who research this stuff.

Every week, I talk to expert dietitians, school teachers, chefs, and more — many of whom are also parents — on the podcast I host with fellow food-editing mom Stacie Billis. I field IRL questions when I volunteer at my daughter’s school. And I receive DMs from parents with genuine questions about what to pack for lunch. From the front lines of packing school lunch, I see you all out there doing your best. If you’re even reading an article like this, you are ahead of the game. Maybe you’re worrying a little bit too much that your kids are not eating enough vegetables, or that they are lonely at the lunch table, but your love for your kids is shining through whether you pack lunch or buy it.

This year for the back-to-school season at Kitchn, we’re putting together our very best advice for school lunches. It includes recipes that are both new and nostalgic, advice from real parents on getting motivated for packing lunches, plus a fun piece on the really deep joy of buying your kid’s lunch (!). There are pizza Lunchables (that my rising second-grader pitched and then tested with me), as well as bistro box-style lunches that you can pull together while your coffee brews. We’ve got easy-to-shop lists for boxes and snacks, plus tips for cleaning last year’s lunch boxes (trust us — they will look great after a little soap and elbow grease).

But whether you put homemade lunch plans into motion, go with the cafeteria, or do a little of both, I want you to hear it loud and clear from us today, as schools start across the country: We see you, and you’re doing great.