A Practical Guide for Teaching Your Kids How to Make Lunch at Any Age

updated Sep 17, 2020
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Credit: Photo: Maria Siriano, Graphic: Kitchn

If you count up the whole year, every day of lunches, from now until summer break, did you know that back to school means packing 180 school lunches? I’ll let you sit with that for a moment. Whether your district started back to school virtually or you’re adjusting to a new normal in person, getting your kids to help with lunch will obviously make your life a little easier. Just like any new skill, teaching your kids to prep and pack their own lunches takes time and patience. Your preschooler might not be whipping up ham and cheese lunch box muffins this year, but if you implement some of these ideas now, they’ll be building their own sandwiches by kindergarten. 

Don’t stress if this will be the first year you ask your middle schooler to pack their own lunch, either. Our guide to teaching your kids to make lunch will walk you through lunch packing basics that you can start at any time, and it will break down meal prep skills and recipe ideas by age group. 

Here’s How to Jump-Start Your Kids’ Lunch-Packing 

A little preamble here: Teaching your kids the basics of lunch prep and setting up ground rules will avoid some common pitfalls of lunch packing. These six rules will make the teaching process a lot smoother. 

  1. Create a simple lunch formula. Lots of meal formulas exist, but your lunch formula should suit your family’s food values. For example, our formula requires both a fruit and a vegetable as well as a main component, but also includes a small treat too. 
  2. Walk through making lunch together a few times. This is truly the first step in teaching your kids to make their own lunch. Show them how you prepare their lunch once or twice and then ask them to show you how they pack it a few times before they go off on their own. 
  3. Choose the right lunch box for their age. Thinking of your lunch formula and how much your kid truly eats at lunch, make sure their lunch box matches those expectations. I really like a simple three-compartment option to avoid overwhelming your kids with eight different openings to fill.  
  4. Make lists of ideas and available options. And keep it posted on the fridge or in the pantry. It can be a printed list you update seasonally or a dry-erase board you update after grocery shopping and meal planning for the week. 
  5. Set up a routine that works for your family. I used to pack four days’ worth of lunches on Sunday afternoon, but my kindergartener didn’t have the stamina to pack that many at once. Now we pack tomorrow’s lunch right after dinner but before our bedtime routine. If you’ve got an early riser, mornings work too, just be sure to set a deadline (i.e., your lunch has to be packed before you can feed the turtle) to avoid last-minute scrambling. 
  6. Let go of perfection. Sigh, the easiest rule to say and the hardest to execute. As much as we want to avoid our kids being disappointed or hungry at lunch time, we also have to give them room to fail and learn. The formula protects the whole lunch box from being filled with experiments, so that hopefully the one time they don’t heed your warning about not packing a microwaved sandwich, they’ll still have plenty of not-soggy food to eat. 
Credit: Photo: Maria Siriano, Graphic: Kitchn

Preschool and kindergarten: Peeling, chopping, stirring, building

Between the ages of 3 and 6, kids are enthusiastic kitchen helpers! Set them up on a step stool and they can help with peeling fruits and vegetables, chopping softer foods (think: bananas and cheese) as well as stirring together basic recipes like muffins and grain salads. 

Teach them this: Have younger kids help build their lunch box by choosing sides and snacks while you make the main part of their lunch. Get them into a routine of filling their lunch bag, but also emptying it at the end of the day. 

Credit: Photo: Maria Siriano, Graphic: Kitchn

First through third grade: Recipe reading, stovetop cooking, muffin making

Raising younger readers is the most fun when it comes to cooking and recipes! Kids ages 6 to 9 can safely handle a knife and cook on the stovetop with supervision, even if it is mostly mac and cheese and scrambled eggs. 

Teach them this: Choose recipes together that your kids can make with minimal supervision; ham and cheese lunch box muffins are a popular choice in our house. This is a great age range to set up weekend prep time for prepping their favorite fruits and vegetables and making a few lunch staples (bean salads) that they can throw into a lunch box throughout the week. 

Credit: Photo: Shutterstock, Graphic: kitchn

Fourth grade to sixth grade: Grocery planning, meal prepping, hands-on cooking 

This age window is where many parents find themselves motivated to get their kids packing their own lunch. If that’s you, don’t sweat it! Get your fourth grader to start finding recipes they like and cooking them with minimal supervision (like the younger kids) while older kids can go so far as to help with grocery selection and cooking without a ton of help. 

Teach them this: Kids ages 10 to 12 years old are on the precipice of being independent cooks. If they’ve mastered stovetop lunch prep, teach them how to use other appliances for their lunch recipes like the Instant Pot or the air fryer. Show them how to make a grocery list based on recipes they want to try and have them help with shopping too. 

Credit: Photo: Maria Siriano, Graphic: Kitchn

Middle and high schoolers: Leftover learning, home sous chefs

I hear that having hungry middle schoolers and high schoolers at home means a lot more cooking, which also means they get to help in the cooking too. Most children’s cooking experts say that middle schoolers and high schoolers are full independent cooks, but there’s still plenty to teach them in the kitchen (and about feeding themselves). 

Teach them this: Middle schoolers and high schoolers can do well to learn the fine art of “office-friendly lunches” (i.e., things that don’t require reheating) as well as how to turn leftovers into something fresh. Middle schoolers may need more coaching around nutrition, so they can sustain their energy from school to after-school sports. 

Back to School 2020It’s the strangest back-to-school season of our lives, and no matter where your child’s desk is actually located this fall: they have to eat. Every day. What even is school lunch in fall 2020? We’ve compiled stories, commiserations, and hopeful tips from a diverse crew of parents to help us all feel a little less alone in breathing deep, eating well, and unmuting that ever-elusive Zoom button.