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How Kids Can Pack Their Own Healthy, Nutritious Lunches: Expert Tips From An RD

Sharon Brandwein
September 18, 2023
Sharon Brandwein
Health & Parenting Writer
By Sharon Brandwein
Health & Parenting Writer
Sharon Brandwein is a freelance writer and certified sleep science coach whose work has appeared on ABC News, USAToday, Parents, and Forbes.
Mom packing school lunches with her kids
Image by Tatiana Timofeeva / Stocksy
September 18, 2023
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The new school year is in full swing. Most parents look forward to the day their kids start packing their own lunch because it's one less thing on their to-do list. But the truth is, letting your kids take the reins regarding what they eat is so much more.

Registered Dietitian Alex Turnbull, R.D., says, "Autonomy is so important for kids." And while age often limits what we can do, "giving them a choice in what goes into their lunch box can not only increase the likelihood that they eat the meal, but it can also boost their confidence around eating and take away some of the pressure and anxiety kids often feel around new foods."

But we know that letting go of lunch box prep is often easier said than done—especially when we're talking about your child's nutrition. Ahead, Turnbull shares some great tips to help ease the transition (for everyone) when your kid starts packing their own lunch for school

Tips for helping your kids pack a nutritious lunch:

Give them a list of food choices to work with 

Anyone who regularly cooks dinner can tell you that it's not the cooking itself that's the issue; it's figuring out what to cook in the first place. The same goes for kids packing their own lunch. If your child doesn't know what they can (and should) include in their lunch box, you can almost bet the end result will be chips, sugar, and more sugar. While you certainly don't want to demonize sugar, it's not what will provide them sustained energy throughout the day.

To make lunch prep easy for kids, parents can eliminate the guesswork and confusion by giving them a cheat sheet. And while any list is better than no list, Turnbull says a little organization can go a long way. "It's even more helpful if that list is broken into food groups. Ideally, lunch menu options should be laid out by category with instructions to pick one from each (think protein, vegetables, grains, sugary treats, etc.)." 

While a list of menu options is a covert way for parents to get some balance into their kids' lunchboxes, it also sets clear boundaries, ultimately minimizing complaining, arguments, and pushback. 

Turnbull adds, "If your child is old enough to read, lists are fine. Parents with small kids can also opt for pictures so the little guys can point out what they want." 

Let your kids pick out some foods they want to put on the grocery list

"As the parents, we do the grocery shopping, and we get to choose what comes into our house," says Turnbull. But from time to time, parents should consider letting their kids choose what they want to eat, even if it's not something we want them to eat or something we would choose for ourselves.

Turnbull explains that for most parents, "it's a foreign concept to put some higher sugar, higher sodium foods on the list and into their child's lunch box, but they're going to be exposed to those things in school, and when we're not around to gatekeep their choices they're going to indulge. Giving them the opportunity to choose food items that are usually off limits will minimize the obsession and the fixation around some of those foods—of course, we're talking about sweets, treats, chips, and the like."

Turnbull tells mbg that giving them access to these types of foods doesn't have to be a bad thing. It's OK as long as we teach them about consuming them in moderation. 

Think about portion sizes

Turnbull likes the idea of buying mini versions of foods like mini bagels, mini pretzels, and mini desserts (think small chocolate chip cookies). "When you are giving your kids prepacked minis, it feels like more, but it's really not," says Turnbull. 

And while mini versions can check off boxes on both sides, an added benefit is that the mini versions also fit better into lunchboxes. 

Ask your child how they want to be involved

"While the ultimate goal is to get this task off your parental to-do list, you don't want to overburden your child before they're ready," says Turnbull. "Keeping in mind that some kids want to be more involved than others, the best way to get things started on the right foot is to talk to your child and figure out what they would like to do themselves and what they would like Mom and Dad to help them do." 

Beyond sorting out who's doing what, parents and kids should take some time to figure out the best timing for lunch prep—where does it fit into your daily schedule? Turnbull also reminds us that the schedule you agreed on in September may change as the school year continues, depending on extracurriculars and whatever else is going on.

Take a deep breath 

And finally, Turnbull suggests finding a way to "be OK with the mess and be OK with your child's decisions. It may not be exactly how you would pack the lunch or what you would eat, but your child is their own person, and they're still learning."


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Sharon Brandwein author page.
Sharon Brandwein
Health & Parenting Writer

Sharon Brandwein is a freelance writer who specializes in parenting, health, and sleep. Sharon’s work has appeared on ABC News, USAToday, Parents, and Forbes. Brandwein is also a Certified Sleep Science Coach. When she’s not busy writing, you’ll probably find her mixing in with her kids or digging through vintage books in local antique shops.