If you ask any parent what they dread the most about the school year, many will say packing school lunches. It is relentless, morning after morning you have to gather all the ingredients and assemble a lunch you hope your children will eat. But you can take packing lunches off your to-do list forever. You can teach your children to pack their own school lunch.
Buying school lunch is a great option for many busy families but it can be expensive. School lunch for my first grader costs $3.05 and it’s $3 at my toddler’s drop-in day care so we save money by packing lunches.
If you have children with sensory issues or who are selective eaters, you also want to make sure they’re actually eating something at lunch. It’s a waste of food and money to have the school lunch thrown in the trash so packing a lunch at home can be a good choice for your family.
While it might seem overwhelming, chaotic, and time-consuming to teach your children to pack their own school lunch, it really is pretty easy. With a little preparation on your part, a few simple steps, and a visual printable, your children will be able to pack their own school lunch in no time!
Never Pack A School Lunch Again
You’re familiar with the proverb “Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.”
It’s the same with school lunches: Give your children a packed school lunch, and you’ll feed them for a day. Teach your children how to pack their school lunches, and you’ll feed them for a lifetime.
So it’s time to quit doing it for them and to give them the skills necessary to do it themselves.
Our children need us to give them the skills necessary to be independent. From the time the are newborns, we are focused on feeding them so they grow healthy and strong. But the pathway to letting them learn skills for themselves is unclear.
We don’t want our children to move out at 18 years old and be totally unable to feed themselves healthy food. So an easy and achievable way to teach them how to feed themselves healthy food is to teach them to pack their own school lunches.
Gather Your School Lunch Supplies
First, you need to come up with a game plan for what supplies you’ll need. If you’re trying to avoid throwing tons of plastic baggies in the trash, you can use the extra small Ziploc and small Ziploc containers like my family. The Ziploc containers are inexpensive enough that I don’t cry when they get lost. They also seal tightly are easy for small children to open independently. I usually purchase these at Target with a coupon.
This 50-pack of small containers has solid reviews on Amazon and the color coded lids could some in handy for different food items.
A lot of families love reusable baggies like these ones. They are durable and dishwasher safe. However, you’re going to need tons of them to prep the lunch supplies for your kiddos. And you might cry when your children lose a set (they will!)
Water is healthier that juice and less expensive than milk. So make sure your child has a spill-proof water bottle. We like the Camelbak bottles and like that we can purchase extra bite valves. We teach our children to hold the bottle upside down each morning before school to make sure the lid has been screwed on correctly and doesn’t leak.
You’ll probably need some ice packs to keep your children’s protein options cool and safe during the day. These penguins are so cute but they also come in other designs like butterflies and cars.
Of course, you’ll also need a lunch box for your child. We used Skip Hop Zoo Kids Insulated Lunch Boxes for both our children. My daughter now uses a Lands End lunch box and matching backpack.
Prep Your School Lunch Ingredients
Determine your lunch menus in the follow categories: protein option, fruit and vegetable options, and snack options. Choose a time of the week to prepare the ingredients with your children. We usually do this on Sunday afternoons.
Protein Options for School Lunches
A lot of people swear by making PB&J sandwiches ahead of time and freezing them so a sandwich can be pulled out of the freezer each night. We have peanut and tree nut allergies and our kids don’t like sandwiches so I haven’t tried this.
Individual string cheese or little Babybel cheeses work great with no prep on your part. If your kids do not have knife skills yet (mine don’t yet), you can cut wedges from a large brick of cheese from the grocery store.
Deli meat roll-ups can also be prepped a few days ahead of time and stored in food containers. Check the packaging to double check on the time-frames for food safety.
Our son likes cold chicken nuggets so we’ll pop a few of those into a container for him. We also freeze Friday pizza night leftovers for a cold pizza lunch in XL Ziploc bags. It thaws overnight in the lunch box in the fridge.
Greek yogurt or yogurt pouches can also be fantastic options. When you pack a spoon for yogurt, choose a washable brand that you won’t cry over when your child loses it.
Fruit and Vegetable Options for School Lunches
Gather your fruit and vegetable options and your containers.
Some of our favorites:
- whole apples
- cherry tomatoes
- cucumber slices
- baby carrots
- celery sticks
Your children can portion out the fruits and veggies. Obviously whole fruits like apples don’t need to be portioned, but smaller foods will need to separated into smaller containers.
We set up an assembly line with bowls of berries, carrots, etc, and a large spoon or a measuring cup to scoop. You children will spill. It’s okay. This is how they will learn. I snap the lids on the containers when my children are finished.
Snack Options for School Lunches
Undoubtedly, this is my children’s favorite part. I shop the sales at my local grocery store or use Amazon Subscribe and Save to snag good deals. Sometimes we’ll get the individually portioned snacks when it’s a good deal. Some of our favorite snacks are:
- Cheddar Bunnies
- Ritz crackers
- Annie’s bunny graham cookies
- Veggie straws
- Pirates Booty
We set up an assembly line with the containers of snacks and a large spoon, scoops, or a measuring cup to portion just like the fruits and vegetables. I have the mini-brooms and dust pans at the ready for clean up when we are finished.
Make Labels for the School Lunch Components
In order for your children to independently pack their own lunches, they need to know where they can find all the component of their lunches. So I created printable labels that match the visual schedule of the lunch making steps.
1. Lunch box
2. Water bottles
5. Fruits and veggies
Teach your children the steps
Use the printable I Can Pack My Lunch chart to teach your children the steps to making lunch. You’ll notice there are blank lines on the printable visual. This is for your to write in the quantity of each item you want your child to pack.
For example, we want our children to pack 1 protein option, 2 snack options, and 2 fruit or vegetable options. If your kids are bigger and need to eat more, you can choose the quantity that is best for them
• Get your lunch box
• Pack ____ protein
• Pack ____ snack
• Pack _____ fruit or vegetables
• Zip lunch box
• Fill water bottle
Check the Lunches and Reteach
You’re going to be doing these steps side-by-side with a preschooler, kindergartener or first grade student. Once you’ve taught your child, you should still check and make sure they haven’t become “confused” and packed just pizza and 5 fruit snacks. Unless that’s how you roll (no judging here – haha).
If your child has made a mistake, you will need to reteach. You can point to chart and say, “I think you forgot this.” If your child repeatedly makes mistakes, do it side by side for few more weeks.
Recap for Teaching Your Children to Pack their own Lunch
Here’s how you can teach your kids to pack their own school lunch:
- Gather your supplies (lunchboxes, food containers, water bottles, ice packs)
- Prep your food (protein, fruits and vegetables, and snacks)
- Print the labels and the steps chart
- Attach your labels in your kitchen
- Teach your children the steps from the chart
- Review their lunches and reteach as needed
Your children can be more independent and you can catch a break from packing school lunches. Grab the free printables, print them out, and never pack a school lunch again!
Need Help with Other Routines
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