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I No Longer Worry About Packing My Kids a Healthy Lunch

One mom discovers that when it comes to school lunches, less really is more

Published on: September 12, 2023

Two kids eating lunch together outside on a sunny day at school

Many of us have clear memories of a favorite food lovingly packed into our lunch bag, or being horrified by the smelly tinfoil-wrapped meat we pulled out of it. Either way, our memories inform the way we pack our kids’ lunches.

I always wanted to be a thoughtful lunch mom. You know, one who tucks notes in my kids’ lunch boxes and packs an extra treat or two on longer days. But, as my kids have gotten older (they’re now in second and fifth grade), they’ve told me in their oh-so-tactful way — they don’t care. The tiny details I thought would make their day don’t even register. So, I’ve scaled back. I’ve discovered that when it comes to packing healthy lunches, less is more.

As a new parent, I used to fret and worry about packing healthy organic lunches for my kids, presenting them in beautiful bento boxes, like a love note from home. After scrolling through pages of chef-inspired lunch ideas, I got the requisite fancy lunch boxes and glass jars and jumped on the trend, packing a piece of my heart into every lunch I made.

No surprise, they never ate those lunches. They came home destroyed and half-eaten. They refused my cut-out PB&Js, organic cheese sticks and tiny sliced cucumbers. They didn’t want rolled-up tortillas, edamame, pieces of kiwi and hard-boiled eggs for lunch. Who were they? They were my kids, and they were not interested.

Life with a ten and seven-year-old has taught me that they don’t want pinwheel sandwiches with smiley faces. They don’t want a lunch “experiment.” Nothing gourmet or fancy. They want what they’re used to — what tastes good. By the time lunch rolls around, famished from a morning of learning, they want their favorite foods — the foods that comfort them.

I’ve since changed course. I've realized that lunch is just a fraction of their daily meals. So, instead of making my kids eat my expertly crafted creations, I supply foods that will fuel them, and use moments at home to help them make good food choices.

Their lunches aren't just Cheetos. They are still relatively healthy and somewhat seasonal. But sometimes, especially when our lives get busy and there’s no time to plan, there are more granola bars and chips than I'd like. Now when the kids and I fill their lunch bags, we talk about the kinds of energy they need during the day and after school. We talk about how fruits, veggies, grains, and, yes, sugars can come together in a balanced way. Their lunches no longer look like they belong on an Instagram influencer's page, but my kids are eating more.

I'm learning to obsess less about their food and focus on their overall well-being. There’s no one way to eat healthy — it’s about teaching our kids to understand their bodies and how food can provide energy in school, sports and daily activities.

Seattle-area Chef and author of “Cast Iron Skillet One Pan Meals” Jackie Freeman knows about keeping it simple for kids. She explains, “My school lunches are very basic. I only pack what I know the kids will eat. No need to rock the boat at lunchtime, when I know they would rather be playing than eating. As my kids have gotten older, they seem to care even less about lunch. Now, their priorities are getting food into their bodies as quickly as possible, so they can get to recess or hang out with their friends. “

She’s noticed that variety just isn’t in the cards for her kids. As she says, “I literally pack (almost) the same meal every day, knowing that it's not about ‘fun’ or ‘entertaining’ for them. I used to try and come up with fancy and new ideas all the time but found I was burning myself out and they couldn't care less. Now, we save new foods for dinner, where there’s more time to contemplate and explore.”

Many of us get burned out packing lunches. But If your kids are little, and you are still experimenting with new foods, by all means, keep going. As Freeman says, “When the kids were really little, I had a chart on the fridge where they could pick one protein (deli meat, cheese stick, nut butter, etc.), one whole grain (bread, crackers, etc.), one fruit (dealer's choice) and one treat — it was a team process.”

Whether it’s a team approach, a parent packing the lunch, or kids throwing their goodies into a bag, as long as it’s working for your family, it’s working. Lunch can include new foods or the same old, same old, as long as we equip our kids to make the best decisions to fuel their amazing bodies.

Perfectionism can easily creep into parenting, especially when we’re unsure or worried about doing it right. There are plenty of other things to stress about in parenting. That’s why I’m ditching shame and no longer worrying about creating picture-perfect lunches for my kids. Instead, I’m counting on their favorite standbys. They want their lunches to look familiar and I want them to be eaten. So we find foods that work for all of us.

Now I see that packing balanced lunches is how I extend care and protection from my kitchen to my kids. While I still want to nourish them from afar, my kids don’t need reminders that I love them. They know that. What they do need is a whole bunch of calories to carry them into the afternoon.

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