5 Tips for School Lunches Your Kids Will Actually Eat

Almost every parent struggles with how to make school lunches kids will eat. Luckily, Cook Smarts members have some great tips for making better school lunches! Their school lunch tips will help ensure your packed lunches wind up inside tummies — not garbage cans.

  • By Jess Dang
  • August 4, 2020

It’s 3:30 in the afternoon. The kids just got home from school. You open up their lunchbox to clean it out and prepare it for the next day, only to find . . . everything. The entire lunch, completely untouched. 

Or worse yet, none of it, because it all got thrown away — in which case you don’t know which parts got eaten and which parts were rejected. 

Kids are notoriously finicky eaters even under ideal circumstances, so eating meals that have been sitting inside lunchboxes for several hours is one of the harder sells in a parent’s life.

Just a few of the reasons kids may reject parts of their lunch include scents co-mingling, foods being at room temperature, sandwiches getting soggy, or packages being too hard to open — but kids rarely share these reasons unless they’re asked in just the right way. 

It’s frustrating, to say the least, to throw away perfectly good food while your kid chooses to stay hungry. And it’s certainly not easy to create a school lunch that will taste good cold, meets the school’s requirements, and is reasonably healthy. That’s why we spoke with Cook Smarts members to find out their 5 best tips for packing school lunches that will actually get eaten.

1. Understand the constraints

Many schools have very short lunch periods, which means kids may not have time to eat their whole lunch. You can help them maximize their time, however, by doing what you can to reduce or eliminate prep at lunchtime. Anything that might slow them down, such as slicing, mixing, or unwrapping a lot of different items, can be a big issue when time is limited. It may also be helpful to include cutlery in your child’s lunchbox, as grabbing and dropping off forks and spoons can slow a child down further in their limited lunch minutes. 

Another issue many younger children face is the packaging of many lunch foods, whether they’re manufactured packages that need to be ripped open, or containers with tight lids. “Make sure your kids can open everything by themselves so they don’t have to sit waiting for someone to help them,” Melanie J. says.  

Mary M., an elementary school teacher, adds that it’s important to send lunches that don’t need reheating. “Many schools can’t microwave, either due to numbers of students, or it could be a health and safety thing.”  

2. Use ice packs and thermoses

Without microwaves, it’s important that your kids are willing to eat their lunches exactly as they are when they come out of the lunchbag. It’s also important for food safety that any non-shelf-stable foods stay out of the “danger zone” of 40 to 140 degrees Fahrenheit if they won’t be eaten within 2 hours. The danger zone is the temperature range in which bacteria grow most rapidly.

That’s why ice packs and thermoses are so crucial for school lunches. And as a bonus, they can make some foods more palatable! For example, Melanie shares, “I found out my son didn’t like his red peppers because they get too slimy. As a person with texture issues of my own, this seems like a reasonable complaint.” Adding an ice pack in her son’s lunch solved the problem. 

3. Get curious about what is and isn’t being eaten

“Sometimes, your kid ‘does not like’ a food they may eat at home a lot when it is sent to school,” says Mary. “Talk about bringing things they don’t want or can’t finish home instead of throwing it out.” That way, you can talk about what the problem is — does the child not enjoy that food cold? Do they not have time to eat it during lunch? Something else? — and find ways to solve it. 

Tara P. agrees: “My kid has some sensory issues and rigidity about food. She likes yogurt and applesauce, but she won’t eat either one out of a tube / pouch, for example, so those were coming home uneaten.” Once she figured out that it was the delivery system, not the food itself, that was a problem for her daughter, it was easy to correct. “Dig into why they may not be eating certain foods, and be aware of those kinds of hangups if they exist.”

Another reason several parents named for their kids not eating packed lunches was that they were eating other food they got at school. Some schools may provide snacks throughout the day — or your child could be buying food that fills them up. “Mine went through a phase where she wasn’t eating most of her lunch,” Tara says. “After about two weeks I learned it was because she was buying a huge chocolate cookie every day!”

4. Have kids pack their own lunches (or help)

Even very young kids can help make choices about their school lunches. For instance, give them a choice of 2 types of fruit, 2 sandwiches, or 2 types of crackers. That’s what Diana T.W. did from the time her kids were in kindergarten, and it helped her in more ways than one. “I found that we had much better success of having lunch eaten having them involved in the decisions,” she says. “By the time they were in third grade, they had the skills to make their own lunches . . . win for me!”

Lisa L. adds that her 8- and 10-year-old boys learned how to make their own lunches last year, and this past school year they made every one of their own lunches, even when distance learning from home. “They settled on 5 different lunches and made the same thing each day of the week. Made grocery shopping easy, and I am out of the business of making school lunches. Hooray!”

5. Consider the school’s options

A lot has changed since most parents were in school! Investigate the lunch options your child’s school has available; if you really hate packing lunches, you may discover you don’t have to. That came as a surprise for member Gabrielle S., who was very surprised at how much healthier and more well-balanced school lunches are today than in her own school days. “Of course there’s Pizza Day and Ice Cream Fridays still, but fresh fruit, whole wheat bread, and salad and baked potato options in elementary school were unheard of when I was a kid!” 

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