It was round about this time last year that I came down with a major case of brown bag burnout. Facing down three lunch boxes to fill each morning seemed like a downer start to the day. And it wasn’t just the packing, it was the cleaning up, too. I’d eschewed foil and plastic wrap for lidded containers, which meant a seemingly endless cycle of re-usables to wash. Something had to shift.

After a hard look at our family’s system for making lunches, I realized it wasn’t a system at all. It was all me: shopping, prepping, packing, and cleaning up. Then it hit me that I had an untapped resource at my disposal in the form of my three highly competent children. As a family, we’d spent hours cooking together. At ages 7, 10, and 12, they could practically bake a batch of cookies with their eyes closed. Surely they could help with lunch.

To start with, I asked each child to be responsible for lunch one day a week. My husband and I shared the fourth day. On the fifth day, we were all gloriously off the hook since we ordered school lunch for the kids.

Next, I set some guidelines to ensure balanced lunches. I didn’t want to micromanage the process, and figured giving them ground rules would help. Lunches would include:

A Main Course. The nourishing, “stick-to-your ribs” item to hold them through the school day: the turkey sandwich, thermos of leftovers, pasta salad, and so forth.

A Vegetable. The container of sliced peppers, baby carrots, or side salad. They could opt out if the main course was already heavy on the veggies.

A Fruit. Keeping the fruit bowl stocked and within easy reach helped with this one, as did having handy tools such as mango and apple cutters.

Other Snacks as Needed. Any other lunch box add-ins would depend on appetite. Having plenty of healthy choices on hand ensured they wouldn’t fill up on empty calories.

Occasional Goodies. They could opt for a sweet or “fun” food, (something I posted about recently here), on occasion in lieu of a snack, as long as they kept it on the petite side: a cookie or dozen chocolate chips, for example. Keeping a supply of tiny lunchbox containers helped manage portions.

Water or milk. Limiting it to these two options meant the kids would fill up on food, not juice, which usually lacks much in the way of nutrients, anyway.

Finally, I asked them to empty their lunch boxes into the sink and any containers would go into a big bowl of warm soapy water. That way, the dishwasher wouldn’t get overrun by containers and we’d have a fresh supply for the next day.

Although the kids would have primary responsiblity for their “day,” it wouldn’t be a solo venture. My husband and I would be there to brainstorm ideas, assist with knife work, and oversee anything that involved the stove, particularly with the littlest one. We also solicited the kids’ input on pantry ingredients to increase their sense of ownership in the process.

Our new system feels much more balanced, although it’s not perfect. Sometimes we fall back into old habits, other days the kids grumble about their lunchbox duties, and occasionally I’m still afflicted with brown bag burnout. At least, now I have some company.

Photo credit: Pottery Barn Kids