Teach Kids to Pack School Lunch. Here’s How.

Bento lunch with tips to teach kids to pack their own lunch

It was round about this time last year that I came down with a major case of brown bag burnout. Facing  three empty lunch boxes 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. It was high time to teach kids to pack school lunch.  

Start by Assessing Your System

After a close 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. 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.

Divvy Up Lunch Packing Responsibilities

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. Sharing responsibility may look different in your house than in mine. Here are a few ideas:

  • Rather than dividing days, you can divide contents of the lunchbox. Let your child do snacks and sides and you do the sandwich or other main course.
  • For younger children, give them one simple task, such as filling their own water bottle or choosing a piece of fruit. You can build from there as they get older. 

Set Lunchbox Guidelines

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.

Healthy school lunch - Mom's Kitchen Handbook

Decide What Goes into School Lunch

The contents of lunchboxes will differ by household, but these are the categories I set up. When it was their turn to pack lunch, my children knew to hit all of these categories to have a balanced meal.

1. A Main Course.

The nourishing, “stick-to-your ribs” item to hold them through the school day: the turkey wrap, thermos of soup, leftover pasta, and so forth.

2. 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.

3. 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.

4. Other Snacks as Needed.

Any other lunch box add-ins, such as granola bars or salty snacks depend on appetite. Having plenty of healthy choices on hand ensured they wouldn’t fill up on empty calories.

5. 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.

Make Room for Fun Foods

I also told my kids there was room for occasional treats. 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.

Wash Up at the End of the Day

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.

Be There for Back-UP

Although the kids would have primary responsibility 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.

If you like this post on how to teach kids to pack school lunch, check out:

6 Tips for Easy School Lunches

12 Alternatives to a Lunchbox Sandwich

A recipe for Chickpea Panini, a school and work lunch favorite

Graphic of how to teach kids to pack school lunch


10.12.2011 at10:34 AM #

Jessica at Nutritioulicious

That is so great that your kids are now packing their own lunches. And I love the guidelines – teaches them balance at the same time!

10.12.2011 at11:02 AM #


I totally agree that if all the meal planning, shopping and cooking falls on just one person’s shoulders it can be a heavy load to carry! I love you idea of getting your whole family involved…we do the same at our house! Your guidelines are fantastic!!

10.12.2011 at11:02 AM #

Katie Morford

Thanks so much. Glad to hear other families are sharing the duties, too.

10.12.2011 at11:32 AM #

Sara Miller

What great ideas for adding some punch to packed lunch! It would be so easy to translate your guidelines and “daily responsabilities” to your family dinners, too. Thanks for being part of the Balancing Act blog carnival, part of the Eat Better, Eat Together family meal pledge.

Start or strengthen your commitment to family meals by taking the Eat Better, Eat Together family meal pledge on Facebook today! http://www.facebook.com/mealsmatter.org?sk=app_278482078831778

10.12.2011 at11:32 AM #

Katie Morford

Thanks for including me, Sara. Great ideas from all the mom/rd bloggers!

10.12.2011 at11:51 AM #

Sally Kuzemchak

I am inspired by this to ask my 7-year-old for help with lunch packing. It’s always one of those 11pm chores I do before heading up to bed. I like the idea of involving him–to both teach him responsibility and to get his input on the choices. Thanks!

10.12.2011 at11:51 AM #

Katie Morford

Seven-years olds can be suprisingly capable people. Good luck!

10.12.2011 at12:37 PM #


Great advice! I have been making my kids mostly make their own lunches for about 2 years now. When it was just me doing it, they had Kid Chow 2-3 times a week and they got sick of it. Now they choose whether they want to make their lunch every day or whether they want to break it up with Kid Chow. Interestingly, one has chosen to make his lunch every day all year so far. The other makes her own lunch on average 4 times a week. We’re saving money, they’re having lunches they like better and I don’t want to scream when I see a lunchbox. No matter who makes the lunch we do most of it the night before since none of us are particularly cheery morning people.

10.12.2011 at12:37 PM #

Katie Morford

awesome all around.

10.12.2011 at2:02 PM #

Jill Castle

Okay, Katie, you have reminded me that this is my next duty! I make the lunches 4 days/week and yes, i do get burned out too. My consolation is that my kids make their breakfast while i am making lunches (so I oversee and declare the morning options). But, I think I will start having them help the evening before with their main entree (that takes the longest in the morning anyway), and take it from there. Thanks for the reminder and the motivation to take the next step!

10.12.2011 at2:02 PM #

Katie Morford

You are welcome! I think we sometimes forget how smart and able bodied kids are ….we get so used to doing everything for them when they are little.

10.12.2011 at7:18 PM #

Maryann Jacobsen

Great post! This gives me hope when my kids get older. Right now they are 5 and 2 and I only pack lunches 2-3 times per week.

10.12.2011 at7:18 PM #

Katie Morford

Thanks Maryann.

10.17.2011 at3:58 PM #

Kelly Lester (EasyLunchboxes)

Wonderful article and terrific list of resources Katie! Sharing with my readers now. Thank you!!

10.17.2011 at3:58 PM #

Katie Morford

Hi Kelly. Thanks so much…I appreciate you sharing it with your readers. Nice work on your site, too.

10.08.2012 at7:51 AM #


Wonderful ideas and inspiration. I just need to add something on the positive side of lunch making. (and of course it comes from the luxury of only having one child). As a single working mom who had to drop off the two year old at preschool and pick her up just before the doors closed…..well making my daughter’s lunch was one thing I could do for her in our long day apart that helped me offer the mother’s touch that I know she still appreciates. I think it is a ritual between us that has had lasting meaning. Feeding our babies and bigger kids feels good.

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