Your Kids Aren’t Eating the Lunch You Packed (Here’s How to Change That)

Here are some tips to keep your kids happy and well-fed at school

“Parents would be shocked to see how much food their kids throw away at lunch,” says second-grade teacher Susanne. “It’s painful to watch homemade meals get tossed.” 

Are your attempts at sending healthy food failing? Maybe you think you’re doing well but have no way to know for sure. Here are some tips to keep your kids happy and well fed at school.

Size Up Your Competition

That organic PB&J in your kid’s lunchbox has strong competition. If other parents are sending kid-focused processed foods to school (Hint: They are.), there’s a good chance your child is bartering some of their own food to score popular lunchroom treats and spoiling their appetite soon after.

Sure, you packed their meal with love. But food companies spend good money to influence your child’s choices. And research suggests they’re pretty good at it, too. (Do you really need the latest study to explain why branded, packaged foods are more fun for kids than a bag of baby carrots?)

Before you can level up your lunch-packing game, you need to know what you’re up against. Lucky for you, you have easy access to your target audience. 

“Ask your kids what their friends are bringing and what they might rather be eating,” suggests Susanne. “You’ll get a better idea of how to keep them happy, even if that means steering them toward healthier versions of foods kids like.” 

Get Your Kid’s Input

Remember the last time you saw just 1 brand of anything at the grocery store? It’s probably been a while. 

What’s with all the choices? Shoppers like options, and kids are no different. To keep yours excited about school lunches, include them in the meal-planning process. It doesn’t have to be a long conversation.

“We get our kids to buy in on what they want to eat for the week as we go to the grocery store on Sunday,” says Vicky, a mother of 2 school-aged children. 

For new ideas, sit down with your child and explore healthy lunch options on Google® or Pinterest®. One site that lets you explore hundreds of ideas and create weekly meal plans is 100 Days of Real Food.

Use Weekends to Your Advantage

Is prepacking school lunches your idea of weekend fun? Great—you’re ahead of the game. If not, rest assured, 99% of other parents probably agree with you. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t get a jump-start on your kid’s lunches—or that you can’t have fun while doing it.

“Do prep work on Sundays—things like cutting up veggies,” Vicky suggests. Lots of foods can be prepped days in advance. Fruits, vegetables and small snacks are easily prepacked and stored.

By framing the job as family fun, you can strip away the stress that sometimes comes with weekend chores. Relax, crank some tunes and have your kid help. 

If you’re dealing with a picky eater, try this: Set up a mock test kitchen. Pretend you’re contestants on a cooking show, and let your kid be the judge of new lunchtime recipes. 

Mix Homemade With Healthy Packaged Food

Time is an obstacle for all parents, so keep your workload light. Try mixing homemade items with fruit and healthy packaged foods that don’t require much work. 

“Anything you don’t have to prep beforehand makes it easier come packing time,” says Kelly, a mother of 2. “I’ve found some apple slices and cheese cubes packaged together at the grocery store, and my daughter loves those!”

To save even more time, look for healthy prepackaged snacks you can buy online

Empower Your Kid With Ownership

If your kid’s old enough to go to school, they’re old enough to pack a lunchbox. But whether you want them to is another story. 

Maybe you’re looking to teach independence. If so, helping your child take charge of their lunch is a great start. (Just be willing to sacrifice some nutritional value.) 

Want to maintain a little control and ease them into a routine? Then try having them assemble their lunch from foods you both agree on. 

Whatever you decide, there are plenty of ways to enlist your kid’s help. And giving your child more ownership over their lunch may increase the odds of them actually eating it.

Don’t Be a Food Cop

It’s hard enough for adults to stick to diets. If you force healthy foods on kids, they’re likely to rebel. So loosen up a bit and pack your kid a treat.

“If you play food enforcer—saying things like ‘Eat your vegetables’—your child will only resist,” nutritionist Julie Burns shared with readers of Allowing less-healthy foods sometimes can lessen their forbidden appeal, she explained. 

As a dad of 2, Jeff agrees. “We like to mix it up with healthy stuff as well as a few treats, like pudding or a little fun-size piece of Halloween candy,” he says.

It’s All in the Delivery

Ever snap a photo of a dish while dining out? Then you know that presentation matters. 

A bright array of fresh foods will always look more appealing than a lunchbox filled with boring beige. 

To keep your kid’s meal fresh and neat, make sure they have the right lunchbox. Separate, sealable compartments and good insulation are 2 features to look for. 

To really wow them, use a knife or cookie cutter to make fun shapes out of sandwiches, fruits and other soft foods like cheese. Sauces and spreads are great for adding a little flair, too. (Try hiding a smiley face made of mustard in their next sandwich—then send them hunting.) And a sweet or clever napkin note is an easy way to keep your kid excited to open their lunch each day.

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