Back to school lunch box tips

At what age should children start packing their lunch boxes?

En Español

Not sure when your child is old enough to independently pack their lunchboxes for school? No problem…I got some answers and tips for you.

I was recently asked to give my professional opinion on whether kids should pack their lunches after 3rd grade for an article that was published on USA Today’s Reviewed.com.

I’m passionate about nutrition and lunch boxes is a big topic of conversation with moms at my practice.

Although I encourage kids to be independent, I also invite moms to have realist expectations about their children.  

A few things to keep in perspective:

  • Development: A third grader is an 8-year-old. For most schools, this means that the child turned 8 years old before sept 30th of the given school year. Not every child will have the same level of maturity and developmental skills for such a task. Not every child will have the interest or desire to accomplish this either. 
  • Nutrition: Do they really understand the different food groups and how to combine them at his short age? It’s almost impossible for an 8-year-old to be able to properly choose a well-balanced, nutritious meal independently. So clearly, they will need help and supervision. It is well known that a child is more likely to eat what he/she has packed, but if we consider the picky eaters, they will go for the limited foods they like instead of expanding to other foods. 
  • Time management: Packing a lunch box takes time, thought, and effort, especially if you are dealing with a disorganized, inattentive child. Not every child will have the same understanding of how to properly and efficiently pack a lunchbox. Time management is important, especially during the hectic weekday mornings.
  • Sleep and rest: Having responsibilities from an early age is important, but being rested for a long day of school, homework duties, and extracurricular activities is also essential. If your child is going to have chores in the morning, please carefully contemplate what is the best bedtime for him or her. 

How to prepare your child for success?

  • Set the example: Consider packing your lunch box for work. Kids love imitating their parents. They will want to take a lunch box to school if mommy takes one for work.
  • Give them choices: This works wonderfully for the age 8-10-year-old group. Instead of allowing your child to make the complex decision of what to pack, guide them by asking to choose among several items.  For Example: Would you like strawberries or pineapple? Would you like a carrots or celery sticks? By letting them make these decisions, you are fostering independence while still providing appropriate nutrition. With time they will realize the different food groups and get the hang of what to pack in the lunchbox.
  • Plan ahead: I suggest talking to your child about what goes in the lunch box every night. This will save you time and prevent an argument in the morning when you are rushing to get out the door. This will also teach your kids the art of organization and responsibility.
  • Supervise: As your child becomes an expert on packing his/her lunch box you will step back and allow more autonomy. However, still supervise and suggest healthy meal options. Remember our children value our opinion even if they never tell us.

So, can kids pack their lunch boxes?

 Absolutely yes! 

What’s the right age to start packing a lunch box independently?

It depends on the child and their maturity level. Every single child is unique and will be ready at a different age. Some kids will be ready to start having this responsibility at age 8 while others will not. You might have a child who’s younger than 8 years old and that’s eager and ready to do so. It’s ultimately up to you and your child to decide when is the right time. Be mindful, you want to set your child up for success not for failure, so please have realistic expectations.

What to pack in the lunch box?

Obviously after taking into consideration the food allergy rules in the school they attend, please make your best attempt to provide a balanced meal which includes protein, whole grains, nuts, fruits/veggies, and water.

Here are some ideas that can make your life easier:

Protein: This is a very important category. It’s a fact that kids who have a nutritious breakfast and lunch which contains protein will do better at school and have more energy.  Consider including healthy versatile protein options like dairy products (cheese and Greek yogurt), eggs, nuts, peanut butter, lean meats, beans, and other legumes. Avoid processed meats like bacon and sausage if possible.

Whole grains: When packing bread, pita, a wrap, pasta, or crackers consider sending the whole grain version of these foods instead of the over processed, refined white ones. This small change will add on lots of fiber and nutrients that are important for your child’s diet. Other alternatives are quinoa, brown rice, and overnight oats.

Fruit: Chopped fresh fruit of all different colors is the best option. Fresh fruits provide vitamins, minerals and antioxidants that are important for keeping your children healthy. If packing dried fruit or tinned fruit in syrup please read nutritional labels, these most likely have added sugar. Keep in mind that fruit juice could also contain extra sugar, so in my opinion fresh fruit is a better option than juice.

Veggies: Consider sending raw veggies like carrots, celery sticks, cucumber, cherry tomatoes, etc. Make it yummy by adding dips like hummus, guacamole, or yogurt-based dressing.

Drink: Water is the healthiest option. It’s free of calories and will keep your child hydrated. Another consideration is sending properly refrigerated low fat milk. I would not include any type of soda, sport drink, or energy drink in the lunchbox.

Did you know that a 12-ounce soft drink has about 10 teaspoons of sugar and 150 calories? Yes…drinking just one can of soda per day could increase your child’s obesity risk.

If you must include juice, use 100% fruit juice and limit the amount to 4-6 ounces per day for children ages 4 to 6, and 8 ounces per day for school age children ages 7 to 18.

Leftovers: I know this is not feasible for every family. We cook most nights and usually have leftovers, so when the food is “lunch box material” like my girls call it, they pack it in a Thermus the next morning after properly warming it up. I personally love this concept because food don’t get wasted and our girls are getting an excellent lunch that day.

Treats and snacks: When packing these please keep in mind size and caloric content. Most kids love chips, cookies, brownies, gummies, and all other sugary snacks, but these don’t provide adequate nutrition and their calories can add up quickly. I would discourage the inclusion of these items daily. Consider skipping all together or maybe just including them once a week or for a special occasion.

Moms… you’ve got this! Make it fun and varied and keep nutrition a priority.