Tips for School Lunchtime Success
Written by Diana Bauman, Contributing Writer
September has been an exciting month for my five year old son and I. He started kindergarten and I became a first time parent with a child in school.
My husband and I met all of his teachers including his principal, art teacher, gym teacher and music teacher. We toured the classes, met other parents and investigated every nook and cranny of his elementary school.
I signed up for the PTA and as a homeroom helper (one of the benefits of being a work at home; I can get away when I need to).
My husband and I were very happy with his new school and teachers so the only thing this real food blogging mama had left to do was pack him a nourishing lunch.
I filled MarioKart with his favorites. A homemade peanut butter and jelly sandwich, grapes, aged cheddar cheese, cherry tomatoes from the garden, homemade yogurt and a thermos (that keeps cold for 13 hours) filled with fresh milk.
On his first day of school, we prayed for a good day together and I stuck around to hear the students stand and pledge their allegiance under God. With tear swollen eyes, I blew him a kiss and gently whispered, “have a good day papa; I love you.”
I can remember constantly checking the clock that day as hour by hour ticked away. When the time finally came, I packed up my toddler and we both eagerly awaited for brother.
When school was dismissed he came running into my arms. As he was talking about his day, I carefully unzipped MarioKart expecting to see a few grapes strewn about.
What I didn’t expect was to see that he had eaten nothing. Zip. Nada.
Okay, I called it the first day jitters. Maybe he was too nervous to eat.
The next day, nothing.
The day after, a few bites of a chorizo montadito. He loves Spanish chorizo, what’s up with that?
This pattern continued for the first week until I spoke to both my son and his teacher. He’s a bit shy; so, at first it was a bit intimidating to break out his food and eat with others.
Since then I have been incredibly blessed that his teachers have taken the time to sit with him at lunch making sure he sits with the group and eats.
However, his teacher did mention to me that maybe I should re-evaluate the quantity of food that I’ve been packing him. The quantity of food itself may seem overwhelming to him when his thoughts may be on recess that awaits.
Ouch. Looking at the list above, I was packing him quite a feast. He never ate that much at home with me. Why on Earth did I think he’d need that much at school?
We’ve been at this for about a month now and I have learned some important tips that I would love to share with you on making school lunch time both enjoyable and successful.
Tip 1: Start with a Nourishing Breakfast
I’m sure you have heard it time and time again, but this is the number one tip for school time lunch success.
A well balanced, nourishing breakfast, is going to kick start their day by getting their metabolism moving, their brains working with an ability to be more focused and alert. Their appetites will be satiated well until lunch time.
For my boys, I like to make sure to feed them dairy, protein and a carb in some form every morning.
Some breakfast ideas are
- whole wheat pancakes
- french toast using pastured eggs
- homemade oatmeal
- smoothies with fresh fruit, homemade yogurt/kefir and raw egg yolks
- homemade yogurt with toasted bread and peanut butter
With each of the meals above, I like to include a glass of fresh milk or fresh squeezed orange juice and a fruit.
As you can see, my son heads to school having been nourished and able to start his day.
Tip 2: Ease Up!
I know. It’s a crazy thought, huh? But yes, let’s ease up in this area and not expect so much from our little ones at school. If only half of their lunch is eaten on a day, that’s okay. You know they headed off to school fully nourished, so a few bites during the day will keep them well balanced until they get home.
However, make sure to talk about it with your child and set some goals for the next day.
Tip 3: Don’t pack a ginormous lunch
Yes, I learned this lesson the hard way. I never fully understood the bento movement; however, I do now. I’ve been learning on making lunch fun by making snack sized versions of foods that my son loves. In smaller bites, they are more appealing to my son and seem much more feasible to eat.
Tip 4: Have a nourishing snack ready for your child when he/she gets home
I’ve learned that when my son heads off to school having been nourished and if he’s eaten “some” of his lunch, he’s just fine as long as I have a nourishing snack waiting for him right when he gets home. Snacks like homemade muffins, nuts, fruits or raw vegetables will keep up his energy until supper time.
When you look at the grand scheme of things, lunch time is important; but, as long as your child is eating a big nourishing breakfast and comes home to a nourishing snack, we can ease up on lunch and feel confident that they’re getting all the nutrients they need.
My son loves “sandwhich wraps.” I put lunch meat and ranch dressing on a tortilla and roll it up. Then I put either a cheese stick or dried fruit in with that, and an organic milk box. He usually eats it all. I used to buy Lunchables for him, but now I have two kids to pack for, and that can get expensive, so sometimes I make homade versions. I cut up cheese and meet and put it into a baggie, then put a few crackers in another baggie. They both love this! I try to include some form of fruit, either fresh, dried, or a “fruit strip,” and sometimes a little candy treat. They usually eat all or most of their lunches.
I have been guilty of packing too large of a lunch too, and worrying that they weren’t eating enough. But I agree that if they are eating a nutritious breakfast, and you are providing a nutritious snack after school, they’ll be fine.
Thank you for your post, Diana!
This was a very encouraging post for me! My daughter starts school in January-we’re South African-and lunches have been one of my concerns as we’re so used to eating together and our lunches aren’t like the normal school lunches I remember seeing! We have salads and hard boiled eggs, or cheese and salads and in winter it’s soups and the like. I was wondering how long your son’s day is? Our school day (at this particular school) is longer than most. We’ve been home schooler’s up until recently and we’ve eaten lunch at different times to what they do at school-did you find that to be a problem at all?
Thanks for your encouragement!
My mom is a Kindergarten teacher, her class begins at 7:15am and eats lunch just three hours later at 10:20! And they only have half an hour to sit down, unpack the lunch, eat, clean up and line up to go back to the room!
Keep in mind that for the first time the kiddos are learning to manage not only their own hunger but also eating with friends in a public place. I think a big breakfast, nourishing “snack” lunch, and a guarantee of good food right after school is a great way to help them manage all the new social skills they are learning while making sure they eat well, too.
Thanks for the comment Chloe. Yes, during the first week of kindergarten, my son kept telling me how loud it is in the lunch room. So many things for them to adjust to. I’m just super blessed that he’s feeling right at home now.
Carrot sticks, almonds, squash, tuna – also looking for more ideas though!
@Lorie, Cool Lorie! You may want to take a peek at momables.
I’m a new contributer there as well where we are sharing many lunch time ideas. I think you’ll like it 😀
Great post! My son also started Kindergarten and has come home with a full lunch a few times. As the weeks have gone by he has gotten better as he as adapted and I have learned to pack a similar “snack” type lunch to what you mentioned. I do struggle with breakfast though! A bowl of cereal is just so easy!
I’m sure Carla. Try something simple at first. A smoothie with some yogurt, fresh fruit and a raw (pastured) egg yolk. Or even an egg biscuit with cheese. That extra protein is really going to help them.
This is great advice in my professional opinion having taught elementary school for years before having my daughter. The small portions is important because kids have such a short lunch time- and they spend most of it talking to their friends. I used to have the kids leave their leftovers in their lunch box instead of throwing them away. Then their parents could see how much and what they ate to cut down on waste as well as keep parents informed. Some parents would include a snack for the bus ride home, or have an easy snack for the car ride home as well.
@Sarah Robbins, Thanks for the comment and encouragement Sarah. It’s always appreciated to hear some words from a teacher who has been there.
You know what would be a great series? Feeding teenaged boys. All we ever see on blogs is things for the littles. My son is 13 and in 8th grade. This is the last year he will be forced to eat the less than thrilling school lunch. Next year, we’ll be packing his lunch. School will start at 7:15, end at 2:15, football practice till 5:00. I need some good, real food ideas to pack and sustain him and his growing body!
@Paula, So true. With blogging so new, it seems most of us have little’s at home. However, that’s a great suggestion on a topic to suit older children. I think I would consider a large smoothie and homemade burritos for lunch. That and good sized subway sandwich types should keep a growing boy nourished. Thanks for the idea Paula, I’m going to run with that!
Those are some great ideas. Interestingly, I’ve noticed that my kids who are not in school yet do the same thing and barely eat lunch. I think I’ve been trying to work on giving them smaller portions and more snack-type food. I myself and most content with a hot bowl of leftovers, but my kids prefer snacky things like cheese, lunchmeat, carrots, sometimes banana pancakes, etc. They do seem to want to load up on breakfast, though, so I make sure to include lots of protein and fat which might be why they aren’t quite so hungry when it’s time for lunch. We recently cut all wheat and most other grains out of our diet so I’m still working on baked goods, but they love my muffin attempts 🙂
One of my kids favorite lunches is what they call a “Munch Lunch”. I put out a big plate of 3 or 4 things to share. Crackers, cheese, raw veggies, grapes, sliced apples, left over meat… Whatever I happen to have on hand. They love it!
@Mom of 4, I love that idea!
When my daughter started all-day preschool last year, I wasted so much food by packing what I saw as a healthy, well-balanced lunch. I couldn’t understand why so much of it was coming back, because they were all foods she loved. After talking to her teacher, I realized it was because she was spending most of her time talking. So I started pushing more food at breakfast and packing less for snack and lunch.
Some of our favorite lunches:
Yogurt with granola – she loves mixing it up.
Deconstructed tacos – a tortilla, taco meat, cheese, and black olives – I’ve told her she can put the taco together but I’m pretty sure she just eats everything separately.
Spaghetti or soup in the hot thermos (I use a thicker, cream-based soup – a broth-based soup would be a disaster, I think)
Crepes or French Toast Sticks with syrup to dip them in
For breakfast, whole grain toast and yogurt or a smoothie are common. I make my own fruit compote to stir into plain yogurt to avoid the sugar in commercial yogurts. We also do yogurt and granola a lot, with a side of fruit. I was really blessed to have such a non-picky eater, especially considering I eschewed vegetables until after I graduated from college!
@Kathie, I like the idea of sending my son french toast sticks with syrup. I know he’d love that!
I have 3 children and the youngest started Kindergarten this year , too. Each child has a different tolerance for the cafeteria stimulus as well as- other children’s reactions to what they’re eating. The oldest could care less, and will happily eat sea vegetable snacks-fresh soups-homemade cheese spreads-salads etc. The middle child hates to be asked “what’s that?”by his peers, and takes the same boring lunch everyday- which is basically a snack.(cheese+apple+water+a cookie). The youngest is still fuguring it out. What I found with the shy middle one – was rethink what I called snack and what I called a meal. He eats a balanced snack at the cafeteria, and needs a warm strengthening meal upon returning home. Here , he feels comfortable to eat and be nourished , while relaxing and not having to feel on guard. This shift (and I have to be ready, because when he gets homes, he’s famished!) has really helped.
@Sandy T., Thanks for sharing that. It’s helpful to see how each child is different and may need alternatives.
Holy moley. Chorizo in a school lunch box? To think I settled for bologna and cheese in my “Pigs in Space” Lunchbox back in the day. 🙂
Homeschooling here, but good words to remember, when packing a lunch for anywhere. Our kids are the same…playtime hanging over their head doesn’t inspire eating….it inspires throwing it all away. 🙂
I began to divide my kids lunches between snack time and lunch. Gave them half a sandwich in L-box and the other half (usually pbj) for snack time. Love those snack size bags.) Kindergarteners are just learning the concept of time limits, and there are many distractions in the lunch room. This was a big relief for me, I felt that they had more than one opportunity to finish their lunch and I was only planning one meal instead of two.
I don’t have a child in school (we currently homeshool at the moment) but my husband is a teacher and often times peanut butter and nut butters are banned from schools. Which makes it harder for last minute hurried lunch packing and many parents complain about this apparently. Sunflower seed butter is okay (at least around here) and can go with jam in a last minute pinch.
When I was a kid my mom would pack a selection of things like hard boiled egg, veggies, a few crackers…that sort of thing that can be healthy if you make the right choices. Sandwhiches got boring and that was more “fun” for me.
My kiddo loves hummus–easy to make, easy to eat. We also do lots of ‘lunchable’ style meals–meat, cheese, crackers, carrot sticks, and a little goodie. Of course, our goodie is usually coconut creme blobs–so highly nutritious goodie.
Our school is tree nut free, so that makes it hard for my PBJ loving kiddo.
@karen, have you tried sunflower seed butter? Is it allowed at your school? Its allowed around here from what we’ve been told. See my comment above.
I got a much better understanding of how to pack my kids lunch after my husband and I went and had lunch with them at the school. The atmosphere makes all the difference in the world. I do a lot of the same things you have mentioned. Something I have done this year is make “lunchables”. For some reason those boxes are always so tempting at the grocery store so I make a healthier version of it and use a similar container to send it in. I will be mocking the pizza lunchable next.
I’ve got two kids in school (grade 1 and kindergarten). I usually pack them each a main dish and 2 snacks. Yesterday their main dish was tuna wraps (pb&j, crackers & cheese, leftover pancakes, spaghetti, etc are all favorites). For snacks, we do apples, bananas, peaches, frozen fruit (mangos, strawberries, berries), yogurt, carrot sticks, cucumber, nuts, etc.
Their school requests that the kids bring in a water bottle to keep at their desk, so they can drink throughout the day, whenever they are thirsty… Which I love!
Great tips, Diana! I love how you emphasized a great breakfast and then we don’t have to be quite the sticklers on the lunch-eating. 😉
As PP said, often peanut and nut butters are banned, or children with those items need to sit at a different area then children with allergies, so make sure to ask your littles if they’d rather go peanut free in order to sit with their peanut allergy friends. We’ve been packing lunches since my 5th grA
As PP said, often peanut and nut butters are banned, or children with those items need to sit at a different area then children with allergies, so make sure to ask your littles if they’d rather go peanut free in order to sit with their peanut allergy friends. We’ve been packing lunches since my 5th grader started kindergarten. I now have three between grades 1 and 5. I try to make something similar to what they are having for lunch at school if possible so they’re eating like food…we deal with gluten, peanut etc allergies so we’ll have spaghetti squash and sauce, or falaefel pizza instead of wheat crust, inside out deli rolls, chili, soups in thermos etc. I always try to have crockpot soup going for Sunday dinner so we have it warm and ready for Monday lunches – Monday seems to be the craziest of the days. Soup and a salad or fresh veggies work well for us for lunches, or an entree and a salad.
My kids are the opposite of many, we have trouble being able to pack enough food to fill them up!
Boiled eggs are nice, but many times children will get picked on for bringing them- if their classmates have sensory issues, boiled eggs can have a sulfur smell when you take them out of the lunch box.
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