Winning the lunch war: Tips for packing food kids will eat

October 2015 Posted in School
Ruby Kaplan eating lunch at Rose Cottage in Mount Angel.

Ruby Kaplan eating lunch at Rose Cottage in Mount Angel.

By Melissa Wagoner

A battle is waged every day in kitchens and cafeterias across the country as children and parents negotiate the packing of school lunches.

This chore can be frustrating and time consuming leading to missed buses and unhappy, hungry children. But with a little coaching, it can also build autonomy and help children learn to make healthy choices.

Having recently joined the ranks of parents for whom packing lunch bags is a part of the daily routine, I have already I had my share of wins and losses.

Internet research was no help as sites like Pinterest left me overwhelmed and feeling like a failure before even beginning. So instead I contacted several parents who have been packing lunches for years. All have multiple children; one has a notoriously picky eater and two struggle with food allergies.

Because the subject can be touchy for children who are navigating one of the most socially charged parts of school – the lunchroom – names have been changed to protect their identities.

Ideas for school lunch
Fruit and vegetable smoothies
Yogurt and honey dip with fruit
Hummus with vegetables
Homemade granola bars
Yogurt with granola on the side
Stacked cheese and cracker bites
Lettuce wraps
Tortilla wraps
Cheese sticks
Rolled up cold cuts
Bagel faces (bagel with cream cheese
and vegetables)
Soup in a thermos
Sandwiches that can be
assembled at school


The container can be one of the most important aspects of packing a lunch. Most schools will advise a cold pack and an insulated bag or box.

Anne, who has two boys ages 11 and six, has found reusable bags that open horizontally are helpful.

“We used to have a vertically designed bag, which made it hard for our child to dig everything out,” she said.

Small plastic containers and bento boxes, a box with multiple compartments, are also helpful items.

“We are trying the Bentology system this year,” said Bonnie, who has two grade school children. “Carmon really likes the Bentology lunch pack as he takes bagel faces for lunch everyday (which he assembles at school) and they work great for that.”

These containers are not always travel friendly however.

“The main messes have come from lids that don’t seal tightly enough. Sam tends to be rough with his backpack and lunch box and has ended up with his lunch contents spilled all over the inside of his lunch box.”

For liquids Tupperware type containers or thermoses work better.

Cade Middlestetter eating lunch at Rose Cottage in Mount Angel.

Cade Middlestetter eating lunch at Rose Cottage in Mount Angel.

Popular Foods

Each family’s go-to items were as individual as the families themselves, but what they all had in common was variety.

“We always include a main dish that is protein based like a meat and cheese,” said Dana, mother of three children. “The kids also add one fresh veggie like red peppers, cucumbers or carrots and one serving of fruit like an apple, orange or grapes. I am happy to accommodate the different tastes by offering healthy options that I know all three will like. As long as they are willing to take an active role in making their lunches, I will continue to provide variety. It’s also worth it because I know they will eat what they packed.”

Picky Eaters

Variety doesn’t always do the trick though. As with any mealtime, families meet with the daily challenge of getting their children to eat healthy foods and avoid those high in sugar or highly processed, but for Bonnie, whose oldest son tends to be finicky, this is especially challenging.

“I have let go of trying to provide much variety. If I find something that works, I tend to pack it a lot because I know that he will eat it,” Bonnie said. “I include him in grocery shopping and try to always have fresh fruit and veggies on hand.”

Some other bits of advice: “No lunch surprises, he likes to know what to expect. Pack things that can be eaten quickly, they eat in their room with partners, and tend to socialize more than eat sometimes. Ask them what to pack with the guidelines of a protein, fruit and vegetable and a grain. Talk about successes failures (why they did or didn’t eat something),” she said.

Peer Pressure

Peer pressure can be a lunchtime problem but not all pressure is negative.

“There have only been a handful of times when our kids have asked for things their classmates are having and usually it’s in a positive way,” Anne said. “Our oldest learned to love pineapple because it was offered at his preschool for snack time. He also asked to have seaweed as his classmates often brought it to school, so our experience has been positive in this regard.”

But it’s is not always so helpful and in those cases moderation may be the best tact.

“My kids do ask for the super sugary snacks, cereals, drinks and super fatty, salty, greasy stuff that some of their friends eat frequently,” Edith, mother of two boys, said. “I allow the occasional splurges with such things, but we don’t indulge daily until the package is gone.  I know from our habits that such things in moderation help us not binge when it’s available.”


Allergies are a real problem for a growing number of parents and can lead to serious medical issues if not dealt with properly. They can also make packing a lunch difficult as many of the common allergens (dairy, peanuts and wheat) are also found in some of the most popular lunchtime items.

“We generally don’t have food in the house that may trigger an allergic reaction,” said Edith, whose son suffers from a nut allergy. “I used to love making banana pecan muffins and other baked goods with nuts. I was really good about clearly and boldly marking containers of which contained nuts.”

One day Edith forgot to mark the bags and her son was given the wrong one.

“The kid took only one small bite before recognizing the problem.  We didn’t hesitate to give a dose of Benadryl, as we knew not to wait and see if a reaction would ensue.  Nonetheless, he did have a reaction, causing a need for Benadryl every two hours all night. I don’t make things with nuts any more, and have since been better coached by our allergist to immediately give an EpiPen injection and head straight to the ER, for at least a 24-hour observation,” she said.

Because of such dangerous reactions many schools have banned nuts altogether forcing parents of peanut butter lovers to find other options. For this situation  Edith has some advice.

“If you are hooked on the simplicity of peanut butter and jelly, some of the schools have partnered with local stores to purchase wholesale jars of SunButter or WowButter,” she said. “Although you can’t expect it to taste the same as peanut butter, try them out and see which your family likes best.”

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