Kiss lunchbox leftovers goodbye! Learn about packing lunches your kids will not only eat, but also love with these easy tips and lunch box ideas for kids.
Whether you’re packing breakfast on the go, snack lunches, or the best sandwiches, your kids will be pleased to find what’s for lunch.
You work hard for your money.
And you work even harder to grocery shop and prepare tasty meals, trolling through the store aisles for healthy food for your family. You put effort into finding creative lunchbox ideas and packing healthy snacks.
Imagine your surprise when you open the lunch box and find it picked over, uneaten even.
But wait! Why didn’t she eat this? Why is this food getting wasted?
It can be discouraging, especially when you thought you were packing a meal your kid loves, a meal you’ve watched her gobble down a hundred times at home.
What’s a mom to do?
Time to do some sleuthing, dear Watson. Time to uncover the mystery of packing lunches your kids will eat — and maybe even love — with these lunch box ideas for kids.
What you think your family likes is not always the same as what they will eat when packed in a cute lunchbox that you spent hours shopping for at back to school. A kid’s preferences are always subject to change.
It’s important for you to know your family’s likes and dislikes for several reasons:
- so that your family will enjoy meals.
- so that you don’t waste time and energy cooking food that will eventually go to waste.
- so that you aren’t battling with your children every mealtime — or when you unpack their lunchboxes.
1. Confirm what your kid likes. This week.
Ask! Open up communication lines. Talk with your family about the foods you eat. Be open to criticism. (And remember it may not be delivered in the nicest way.)
Once you’ve established what they hate — because my money’s on those answers being the most ready — inquire what they do like.
If someone answers, “Good food,” then ask for specific examples of what he/she considers to be “good food.”
Be patient because, yes, what they liked last week may not be on their list of top ten favorites this week.
Write this list down and keep it handy, somewhere they can edit it as needed. If you get it in their writing, so much the better!
Consider providing some mix and match type lunches, such as a Pasta Salad Bar where the children can pick and choose what appeals to them that week.
2. Ask what they do at lunch that might get in the way of eating.
You’d be surprised what little time kids have for school lunch — and how they prioritize that time.
It may be more important to your daughter that she get to play than to eat. There’s only so much time to get the wiggles out and so she’d rather play.
It may be that your son really doesn’t like eating in the cafeteria. Since it’s too hard to find a place to sit, watch other people eat, see other foods that he either prefers or detests, he’d rather skip it.
Not all lunch rooms are as comfortable as your kitchen table.
Do your kids like the packaging of their lunches?
Believe it or not, sometimes it’s the vehicle of the lunch that gets in the way of your child eating it.
Food might be getting soggy in that fancy pants lunch box. The crackers get stale packed next to the cheese. The thermos leaks. The brownies dry out.
There could be issues in the physical aspects of packing lunches that could be in the way of your child enjoying his or her meal. Therefore, do some investigating to see what’s working and what’s not.
The more you respond to your children’s input, the more likely they will be to have buy-in and to trust you to pack what they like.
Tips to Remember
Consider these strategies next time you’re stumped for lunch box ideas for kids. With some trial and error, your child will be packing lunches he’ll eat and even love!
- Keep a list of child-approved meals in a conspicuous spot in the kitchen. Encourage your child to edit as needed so that he’s empowered and you’re not making food he hates.
- Be aware of how much time your child has to eat at lunchtime as well as the conditions that are most comfortable for him to enjoy his meal so that you can adjust accordingly.
- Allow your child to plan his own lunches for the week. Not only does this instill life-long skills and self-efficacy, but it also gets you off the hook for packing something he hates.
- Check that your child’s lunch is in the best possible condition when it arrives on the lunch table. Invest in some lunch packing tools that will get the job done.
- Consider packing just a few snacks and then meeting your child at pickup with a lunch that she’s ready to eat.
- Rinse, wash, repeat. Kids change their minds. So do parents. Be okay with your child’s evolving tastes and preferences. Revise as you go along so that you can both make the most of packing lunches!
This post was originally published October 19, 2010. It has been updated for content and clarity.
Love this post! Can I add a tip? If you have the ability, and your kids are still littles, try to volunteer as a lunch monitor/parent volunteer (even just once). If you have a picky lunch eater, seeing the cafeteria in action during your child’s lunch period will tell you a lot.
I learned things several things I didn’t know – like it’s really noisy (full of distraction for my distractable child) and it’s the first chance to chat with friends during the day. Because of logistics of getting many kids in and out of cafeteria within 25 minutes, after 15 minutes, the lunch room head starts calling for everybody to pack up (so they can line up for recess). Mystery of uneaten lunches solved – unless it’s super super yummy and portable/easy to grab, half of lunch will go uneaten.
Great idea! Thank you!
This is timely for me as well. Just tonight I was telling my husband I need to stop making enchiladas for awhile because neither of our kids is all that keen on them. Too bad because they freeze really well, are great in the crock pot, and for our small family I can get four meals out of not that many ingredients. *sigh*
That said, I don’t go that out of my way to cook what my kids like at this point. They are 4 years and 17 months old and their tastes change so drastically from one day to the next I’m not going to kill myself trying to please them every time. There are certain things I know they won’t eat (Borscht, roast squash and apple soup, curry of any kind) so I just plan on giving them Mac N Cheese or sandwiches on those nights. Although I always offer what we’re eating because they might eventually change their minds.
I’m sure my method will change as they get older and have more reliable tastes.
My kids go through phases where enchiladas and lasagna are the best things ever. And then they’re not. Keep at it, mama!
Packing lunches has got to be one of my least favorite parenting chores! I may need to involve my kids in the process more. I recently learned that my friend’s 10 year old daughter packs daily lunches for her parents, herself and two younger siblings. Sounds great to me!
Yes! This is what we talk about in the Mom’s Kitchen Survival Workshop. Really works for the families who try it.
Wow, my kids probably wish they lived in someone else’s home. I don’t allow them to pack their lunch. Our school offers a hot meal that is so low priced that if you figure in my time it is cheaper for them to eat there. The school also offers a peanut butter and jelly option as substitute for the main course if you choose. My kids like pb&j so I know they will have something they like every day. I work at the school and know the food is good quality and tastes great. I eat it many days due to the low price.
I used to do pb&j every day; until my oldest started saying the “smell” of pb made him want to vomit. He would actually gag. Weird – I don’t think he was lying either 😉 Their favorite is actually cheese and crackers. Super easy but only good if I get cheese on sale. I have also started doing salads bc I am trying to lower our sugar intake, and I also heard that people should have one “raw” meal per day.
The hard thing is the fruit. They never eat what I send, even though they will eat it at home. They will not eat canned fruit cups at home or at school, so that’s out. Not sure how to get them to eat fruit at school. I would love some ideas!
They both would rather go hungry than eat school lunch.lol
Honestly, I may be a mean mommy but I’ve gotten my family all to the point where they really do just eat whatever I give them. Sure, they have favorites. We all do. But they know that just because it may not be their first (or second) choice doesn’t mean they get to elect to complain about/ not eat it. I really don’t think too hard about the school lunches I pack… I know A. will eat it. Tomorrow’s lunch is honey bbq salmon, rice, and cauliflower (which will be cold, mind you) and he is so excited about it! I hear all about what amazing eaters my kids are from the teachers. I’ve always been proud of that fact, but reading everyone else’s thoughts is starting to make me think I’m not kind or accomodating enough…
@JessieLeigh, you’re not a mean mom. You’re just successful. You go, girl! I love it that your kids will eat what you pack! Nothing wrong with that.
I know that you truly enjoy cooking each night, and your kids have obviously embraced that enthusiasm. Love it.
I think most of us commiserating here are just trying to figure out how to make it work when they won’t eat whatever we want them to eat.
You don’t need to ask them. Don’t borrow trouble, girlfriend. 😉
@JessieLeigh, I am the same way JessieLeigh! Meals are never a struggle in our home, and I do not give choices. If they eat it, great! If they don’t, that’s too bad for them. Either way, once the food is packed or put on the plate it is gone. Whether they eat it or not doesn’t change that fact, so I don’t stress about waste.
No battles in our family, but very very strong personalities–while my dd will eat a sandwich, she really prefers some sort of soup or leftover, the heartier the better. My youngest, also a teen, has anxiety, and is nearly unable to eat during the day with so many distractions–so I send a chocolate milk and a snack (granola bar, goldfish crackers, etc.) so that he will not starve. It took a long time to figure this out, and I would feel like a “bad mom” but our family therapist literally told me to send whatever he WILL eat. It is a bit comical, setting out this enormous pile of hearty food for my daughter, and a little snack for my son…
Your timing is sweet to me 🙂 My husband and I were discussing this (insert frustration here) last night before dinner…we had lots of food in the fridge and yet nothing that the kids were willing to eat…ugh! Thanks for sharing and keeping it real!
I bought the divided plastic containers after you recommended them. We love them, and they fit into our small cooler just right. Thanks for the recommendation.
This used to happen to me a LOT when I would try new recipes without asking Donnie’s opinion ahead of time. I can’t tell you how many times he said something along the lines of, “This is really well made, but I’m not a huge fan of curry/soup with no sandwich next to it/chicken served with red sauce/etc.” Yet it still took me, I don’t know, maybe 8 years to figure out that saying, “Hey, I’m thinking of making XYZ, does that sound good?” was a helpful idea. 🙂
Add another layer to your thinking – I am fairly clear on what DH and the kids like.
But what they like at home, and how they eat lunch on a saturday, does NOT tell me what they like or want to eat when I’m packing!
It’s taken a while to get this all clear LOL
Dh will not eat hardly any of the things he likes at home for lunch at work – I don’t pack for him often anymore but I’ll tell you this, the plain sandwich he’ll take from home [and nothing else, no fruit, no soup, no snackage] is NOT how he eats here
The kids? Oy! The lunchroom issues about with the boy – only certain things are acceptable and you know what? As much as I hate the whole thing I don’t want him miserable – we’ve managed to find four or five lunches he’s comfortable with that I generally have things on hand for – so we’re good. The girls are more flexible – less concerned with peer pressure, but my oldest has a uniform, and worries about spilling, plus is getting a more mature palate so is clearer about which things she likes but don’t taste so hot when they’ve been packed. The little one wants variety more than anything –
I now have a menu plan that never changes for breakfasts and lunches M-F – I can always switch it up if I want but it’s such a blessing that both they and I know that they have a lunch they’re looking forward to eating!
Lunches are a HUGH battleground. What I might menu plan will never be what the kids want. So when we found out that our youngest was tossing the entire lunch we knew we needed a better way. So, we gave them the appropriate amount of money and allowed them to pick and pay for their lunches. SUCCESS!! They learned menu planning, grocery shopping, bargain hunting, and budgeting (i.e. use left over money from one week to buy something extra special the next). Lunches went from a battle to a learning experience. Less complaints, less waste, less stress!
Great questionnaire! My 6yo is the easy one. He doesn’t even want the hot lunches and he has an idea of what his cold lunch should look like EVERY day: hard-boiled egg, string cheese, orange chopped into 4, cherry tomatoes, and a juice. I get to “switch things up a bit” by changing the grain between granola bars, popcorn, and crackers… all of which he won’t touch anyway but they’re there if he wants them. Oh, how I wish I had his anti-carb taste buds!
My husband is the hard one. He wants variety in the non-sandwich form and he eats on the road so there are no microwaves. Thankfully, he loves cold leftovers so his main course today was a bowl of shredded leftover chicken mixed with BBQ sauce, onion, green pepper, and a fork. He’s good to go.
It would definitely be nice to give him a questionnaire so I have more ideas!
Elizabeth my 12yo dd is anti sandwich too – she has a thermos food jar that’s been great – they make bigger ones [for your bigger husband LOL] too – that might broaden your repetoire as you find out more of what he’d like
Aimee @ Simple Bites
This is my first time packing a school lunch as my eldest just entered kindergarten. I HAVE to communicate with him, or he goes hungry. My husband on the other hand, will eat pretty much anything, so he’s easy.
Go with what they like – my daughter took plain bologna sandwiches for two years straight. She refused to eat anything else. My son only likes peanut butter. No jelly. The two years he was in a school where no peanut butter was allowed was a difficult period!
This is so timely! I’ve been struggling with the fact that my son only wants peanut butter in his sandwiches for lunch, every single day and my daughter pretty much wants whatever her big brother doesn’t have. Alas, I am not their short order cook so individual orders are not served here! Variety vs. getting them to eat what you’ve packed seems to be a constant battle. I will be trying the food pref. quiz soon. Thanks for the idea!
Crystal & Co
For my kids, they really eat the same things over and over and over again. That is what they like… so that is what I pack. If I venture out to much, they end up not eating it.
Thanks for sharing!
robbie @ going green mama
We just started the school lunch battle this year, and while my daughter is ok with taking her lunch, the newness of hot lunch (which varies every day) is very attractive to her. We’ve settled on her picking one day to buy her lunch and the rest to bring it. And I am trying very hard to shake up her meals, though it’s tough to break the PB&J or 2 weeks of turkey sandwiches. 🙂
Barb @ My Daily Round
Love the questionnaire! I’m going to poll the kids this week. My husband packs the lunches and does pretty well. But, I’m sure he’d like some guidance, and it would help me in keeping him supplied for lunches.