How a simple mindset shift can remove the stress from lunch packing

Main image for the article [How a simple mindset shift can remove the stress from lunch packing]. Pictured is lunchbox with homemade pizza, carrots and dip, olives, pears and a granola bar.

For most parents….packing lunches can suck. In fact, the thought of it just makes them cringe. And the worst is when they have picky eaters on top of it. Oh boy. 

Here’s my confession though. I sort of…actually…I DO love packing school lunches. I love thinking of new ideas and making it pretty. I don’t (always) mind setting aside 10 minutes to make them one that I know they’ll like (let’s be real… I like looking at it more than they love eating it sometimes). And it makes me feel guilty to say that. Because I get that it’s not as easy for most people. So with this post, my mission is to help you get just a little closer to not hating the process as much. Deal?

So first off, what I discovered very quickly into my lunch packing journey was that my joy and stress-free attitude about packing lunches comes from my mindset. I have certain thoughts around the eaten (and not eaten) lunches, the purpose boxed lunches serve and the fact that I think generally we overcomplicate things a little.

Let’s see if this sounds familiar.

In the beginning, you’re likely super excited to send your child off with their very own made-with-love packed lunch. Your excitement quickly turned to disappointment…and then stress…and then resentment when they lunches come back with half (or quarter…) eaten sandwiches and your nicely arranged cheese and fruit shapes are sitting there like they were never noticed, never touched…never…appreciated. Oh what a sad realization. And then here is what likely happens next…

  • You freak out internally (“How did he survive without a lunch??”)
  • You hound your child and ask why it wasn’t eaten (Bet you couldn’t wait to inspect their lunch the moment you’d see them)
  • Vow to never pack that item again (ok, THAT was a waste…)
  • Find a favourite “Safe” option to pack forevermore (Will you eat this? How about this?)

What this thought process leads to inevitably is weeks of crustless jam sandwiches on white bread and goldfish crackers…which…guess what?? They still won’t eat half the time!

So instead of going through all that stress, let’s go through a few foundational points to help reshape your mindset around lunch packing.

They won’t always eat all their food even if it’s their favourite

As mentioned above, you’ll soon discover that even when lunches are what they request, it’s not always going to come back eaten. And that’s because the fact that they don’t like it is one of many other reasons why it’s come back untouched. Many times, here’s the real reasons:

  • They don’t have time. School aged kids are often given 20 minutes (or less in some cases) to eat, and in that time period, they need to find a seat in a busy lunchroom, open their lunchbox containers and thermos’ (which they often have to wait for a teacher to come around to help them), find time and concentration between socializing and laughing and talking to take a bite here and there. Next thing you know, lunch time is over and a total of 3 or 4 bites were taken. For a 5, 6 or even 7 year old, this is overwhelming – plain and simple. Of course, there are things you can do to help with this (see my blog post on the Ultimate lunch packing guide here for tips).
  • They’re not hungry. Plain and simple. Just like there is usually a meal or snack they’re just not that hungry for at home, same goes here. The sooner we can accept that it’s their prerogative to not eat if they don’t want to, the sooner we can start to relax about our role in feeding.
  • Yes, they may not like the food. Here’s where you implement some picky eating strategies and ways to make lunches tastier/more appealing, amongst which, my favourite is offering a non-preferred food with a preferred food always. This may not be an overnight strategy to helping kids eat their veggies, but it sure is the most proven long term strategy to helping them branch out without pressure. Which leads to my next point.

They’ll still grow just fine even with a skipped lunch

This is a hard one for most of us. When consumed calories are like a gold currency to us parents desperate for our child to eat enough throughout the day and get nourishment, the thought of them not eating enough at lunch makes us do pretty desperate things. Here’s where I say my spiel about kids being excellent regulators of appetite and calorie needs over the period of a day/week. Even outside of just calories, nutrient wise your child is likely getting what they need if they are eating a good snack at school and at least portions of their breakfast and supper. In my Feeding Toddlers online course, I talk about the nutrient and calorie needs of toddlers and preschoolers and give you a tracking sheet to track your child’s intake… and the majority of the time parents are surprised to see that their child is getting more than they thought in terms of quantity eaten…even when it seems like it’s too little to us. Plus, this is where they can come home with big appetites ready to devour an after school snack (and where you can pounce on that opportunity by having a super nutrient dense snack waiting for them…p.s. they will make up for missed calories and nutrients here).

Offering only favourites isn’t worth the outcome

Think big picture here. By packing only a favourite lunch every single day, you may win in getting them to eat 200-400 calories in one sitting. But in the long run? They’ll only ever be able to eat those same 200-400 calories because that’s what they’ve been trained to always be able to eat. I’ll never ever forget hearing my son’s friend tell my son that he LOVES being picky because his mom just packs all his favourite packaged snacks for his lunch and he doesn’t have to try to eat anything else! In fact, he even went as far as saying that if she suggests something else, he whines/cries about it and she always gives in. You can only imagine the shock I felt hearing this. But then again…it only made sense. The roles of the division of responsibility were completely reversed here, which the child realized very well. And this means that if the parent isn’t taking on the role of choosing what to serve, the child has to pick up and take over that role. Which often means that picky eating becomes reinforced, they lose out on the continual exposure of new food that’s needed to help pull them out of this picky eating stage and the food rut that ensues has this pattern going on for years. If you feel like you might need help with this, my Feeding Toddlers online course is for you – complete with a proven step-by-step plan to get you back on track! Check it out for some relief and guidance.

A returned lunchbox that includes components of new/un-preferred foods that is eaten somedays and not eaten others is worth it for me because I know that in the long run my critical role in feeding was well accomplished. I can push aside any feelings of frustration that it’s not been eaten because hey…I already won by fulfilling my job of choosing what to serve in the first place! No opportunity for feeling defeated this way!

picky eater lunch packing tips

Food waste is never really “waste”

I know many times, the idea of being wasteful is what gets us to cater lunches to our child’s most ideal preferences only. And I must agree… I HATE the idea of wasting food. In fact, I cringe any time I open it up and think…”Omg….packing this was all for nothing! This is a sin!” But then, I rethought this. This food didn’t go to waste and wasn’t all for nothing. It most definitely served a purpose. A higher purpose! It provided my child with the much needed exposure to the foods he/she needed to be exposed to (again, my Feeding Toddler course clients know all about the importance of this). And although it wasn’t eaten, it was still seen, smelled, perhaps touched, played with, licked and maybe even had a couple bites taken out of it. All of these count as exposures! And I know that not serving these is a wasted opportunity for learning how to eat a variety of healthy food.

I also learned that serving a new/un-preferred food doesn’t have to mean I’m loading up huge portions of it. A tablespoon of that food is enough to say “Hey! I’m a tomato and I’m over here! If you want to explore me, I’m here for you!”…or at least that’s what I think the tomato would say! If they don’t explore it, it’s much less wasteful having served only a tablespoon versus a full serving that gets thrown out.

Simplicity is everything!

Sometimes we tend to overthink this whole lunch packing thing. Maybe we think that the only quick options are packaged granola bars, gummy and applesauce. Or maybe we think that only certain foods are designated “lunch box” foods (i.e. pb&j’s, “luncheable” style boxes, or fancy Pinterest worthy lunches). Nuh-uh. Here are my tricks to getting out of this thought process and move into a whole new world of lunch ideas:

  • “Lunch box” foods = regular food . What would you serve at any other meal (or snack) if they were at home? Because you know it’s possible to serve the exact same thing. The beauty of lunchboxes now-a-days is they come with fancy leak-proof compartments, perfectly insulated lunch bags, ice packs, Thermos’, you name it. There’s little reason to not be able to keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold. Keeping things separated with a bento style lunch container makes it easy to throw in any mix and combination of item. Which leads me to my next point…
  • Lunches don’t have to “make sense”. I threw out the idea long ago that I couldn’t have pack a lunch that had compartments filled with random things like pancake strips, avocado, kimchi and chicken. Why not? Kids don’t seem to care as long as everything is separated. Or maybe yours does. In which case…don’t listen to this point haha.
  • USE LEFTOVERS! I REPEAT…USE LEFTOVERS! Leftover pasta from the night before – pack it. Leftover waffles from this morning – throw that in there. Leftover soup? Leftover lasagna? Leftover roasted veggies? Leftover chocolate cake? DO IT. Makes life so much easier. If you take a leftover and add a few new components to it, it’s a whole new meal.
  • Of course, planning ahead and meal prepping things like muffins, homemade bars, energy balls etc. are always going to make life easier. But you know what else is easy when that’s not around? Whole foods chopped up. Open up your fridge and pantry…pull out whatever whole food “ingredient” you see (apple, beans, cheese, snap peas?). Great – put them in, add a dip, some crackers maybe and there you have it! PS… If you’re not sure of what components every healthy lunchbox should have and need ideas for all these whole foods to stock your fridge/pantry/freezer with, DEFINITELY download my easy peasy mix-and-match lunch packing guide here.
  • Varying up lunches and offering exposure to new things doesn’t have to mean huge change. Maybe instead of sandwich bread, you sub it for a wrap one day. Maybe instead of cheddar cheese, you use havarti. Maybe instead of banana or apple for the fruit, you try kiwi or melon. Simple switches. That’s all.

At the end of the day, here is what mindset I want you to have going into this school year. Ask yourself…

Did I do my job of serving a balanced, varied lunch?

Great. You succeeded!

Whether your child ate eat it all, half, or none depending on the day – guess what…that’s their job. They will eat what they will eat. Don’t let your worries go past your job.

How does that sound?

PS. A child with medical issues/extreme picky eating may need more attention paid to the types of food offered and may need only very familiar foods packed when they’re eating in unfamiliar environments. This post is intended for general picky eaters/adventurous eaters.


meet edwena

Registered pediatric dietitian, mom of two picky-turned-adventurous eater, and the creator of the Texture Timeline™ – an exclusive tool to help move your baby through easy to more advanced purees and finger foods to prevent picky eating.

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