Kids coming home with half-eaten lunches? This lunch box portion sizes hack made all the difference for us!
Packing lunches may not be your favorite chore. And that might be the understatement of the century.
So when your kids bring their lunch boxes home at the end of a school day and half the food you lovingly packed is untouched, it can feel like insult to injury.
This used to happen to me too.
I had visions of artfully packed, nutrient-dense assortments representing all food groups, gobbled up gleefully by my child.
Then I’d open his lunch box after school to find remnants of a sandwich, carrot sticks, and strawberries, barely nibbled yet still somehow looking like they’d been through a war.
Kids Bringing Home Uneaten Lunches Was Maddening!
Why wasn’t my kid–who was (not surprisingly) STARVING after school–not eating his lunch?
I made sure to pack things he liked. I even occasionally cut his sandwich into whimsical shapes.
Then I remembered two things:
- Advice I got when my son was a toddler and went on a dinner strike that about did me in: Dr. Dina Rose, author of It’s Not About The Broccoli, suggested I start serving much smaller portions to him (like two bites of each food) and allow him to ask for more.
- Something I learned as a dietetic intern during a nursing home rotation: Older adults who have smaller appetites can get easily overwhelmed (and even nauseated) by a heaping plate of food. Serve less and they’ll eat more.
Here’s My Lunch Box Portion Sizes Hack!
I started packing less food.
And when I did, my kid actually started eating more.
As in, he started to eat everything.
Sure, some uneaten food still occasionally came home. But for the most part this “less is more” strategy worked wonders for us.
I know it sounds counterintuitive to pack LESS if you want your kids to eat MORE. But stay with me here.
Why This Lunch Box Hack Works
Here’s why I think this strategy can work for elementary-aged kids who are barely touching their lunches:
Big lunches can be overwhelming, especially to little people: Most students have very little time to eat lunch—sometimes only 20 minutes, a lot of which is spent talking with friends and figuring out how to open their assorted containers and packages. Large amounts of food may seem insurmountable and get ignored.
They don’t fill up on one food: Downsized amounts encourage them to eat a larger variety of what you pack. For example, I used to get frustrated that my son would finish his crackers but not touch his blueberries. Yet how could I blame him when I knew crackers were a favorite? Packing less of both meant he could eat all of his crackers AND still be hungry for his berries.
A giant veggie pile doesn’t seem doable–but a couple do: My kids both like raw veggies. If I pack a big pile of them, they might go untouched. When I downsized to three carrots or sugar snap peas, they’re more likely to eat them all.
Not Convinced? Try These Four Things
If you’re reluctant to pack less, here are four things to try:
Ask your kids what they like:
Find out what kinds of foods they want in their lunch. They may be ignoring their apple because they’re bored to tears with apples and would prefer a fruit cup instead. They may not be eating their PBJ sandwich because they don’t like the new bread you’re buying.
Check in about lunch box portions:
Ask your kids about the portions you pack. Say, “Does this look like too much food, not enough, or just right?”
Pack fast food:
(Not THAT kind of fast food.) If time is a factor for your kids, be sure their lunches are easy to eat quickly. Sliced fruit is quicker to eat than whole, and a sandwich cut into small pieces is much easier to grab and nibble than a thermos of soup.
Let them pack their own lunches:
They know the portion that feels right. If they bring home a lot of uneaten food, talk about why and what to do differently tomorrow. Teaching kids about avoiding food waste is important. (Need help getting your kids to pack themselves? Sign up for my free 5-day email course.)
Always Remember This When Packing School Lunches:
Remember that lunch box photos you see here and elsewhere are for ideas, not portion sizes.
Each child is unique–and appetites can vary widely from day to day and year to year.
Some kids have small appetites, some have larger appetites.
Some kids are going through growth spurts, others aren’t.
Don’t compare how much your child eats to what other kids eat–including their siblings.
And if you kids are still coming home with half-eaten lunches, an After-School Snack Platter sounds like a perfect workaround to me!
Diana @ The Baby Steps Dietitian
This is something I think about a lot relating to the lunch I send to daycare with my 1.5 year old daughter, but I think I have the opposite problem. She eats almost everything I send, but if I send too much then she’s not hungry for dinner. It’s a constant balance!
Diana–yes, it can be a tricky balance and it can take some time to figure out. We sometimes have a similar problem with my middle schooler who wants a snack that’s more like a meal (like soup or a sandwich) but then he’s not very hungry for dinner later.
You’re absolutely right! I believe in smaller portions and a wider variety. I pack about 4 to 5 different foods and snacks and so far lunch boxes have come back empty! I also believe that if kids get to have a say in what they’re having (from pre-chosen options of course!), they’re more likely to eat it.
Yes to kids choosing their own options! My kids have started to pack their own lunches (I still occasionally pack for them) and I like to see what and how much they pack. It’s good lesson for them in figuring that out and avoiding food waste too.
I remember when you wrote about how packing less food overall in the lunch (but still a variety of options) seems to lead to them eating more. Since then I have tried the approach of packing more food or less food, and I have to say after many months, I too notice that there is less food waste and that my daughter is eating more! Now that I know that it has made it easier to focus on the variety and balance of what I pack and worry less about the overall volume. It helps that I printed off your Lunch Box idea list and taped it to the inside of our pantry – now my daughter looks it over for ideas too! Thank you!
Allison–Glad to hear it works for you. And glad you’re using the Lunch Ideas printable too. Sometimes we all get into ruts (including me!) so it’s nice to get new ideas. 🙂
I think you’re on the right track. Of course, kids vary, and many have much bigger appetites than I did, but my personal recollections of my bag lunches at school was that I found getting through them daunting. We were given what was (for me anyway) not enough time to eat before we had to go outside, and back in those unenlightened days, many of the teachers would force you to eat everything you’d been sent. Which put a slow-eating kid like me in a bind; school lunchtime was so stressful, trying to force myself to eat more and faster than I felt able to, so I wouldn’t get in trouble for wasting food.
I agree! I mentioned that I ended up spending some time volunteering last year because our district was underfunded for lunch aides. Lunch time at schools is super chaotic, especially considering how underfunded schools are. Kids are easily distracted and have energy to burn. So eating is often second-hand to whatever is going on around them. We would constantly walk around and re-direct them to their lunches.
Great insight, Sally!
We are unique among our friends. We don’t structure our eating based on “Breakfast lunch and dinner”. It’s based more on “are you hungry? Then eat something”. I myself eat 5-6 smaller meals throughout the day, each coming in at about 200-350 calories. So, for us, we do breakfast, making sure they get something in their tummies especially since they eat at different times. For example, my 9 year old starts school at 8am, and doesn’t eat lunch until 12 (school gets out at 3p). My 6 year old eats lunch at 10:45, then has a snack in the afternoon.
I pack very small portions. Small amounts of various things most of the time. Sometimes my 6 year old will get only a handful of grape tomatoes, a few pecan halves, and some fruit. If I pack much more than that, it comes back uneaten. My 9 year old is similar, if I over pack, it comes back. On the other hand, my 11 year old daughter has always been a good eater with a strong appetite and she’s much less likely to get distracted by chatting at lunch, so as long as I pack foods she likes, she’ll eat it all daily.
Every child is different, and every family is different. We sit together to eat a meal several times a week, but it’s not usually when most people would consider “dinner time”. I was raised in a household where A) we were “on diets” most of the time and B) You HAD to clear your plate, whether you were hungry or not. Guess how many of us have food issues now. All of us. I wasn’t taught to listen to my body for hunger cues. My husband’s family was the same. Always on Weight Watchers, forced to clear his plate. My husband and I both now choose to eat smaller meals throughout the day and our kids do the same.
We get lots of lectures when we visit other families or have family over. But just because it’s not the way you do it, doesn’t mean it’s wrong. We combine that with never speaking negatively about weight and body looks and also focusing on exercise rather than eating too much.
I volunteered last year at lunch as an aide for 2-3 days a week because our district was under funded for aides at the time. I couldn’t believe the amount of food that was tossed. Full juices, whole fruits (and we didn’t at that time have any policy regarding setting unopened/uneaten things aside for other students who might be hungry), barely touched sandwiches (and don’t get me started on the bought lunches wasted). I think that really allowed me to fine tune the amounts of food packed to maximize nutrition and minimize waste.
I would encourage most parents to spend a few days volunteering in their cafeterias to witness how chaotic lunch time periods can be, and also to see just how little time the kids get to eat in the first place.
My son told me, “please don’t pack that much food in my lunch box again.” I usually use a portion-controlled box like Yumbox, but the other day it wasn’t clean and I just packed a variety of food in plastic baggies. Oops! He was totally overwhelmed!
What is the brand of the box that you use for these lunches?
Hi Nikki–All of these lunch boxes can be found in this post I wrote about my favorite lunch boxes:https://www.realmomnutrition.com/my-favorite-lunch-boxes-for-kids/
Hope that helps!
I love your blog and recipes and have found it a great resource! The lunches look delicious. My daughter (who eats lots of breakfast and lunch but not a lot of dinner) will be starting kindergarten in the fall. They don’t do recess and lunch here but rather two breaks, one around 10:30 and one around 1:30. Wondering how you suggest I pack for this instead of our normal one lunch and two snack days. Thanks!
I like the idea of using the “less is more” approach. My problem is my 5 and a half y/o eats almost nothing. Refuses fruit, veggies, sandwiches, lunch meat. I am lost as what to pack! I can get him to eat a kid protein bar and sometimes a juice box. The rest is prepackaged processed choices I’d rather he not have. But I want him to eat something. Suggestions would be welcomed!!
I’m a mom to a 9 year old boy in 3rd grade.
He’s a bit of a picky eater, he likes what he likes but his mood for what he wants to eat can change without notice. He grazes throughout the day rather than eating 3 full meals, and he tends to choose to eat the same foods/types of foods at home. (Breakfast is always cereal of some kind with some apple slices, he always drinks milk when he gets home, he prefers chicken and isn’t really interested in other meats, he likes to eat specific vegetables and fruits with no variation or attempt to try any other kinds, etc)
I used to pack a sandwich with a full portion of a veggie or fruit (carrots or maybe a whole apple sliced) with a side of hummus or peanut butter and a full portion of something else, maybe crackers or nuts. I noticed he’d always come home having picked through everything, but never completely finishing much of anything. And sometimes he would finish all of the crackers but wouldn’t even touch the other foods !
This year so far, I started doing what you suggested: I give him more variety (I pack about 4 to 5 different foods) and smaller portions of each thing. It’s been a HUGE improvement!
Smaller portions means he’ll eat all of the healthy items I pack instead of getting full off one larger-portioned item (like crackers) and leaving the veggies and fruits untouched.