The XX Factor

The Happiest Lunch Box Is One the Kid Packs Herself

Photo by Tim Boyle/Getty Images

Last week, after an NYT piece on lunch box food safety offered up yet another thing to add to the list of requirements for the modern packed school lunch, I asked readers if packing lunches is really the dilemma for every family that it is for ours. Over some six years of cumulative packing/assisting in packing for four assorted kids, I’ve dealt with everything from nut safety in its most restrictive guise (requiring a note on every piece of nonpackaged, nonsandwich food regarding its nut-free status: “these cookies were baked at home and do not contain nuts”) to the no-waste lunch, the no-candy rule, and the teachers who insisted on putting the half-eaten puddings and yogurts back in the lunch box for a very messy return home.

Most of you mocked my “first world” problem, or at least the schools creating the problem (and I probably should have noted that many of these requirements were in preschool) and mocked me for taking it so seriously. As for the food police, be they fellow parents or teachers, the most common advice was to “ignore it.” A few stepped up to admit that they, too, worried about the teacher who took away a child’s pudding cup (too much sugar! Bad Mom!) and found the whole process stressful.

But what really came out most strongly was that the happiest parents were those whose kids pack their own lunch, making me wonder if this isn’t just a first world problem but a little kids problem (and the word Montessori came up more than once). The real issue shouldn’t be packing a healthy-enough lunch for our kids; it should be teaching those kids to pack that lunch (choosing for themselves whether they’re willing to risk the teacher’s pudding cup snatching urges).

If 6-year-olds used to be expected to be able to walk 4-6 blocks in their own neighborhood and return home, then maybe we need to have higher expectations about when a child can figure out how to put together a lunch for herself that will meet whatever demands her classroom has set. Chefs and nutritionists advocate for kids to learn how to cook. We should add “how to pack” to that list. After all, how to choose a reasonably healthy selection of foods that will satisfy your hunger, fit into a small space, and meet external situational demands is a skill set that will come in handy well into the work world (and that even someone who uses her oven to store shoes may need).

So to that madhouse assorted list of demands schools have imposed on us over the years, I’ll add one I would support: Please encourage your child to take the lead in planning her own lunch. Even if sometimes it’s nothing but pepperoni and a rice krispie treat. The message that not every single meal has to be a perfectly balanced one is worth teaching, too.