Lunch packing tips for tweens and teens: A word from the experts.

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When children start school in preschool or kindergarten, parents try to master the art of packing a lunch. Many parents will search the internet for ideas or buy cookbooks, and just when you think you have mastered lunch packing, they become a tween and that is followed by being a teenager.

I am not sure this is the case for everyone, but when my kids became tweens it, seemed there could no longer be notes in lunch boxes or neatly packed bento boxes. In fact, my oldest son pretty much said bento boxes were for babies. He wanted everything packed in plastic bags and he did not want a lunch box that had any characters on it.

Not only do the aesthetics of the lunch box change, but their nutrient needs are increasing at this age. Therefore, as a parent, I felt it was extremely important to pack nutrient dense foods. During the tween and teen years, kids are growing at rapid rates, like that of infancy. Therefore, it seems a lunch not eaten, is hardly adequate. It becomes very important that you pack something that will be eaten.

I figured I was not the only parent that has experienced this shift in lunch packing mantra in the tween and teen years, therefore, I reached out to some of my dietitian colleagues to provide the very best tips to help you pack a winning lunch for your tween or teen and how to overcome the lunch packing challenges of this age.

Teens do not want to take a lot of time to pack their lunch. Lisa Andrews of Sound Bites Nutrition reports that her solution is to keep easy grab and go items that can make a lunch quickly, like string cheese, whole grain crackers, and fruit.

Other dietitians recommend involving their kids in packing the lunch. Sally Hara of ProActive Nutrition reports she did this at a young age with her kids and they are now in their 20’s and she feels that this exercise has helped them learn to put meals together. Provide guidelines around the packing process. Betsy Ramirez reports that she encourages her kids to get a protein, grain and fruit. Her and her daughter plan out lunches a week ahead of time to make grocery shopping easier. Dietitian Jennifer Lefton uses a similar pattern where her kids would choose a sandwich, vegetable, fruit, a snack/chip/treat, and milk or water to drink. When tweens and teens can have some freedom in the process of packing their lunch it allows them freedom and according to Rebecca Bitzer, it allows the parent’s more time as well.

Tweens and teens can have particular requests about how they want their lunch to be packed. Dietitian Jill Castle admits that it brought her to tears when her son said he only wanted a brown sack for lunch, not a lunch box. She was worried about the variety he could pack. She solved this problem by using frozen water bottles, wrapped in foil, that could double as a drink. Ea Stewart of The Spicy RD has also experienced her kids thinking lunch boxes are not cool. She repurposed plastic bags as their lunch bags and encouraged them to choose the foods they preferred from the grocery store. Her favorite go to store was Trader Joes.

A cold lunch may not appeal to all kids. If this is something that you are experiencing with your kids, Melissa Altman-Traub, MS, RDN, LDN suggests using a thermos (that will keep food hot) to pack a main dish that includes vegetables and then pairing it with a fruit and some kind of crunchy snack (like whole grain crackers).

As kids age their schedules become busy, which makes less time for the whole family to complete tasks. Diane Norwood, The Wandering RD, recommends making 3 days’ worth of lunches at one time and store them in inexpensive plastic containers. The lunch is then prepped for easy pack up in the morning. She also recommends storing their soft sided lunch bags on magnetic hooks on the refrigerator, so they are easy to grab and do not clutter the counter.

Do not be afraid to involve kids in packing their lunch at a young age. Small children may need more help, but as their parent you can at least offer them choices of a few different items and they can help build the lunch. Karen Buch, RDN, LDN reports that she works with her younger kids to make lists of their favorite packable foods. She likes to provide them a variety of foods to choose from, but realizes that food jags do happen, but it is important to keep offering. I they learn to pack their lunch young then they are going to be ready to take over the task in their tween and teen years.

If you are feeling stuck or challenged about what to pack for your tween or teen, know that you are not alone. Get them involved, allow them some freedom, and keep offering a variety of foods. Do you still have questions about feeding your tween or teen contact me, I would love to hear from you.