Self-Reliance in a Lunchbox

Everyone wins when kids take care of lunch

I finally got sick of lunch boxes coming home with squashed pieces of food I’d lovingly packed that morning. Oh, and the complaining. That’s what led me to suggest to my son Gus, not quite 9 at the time, he make his own *#@!% lunch. The only reason I hadn’t gotten him to do it yet was that it called for a bit of organization and training. And he was the only child in the state who didn’t like sandwiches. How could he make his own lunch if it wasn’t a sandwich?

It’s turned out to be pretty easy. After all, a kid who can build an intergalactic exploratory vehicle out of Legos can certainly jam some leftovers into a lunch box. In fact, Gus is even willing to eat a sandwich he’s made for himself. I haven’t heard him grumble about lunch in weeks.

I talked to some other parents who have different reasons for turning lunch over to kids. Kate Neuman Jones, single mom of teenagers Kyra and Carson, says hers have been packing leftovers, sandwiches, fruit and veggies since middle school. Cafeteria food is terrible, she says, and “the lines are so long there is little time — only 25 minutes from classroom to cafeteria and back — to eat.” 

However, not all teens are ready to schedule in food prep. Tatine Darker, mom of 15-year-old Roman, says, “I still make lunch for my son, who would be tardy every day if he made his own.” She has another mission, too. “I make sure he gets an apple, or some other healthy item, which would otherwise be entirely lacking from his diet.”

For younger kids — more willing and less stressed — planning a meal allows them to take steps towards maturity. Naomi Van Tol says her daughter, Rosa, age 6, “asks to make her own lunch a few times each week.” She’s pretty independent, says Van Tol. “I don’t supervise unless she asks for help to make tuna salad, open a can of refried beans, and wash fruit; the rest she does herself.”

Katie Skeen still makes lunch for her 6- and 9-year-old daughters, but her 13-year-old son “has been making most of his own lunches for the last few years.” He leaves for school early, so Skeen “will sometimes leave a note on the kitchen table the night before, listing suggestions and a reminder of where things are in the fridge.” All foods travel to school in reusable, washable containers, and her son drinks water from the school fountain.

When kids take charge of lunch, they also take ownership of health and sustainability. Reusable containers leave no packaging waste, unlike prepackaged junk from a vending machine. In addition, homemade food is less likely to contain additives and excess salt and sugar. Balance and portion control come naturally, too, when there’s no chance to pile the plate high with tater tots.

My kids know our family is committed to healthy, environmentally friendly eating. And I do appreciate having a little less frenzy in the morning. Ultimately, the development of self-reliance is why I want my kids to make their own lunches. The more they do for themselves, the more capable and powerful they will feel as they face a world where there’s no free lunch. 


Get Organized Teach kids to plan

• Pack leftovers into serving-sized containers after dinner

• Prewash fruits 

• Store veggies — washed, peeled, and cut up — in the fridge

• Keep sandwich fillings around: cold cuts, sliced or spreadable cheese, lettuce

• Sandwich haters might like cubed tofu, salami, cheese, crackers, cherry tomatoes

• Salads like mac and cheese or a Greek salad are a good alternative

• Make it fun with snack-y stuff: small cookies, nuts, wholegrain crackers, or chips


Easy Greek Salad: Teach kids knife safety and they can make this salad. A great way to give lunchboxes a lift.

1 cucumber

1 pint cherry tomatoes

Feta cheese

Pitted Kalamata olives

Olive oil and red wine vinegar

Optional: herbs (oregano, parsley, basil, thyme), sliced peppers, anchovies or tuna, chopped onion or scallion


Peel cucumber, trim ends and cut it in half, and use a spoon to scoop the seeds out. Slice again lengthwise, then cut into ½” pieces and place in a lidded food storage container. Cut tomatoes in half and toss with cucumbers and a generous pinch of salt. Slice a dozen or so olives in half, and add to veggies with crumbled feta to taste. Toss with a scant tablespoon of olive oil, a teaspoon vinegar, and herbs or other enhancements, if desired. Refrigerate for up to 3 days.

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