Illustration: Alixandriya Schafer
I have two kids in school, in grades six and four, and they take a packed lunch to school every day, except for the blessed respite of twice-monthly pizza lunches. Which means I’ve made about 10 million lunches—or that’s how it feels. And although part of my professional life involves encouraging parents to feed their kids healthy food, I’m not immune to food-prep burnout.
But I recently heard something that made me swell with hope. A couple of friends were describing a nirvana where kids take over lunch-packing duty, as in, they make their own lunches, from top to bottom. Could it be true? Could it work in my home? I asked the kids, and to my surprise, they said they were into the idea. So we decided to try it out. Here’s how it went.
Esme wraps some pre-made egg salad in a tortilla and stuffs it into a zip-top bag, no problem. I pull out a small container and ask her to fill it with vegetables. I have to avert my eyes from the way she butchers a red pepper. I put a tortilla on the counter for Julian, and he covers the entire surface with bacon. I teach him that he needs to place the fillings in the middle so it will roll more tidily. I end up rolling it myself.
Esme makes the same lunch she’s made every day this week. I’m finding it kinda weird that what would for sure be “ugh, so boring” if I made it is somehow fine when she makes it. Julian heads upstairs to brush his teeth after breakfast, pauses and shouts over his shoulder, “Can you make my lunch today?” Sigh.
My husband, Ben, puts half of Julian’s lunch together and leaves two containers out on the counter for him. “Put fruit in one and vegetables in the other,” he says. I come along a few minutes later, and although he’s followed Ben’s instructions, the containers are still on the counter. I put them in his lunch bag. It’s not quite what I’d pictured, but it’s getting there.
It’s the post-dinner cleanup. The kids are clearing plates; I’m filling the kitchen sink with soapy water. Before heading up for a bath, Esme says, “I’m just thinking about tomorrow—is there enough leftover pasta for my lunch?” I stop in my tracks. It’s sinking in! She gets it! Can I get an amen?! I may have kissed her.
I made baked oatmeal for breakfast, which takes planning, as you put the ingredients in a dish the night before and bake it in the morning. It’s a cozy hug of a meal, with apples and cinnamon, and the kids love it. On the way out, they thank me for making it. What does this have to do with lunch? Ever since they’ve been involved in lunch prep, their appreciation for meals has been on the rise. Win!
We’ve settled into a routine. Julian and I make his lunch together, or I do if we’re late. He’s only eight, after all. Esme makes her own lunch, with prompts, most days. Ironically, I think I’m spending more time on lunch than I did before, since I’m doing a lot of hand-holding. But I’m confident things will keep improving. And the best change of all is how much less food is coming home uneaten.
This article was originally published online in August 2018.