I work as an educational assistant and noon hour supervisor, so I actually hang out with the kids on a daily basis during lunch time and see what's going on in the classroom. You are in the right place for the inside scoop!
Let's start with equipment!
1. If your child is in kindergarten or grade 1, make sure they can open the containers themselves. Waiting to get a staff member or helper to open containers can be a problem and they are slow eaters, plus they don't have a lot of time.
2. Label EVERYTHING. The lunch bag, the containers, the water bottle, backpack, shoes, their clothes, EVERYTHING. I can't tell you how many times we had two backpacks, lunch bags, or water bottles that were exactly the same and nobody knew which one belonged to who. Or the child left it on the playground, and it winds up in the abyss of the lost and found. A label makes things easy for everyone. I'm a huge fan of Mabels Labels, but any good quality durable label will do.
3. Don't forget ice packs. A little food safe info: you need to keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold. When something that should be cold warms up to the danger zone of between 4 degrees Celsius and 60 degrees Celsius , it has about 2 hours before it will start growing bacteria that can cause illness. (See Safe Food handling here). Ice packs help keep things cooler, especially when it's still sunny and warm out. Freezing yogurt tubes and juice boxes are also a great idea. If those yogurt containers come back at the end of the day, they should be discarded-along with any leftovers if they had school lunch (known here as hot lunch) Always have a few ice packs so one is frozen and ready to go when you need it.
4. Utensils are gold. Seriously, the biggest complaint we have from kids is that their parent forgot a spoon or fork, and often schools don't have any to give out. There are two solutions for this. The less planet friendly one is, buy a box of plastic forks and/or spoons that you keep with the lunch boxes, and just tuck them into the lunchbox (the front is ideal). The more plant friendly one is you go to a thrift store and get a bunch of utensils, label them, and keep them in a container right near the lunch bags. This way it doesn't matter if they lose the fork because it's not one of your good ones, but with the label the chances are it will be returned.
5. Invest in a good thermos. Kids LOVE thermos lunches. I've never heard one complaint about them, ever. Fill it with pasta, soup, stew, noodles, and they will gobble it up.
Now onto food!
1. Keep it simple. No seriously, let me say that again: KEEP. IT. SIMPLE. Don't worry about your kid having the 'cool' lunch or the latest marketed sugar filled treat, or that the sandwich has to look like a cartoon character. The very most important thing about school lunch is that your kid will eat it in the allotted amount of time, which is sadly not that long.
2. Keep the conversation going. With your kid, that is. Don't make school lunch a big, "I slaved over that lunch and you darn well better eat it". If kids hate what you packed and are afraid to tell you, they'll likely toss the lunch in the garbage can when we aren't looking. I used to get my son to 'rate' his lunches, and didn't take it personally when he didn't like something. A polite, "You know, I don't like mustard on my sandwiches" is also learning how to advocate for yourself in a reasonable way.
3. For smaller kids, make things bite sized so it's easier to eat. Little hands find big portions daunting, so if you keep it small with lots of variety, they are far more likely to eat it. I've seen so many kids try to wrangle a huge sandwich, only to give up and dump it later. Try prepping things for lunches ahead of time (during dinner prep is good) so that you can just grab and go.
4. Deconstruct things! Some kids don't like their food mixed or with sauce, so if you pack sandwich ingredients separately, they may either build their own or just eat it all, in parts. The biggest complaint I get about sandwiches is always that there's jam, butter, mayo, or mustard. The second biggest is that it's soggy.
5. Lastly, don't assume anything. Kids are amazing when it comes to food-most will list fruit or veggies as their favourite things to eat. Take them with you to the produce section and allow them to choose some things to try at home, and then if it passes the test, add them to lunches. Kids don't like cooked peas? Try raw sugar snaps with a bit of dip. Sometimes it's not the veggie itself, but how it's prepared. In my cooking class if kids say they don't like a particular veggie, we try it prepared a different way and most of the time, they love it.
Hey, we know packing lunches is hard. We're there with you! We have to pack them for ourselves, too and rejoice when it's hot lunch day.You have an advantage though; teach the kids how to make their own lunches, and then you can sit back and relax eventually.
Now that's a hack!