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Tips abound online on what healthy foods to pack into your preschooler’s school lunch (see articles here, here, here, here—or just Google “packing school lunches”), yet rarely does anyone ask the question of who should be packing the lunch.

What can and should your child’s role be in preparing his or her lunch—as a toddler, preschool child, or elementary student?

In Montessori, we believe that preschool children can do a lot more than many adults believe—and that children benefit immensely from gaining independence and practical life skills as early as possible.

Learning to make healthy school lunches, and taking over that responsibility by the early elementary years can be a meaningful way to help your child grow into an independent, capable young person.

Why involve your preschool child in making his or her lunch

When a preschool or kindergarten-age child helps make his or her lunch, many good things happen, all at once:

  • Better eating! Preschool children who help pick the foods in their lunchboxes, and contribute to packing them, tend to eat more and better at school. Less food goes back home, and better-fed children learn better.
  • Supporting independence when children want to be independent. Three- to six-year-old children are eager to do things for themselves. Preschool and kindergarten are great times to teach children skills: it’s much easier to get them into the habit of packing their own lunch without complaints during this time than at any later time! Ask a preschooler to help make a lunch, and chances are, you’ll be met with an eager smile—as against the eye-rolling that might meet a similar request by middle school.
  • Developing motor skills needed for writing. Kindergarten and early elementary teachers often comment that in today’s screen-heavy culture, many five- and six-year-olds lack the fine motor skills and strength needed to hold a pencil properly to write. Food prep is one great way for preschoolers to strengthen the muscles in arms, wrists, and fingers that are essential for writing well.
  • Easier morning routines as children get older. Ok, we admit: there’s a trade-off here. If you get your four-year-old involved in making her lunch, it will be more work than if you just do it yourself. Yet if your preschooler learns the basic skills of making a lunch, your elementary kid can take over this task by herself. Just imagine how much easier mornings will be for many years to come if you’re out of the lunch making business by elementary school!

Reasonable (yet ambitious!) expectations, from toddler to preschool, and elementary

How much your child can contribute to making lunch depends on his age. If you start early, and especially if your child attends a Montessori preschool (where we support children learning to be independent and do many things for themselves), here is what you can aim for, by age:

Toddler and young preschool (ages 2-3)
Parent does most of the work, with targeted help by the toddler, who can do some of the following things:

  • Spread butter or cream cheese or jam on bread with butter knife
  • Place sandwich meats and cheese on sandwiches
  • Cut strawberries or bananas with a butter knife
  • Peel an egg or a banana
  • Pack food into a lunchbox (pre-measured by parent)
  • Carry own lunchbox into preschool

Preschool/kindergarten (ages 4-5)
Parent provides food, prepares supplies, and supervises, while child increasingly does the work, as skills develop. Preschool children continue with the work of toddlers, and take on more work over time:

  • Wash and dry fruit and vegetables
  • Peel and cut vegetables and fruit (start simple—e.g., peeling carrots, cutting cucumbers with a serrated child-friendly knife, preparing apples with apple cutter—and progress to harder items over time)
  • Put right amounts of fruit, vegetables, or left-overs into serving containers
  • Assemble sandwiches from foods set out by parent (e.g., put mayo, ham, cheese on bread, cut bread into pieces)
  • Fill water bottle with water and ice from fridge
  • Pack lunchbox (including putting ice packs into outer, insulated container)

Elementary (ages 6 and up)
Elementary school children gradually take over full responsibility for making lunches. Parent’s role is to ensure healthy foods are accessible for them to pack—and, by around age 9, remove themselves from the lunch process, so it becomes the child’s job. Children do most of the work, including the following:

  • Identify foods needing to be replenished and adding them to a grocery list–or even take ownership of picking things out at the grocery store
  • Decide when to pack the school lunch (the night before—or get up earlier in the morning); parent gives guidance when things don’t work out (e.g., require a child who dawdles in the morning to pack their school lunch at night)
  • Deciding what to have for lunch at school (from healthy choices made available by parents, accessible in pantry and fridge)
  • Prepare lunch in its entirety. This may include packing separate containers with a snack for the afternoon, too.
  • Unpack lunchbox when returning from home, throwing food into trash and putting containers into the dishwasher or washing them

How to enable children to take on the lunch making job, stage-by stage

In Montessori, we believe that two factors are essential in enabling children to attain independence in all kinds of tasks, including food prep: (1) a carefully prepared environment, and (2) sequenced teaching of small steps of a skill (which we call isolating the difficulty). Here are some tips  on how to apply these ideas to getting preschool and kindergarten-age children involved in making school lunches:

Setting up a prepared environment in the kitchen.

For children to succeed, they need to have access to the right equipment. Here’s what that may mean, by age of child.

Toddlers (ages 2-3)

  • Work surface access. Most kitchen counters will be too high for a child to make lunches. You can either provide a small table and chair (IKEA LACK tables + child-sized chairs work well) in the kitchen, or invest in a learning tower (or a step stool, for bigger kids), so your child can reach the kitchen counter.
  • Child-sized tools. Toddlers can’t easily work with adult-sized knives. For Small Hands offers a good range of child-sized tools, from serrated knives and small bamboo cutting boards to cute mini-aprons.
  • A place for everything. Toddlers need order to be successful. Dedicate a low shelf for all lunch supplies—lunchbox, utensils, napkins, water bottles—as well as tools the child needs (apron, cutting board, serrated knife). The How We Montessori blog, written by a Montessori mom in Australia, has many good tips.

Preschool/kindergarten (ages 3-5)
In addition to toddler recommendations, do the following:

  • Make food reachable to the child. Dedicate a low shelf in both pantry and fridge for school lunch foods, so children can access them. For example, place left-overs in tupperware, sandwich meat and cheese, soy butter, mayo, and fruit/vegetables on the lowest shelf in the fridge.
  • Access to sink, dishwasher, trash can. Older preschoolers can also be in charge of cleaning up after themselves, so ensure there’s a step-stool for the sink, and that the trash can is reachable.

Invest in lunchbox equipment that works

This means containers your child can open and close by themselves, as well as appropriate containers for the type of food you want your child to bring. Items to consider:

  • A bento-type lunch container. These reusable containers have compartments for different types of foods, and make it easy to pack everything from sandwiches plus a serving each of fruit and vegetables, to leftovers. They also allow children to pack the right portions with less adult supervision (=whatever fills the container). There are many different price points and options available—from budget versions, like this one from Amazon Basics ($10 for four boxes), to moderately-priced versions, like Bentgo (a stackable version from $15, and a flat version for kids around $30), or MonBento (a child’s version, or for older children the adult version for around $30), to Planetbox (premium-priced ($70 for box + bag) in metal—not a good option if your child can heat his lunch in a microwave at school). We advise you take your child with you to the store, and ensure that he/she can open and close the container you choose, so they don’t need to wait for a teacher or older child to help them at school. If you order online, don’t hesitate to return a container that’s too hard for your child to handle by themselves!
  • Re-usable child-sized cutlery (if not provided by school; check with your child’s preschool teachers, as some classrooms provide plates, cutlery, napkins, and glasses for the children). Monbento offers several good options, $10-$20.
  • A thermos container for hot foods. Many preschool classrooms don’t allow children to heat foods, and containers like this one from Thermos ($15-$25) allow your child to pack warm noodles or soup.
  • A reusable, child-sized water bottle. If you live in hot climates, it’s good if it’s insulated, so your child’s water stays cold. (We generally advise against packing juices, because children will eat less healthy food when they get calories in liquid form.)
  • An ice pack to keep food cold.
  • An insulated, washable lunch bag. Again, you have lots of choices here. One good option are neoprene type bags (search for “machine washable lunch bag” on Amazon, $15-$25), as they typically are machine washable.

Teach children step-by-step.

In our Montessori toddler and preschool classrooms, our teachers help children learn all the food prep steps necessary for them to make lunches—everything from how to hold a knife safely, to how to peel and cut different fruits and vegetables. You can do the same thing at home: take time (when not stressed about getting out of the house!) to teach skills, so your child can succeed at their lunch packing efforts.

  • Make a plan and take it one step at a time. No matter what age your child is when they start helping to prepare lunches, you’ll need to teach them each step (even a 10-year-old who never has done food prep can’t just be told to make his entire lunch!).
  • Discuss the plan with your child. Explain to your child that as she is now a bigger girl/he is now a bigger boy, they get to have a say in what they have for lunch, and get to help make it. Give them some options on where to start: “You can choose to wash and prepare the strawberries today—or you can spread cream cheese on your bagel. Which would you like to do?” Giving limited choices helps children feel ownership!
  • Be there to help and supervise, make time, and make the experience enjoyable. Set aside the needed time—when you get started, the evening may be better than the morning, if your mornings are hurried. Or start by having them prepare snacks on the weekend for outings, if weekdays are too time-pressed to invest the time needed to teach and establish habits.
  • Teach by showing, not by telling. In Montessori preschool, we don’t speak much when we teach children a new skill, because when we talk, two- and three-year-olds tend to look at our mouth, and not at our hands. Direct your child’s attention to what you are doing: ask him to watch, then imitate. Slow your movements down, and emphasize key steps by pausing briefly.
  • Step back and observe—but don’t correct! Once your child has learned a skill, hand it over to them. Be there and observe—but do not step in unless safety requires it. Accept that your child’s efforts will not be up to your standards: his lunch won’t look as pretty as the one you packed; the sunflower seed butter may be lumpy on his sandwich, and food may get wasted. Do not correct him: he will lose his pride in ownership. Instead, make a mental note of skills you need to re-teach—and teach them at another time.

As a parent, you often face a choice: do something for your child, or teach your child to do it themselves? The former can feel loving and caring, and it often is easier, faster, and less messy. The latter requires time investment, may be messy, and may even feel (to you or your child!) as though you are being less of loving parent.

As Montessorians, we have seen over and over again that the initially harder choice of teaching a child is the one that, in the long run, better serves child and parent alike.

We’ll let Dr. Montessori summarize why in her typically insightful albeit sometimes hard-to-hear words:

“We wait upon our children; and to serve them in this way is not less fatal than to do something that would tend to suffocate their own useful, spontaneous activities.

We believe that children are like puppets.  We wash them and feed them as if they were dolls.  We never stop to think that a child who does not act does not know how to act, but he should act, and nature has given him all the means for learning how to act.  Our primary duty toward him is to assist him to perform useful acts.  A mother who feeds her child without taking the least effort to teach him how to hold a spoon or to find his mouth, or who, when she is herself eating, does not at least invite him to watch how it is done, is not a good mother.  She offends her son’s human dignity by treating him as a puppet, whereas he is by nature a man that has been entrusted to her care.  Everyone knows that it requires much more time and patience to teach a child how to eat, wash, and clothe himself than it does to feed, bathe and clothes him by oneself. The one who does the former is an educator; the latter performs the lower office of a servant.”

Dr. Maria Montessori, in The Discovery of the Child

Post scriptum: A good place to start on school lunches is to check in with your child’s preschool teacher. She will be able to share with you whether there are any restrictions or guidelines on what to bring (e.g., many preschools, including LePort Montessori, have a nut-free classroom policy), what containers work well (e.g., no metal containers that require heating), and what skills she may be teaching in her Montessori preschool class already so you can have your child practice and apply them at home.

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