I’m about to become an “empty nester” from 8:30 am – 3:00 pm. My baby girl is starting kindergarten next week. Whoa…

I have so many mixed emotions about this new bittersweet stage in our lives, but like many things in my life, I deal with my emotions by becoming a Type A pragmatic. So, let’s talk logistics!

I have first-hand experience with some of the challenges parents face in school and food feedings.

I personally learned some tough lessons when my oldest went to kindergarten: like, new kindergartners are wicked hungry and tired at the end of the day. This means mega-crabbiness the second they walk in the door. (Welcome home!)

The transition into kindergarten can be tough, for many reasons. Children experience, often for the first time, longer days away from home, a new environment, new friends, and the joy and occasional pressure to learn new things. There is also a longer expectation to sit still — SIT STILL!!! — and not every school offers enough outdoor or “down” time.

One of my biggest pet peeves is that most American schools have a super short lunch time: 15 – 20 minutes. Truthfully, this isn’t enough for any of us, but especially not for young kids. They are so excited by the unstructured time with their friends — chatting and telling jokes — that by the time they open their lunch box there may only be a few minutes left to eat. This can be especially challenging for kindergartners who’ve never had to race the clock at mealtime.

Packing Your Kindergartner's Lunch (1)

My Tried and True Tips for Packing a Kindergartner’s Lunch

Smart food choices can help support your child through these many transitions. Here are some tips for making your child’s school lunch as successful as possible:

  • Pack easy to open foods. If your kid has to open lots of tricky packages, you can pretty much count on her coming back with a lunch that’s barely been touched … especially in those first few weeks as she figures out the routine. I like to use a compartmentalized lunchbox (like PlanetBox) to make sure foods stay separate without needing lots of mini packages or containers.
  • Pack easy to chew foods. Foods that are tough to chew not only pose a choking hazard, but can slow down the amount of nutrients/calories your child gets at lunchtime. I’ve noticed that the easier lunch foods are to eat, the more likely my kids’ lunchboxes will come back empty (which also means less food waste). One of my son’s favorites is Greek yogurt. It’s high in protein, so it helps fill him up, and he can eat it quickly (with almost no chewing required). When it comes to raw veggies, smaller pieces are obviously easier to chew than big pieces (think shredded carrots vs carrots sticks). For more ideas on what to pack, read School Lunch Ideas.
  • Pack filling foods.  Foods with protein, fiber and healthy fats are key to helping your child feel full longer. Try to include a variety of whole grains, veggies, fruit, cheese and nuts (if allowed) to fuel your child through the afternoon. Remember that most kids don’t get enough fruits and veggies in their lunches, so always ask yourself: “how can I add more produce?”
  • Pack the tried-and-true. Variety is normally a good thing, but with so many transitions at the beginning of the year, stick with foods you know your kid loves. As the weeks progress, you can start to make small changes to introduce more variety, like changing up the fruit.
  • Rehearse lunchtime. I’m not gonna lie. The short lunchtime is a real struggle. So, try practicing it. In the week leading up to kindergarten, set a timer at lunchtime and help your kiddo understand that that’s how much time he’ll have to eat at school. Let him eat out of his new lunchbox to be sure he can open everything on his own. This will help to ease the transition and help him stay focused when he’s surrounded by his new friends in the cafeteria.
  • Ask the teacher about the lunchtime routine. When my son was in kindergarten, I couldn’t figure out why his water bottle was coming home completely full every day. I finally asked the teacher and learned that the kids had to put their lunchbox in a big bin that was brought up to the cafeteria for them. Because his water bottle had been in the drink pocket of his backpack — and not with his lunchbox — it never occurred to him to put his water bottle in the bin until I told him to. Duh.

And finally … don’t forget about an after-school snack.

Most five year olds still need an energy boost every two to three hours. So it’s no surprise that they’re famished by the end of the school day, no matter how nourishing their lunch. After months of dealing with a crabby kindergartner, it finally occurred to me to pre-pack a healthy after-school snack for my son. Not only does this create a reliable routine after a long day, it also helps to have some healthy options ready to go (rather than reaching for the first thing I can get my hands on). For more tips on how to snack smarter, download my FREE ebook, 21 Picky Eating Hacks.

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Reader question: What lunch-packing tips do you have? Please share your tips in the comments!

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