On a lengthy drive to the beach, while the kids listened to their music, I listened to an audiobook titled “How to Raise an Adult” by former Stanford University dean Julie Lythcott-Haims. It sent me into a downright panic. All I could hear was that I am doing way too much for my kids and that I need to step off the helicopter.
I embrace that my kids should fail and appreciate the value of their skinned knees. I also let them be “free range,” granting them a great deal of independence in our big city. My issue is with the hundreds of seemingly little things I do for them, such as making their beds and ensuring that their sports uniforms are clean on game days. I tell myself that I’m giving my kids more time for academic work, and quite frankly, these tasks get done faster if I do them.
But my children are old enough to do these things themselves. I don’t want them to end up like the college freshmen Lythcott-Haims describes, who send their laundry home for Mom to wash and dial Dad to ask him to negotiate a grade with a professor, so I guess I need to make a change immediately. But how?
Unlike my 13-year-old son, my 5-year-old daughter certainly can’t be expected to take the public bus when she needs a ride, but she can pack her own lunch. And come September, that she will do, just like her older brothers did when they were about her age.
For her to pack her own lunches, I will undoubtedly have to curb my need to control her healthy food intake, and trust that even if she packs the same thing day after day, she is learning independence, organization and responsibility. These seem way more important than her getting enough calcium from every meal.
Here’s my plan for empowering kids to pack their own lunches, based on experience from two boys, now 12 and 13, who used to race each other to pack their lunches the fastest and who eventually packed something other than leftover blueberry pancakes and breakfast sausage. At least they quickly learned to tighten the top of the syrup container.
1. Get your child on board
- Talk to her about how she is getting older and more capable of doing additional things on her own, and how you need her help.
- Let her pick out a new lunchbox. In my daughter’s case, it was an outlandishly gaudy, sparkly My Little Pony creation that makes me cringe but her grin.
- Jointly make a list of all the foods your child enjoys for lunch. Brainstorm options with her, and remain receptive even if she says PB&J time after time. As her lunches become her own, she will naturally become more creative and open-minded.
- Hit the grocery store together to buy the items on the list, and have her help put them away so she knows where they live in the refrigerator or cabinet.
2. Buy the right containers
- Start with a lunchbox insert with compartments or small containers for food items of different sizes.
- Condiment containers are key to minimizing mess.
- A reusable ice pack prevents lukewarm-lunch rejection.
- Reusable cutlery comes in many fun colors and designs.
- A reusable water bottle keeps her hydrated all day.
- A good-quality thermos keeps soups hot and smoothies cold.
3. Set your child up for success
- Select a drawer, shelf or cabinet just for his lunch items, including the lunchbox, water bottle, containers and nonperishable, non-refrigerated food items.
- Designate a shelf in your refrigerator for his cold lunch items. Place them in small bins that he can easily access himself.
- Portion bulk snacks into individual servings, cut up vegetables in advance and freeze individual portions of leftovers.
4. Illustrate the elements of a healthy lunch.
I keep a list on the fridge so my kids don’t forget what to pack:
- One protein: sandwich, sliced chicken, eggs, nut or seed butter, hummus, bean salad, burrito, tofu, sesame noodles, soup, leftovers, whole grains such as quinoa.
- One vegetable.
- One fruit.
- One side (optional): pretzels, pasta, crackers, chips, granola bar.
- One water bottle.
- One treat. (Designate a treat day once a week or allow a small treat every day — whatever feels right to you.)
5. Set a time
In our household, my daughter has ample time in the morning before we leave for school and is often looking for something to do. But if my boys needed to pack their own lunches, they’d have to do it the night before, as they inevitably get a second wind after dinner yet are in a teenage haze before school.
6. Teach first
Depending on your child’s age, he may need to be shown how to make sandwiches, fill small containers, secure container tops and create that balanced meal. Have him consider how much he might eat so he begins to understand serving sizes. Start by packing a week of lunches with your child until he understands the routine, then slowly remove yourself from the process.
7. Encourage fun
Designate “Wacky Wednesdays,” when she can pack breakfast for lunch or everything in her lunchbox can be pink. Encourage your child to write herself a note or draw a picture on her napkin. Challenge her to pack something new every week, or, once she has the packing down, time her to see how fast she can pull her lunch together.
These suggestions are clearly geared toward the younger set, but the premise is the same for children in elementary and middle school and even older kids who are ready to assume responsibility for their lunches. (The age at which they are ready to take this on — and when the parent is ready to let that control go — is different in every family.) Get them on board, establish a few nutrition ground rules and set them up to succeed by placing good gear and healthy food at their fingertips.
Then, ideally, the helicopter will have taken flight by the time our kids are ready for college, and we can rest assured we’ve raised competent adults. I’m hopeful that in my house, it all starts with a lunchbox.
First published in the Washington Post on Thursday, August 11, 2016.