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Unpack the Lunch: The Child’s Responsibility

Two kids ready for the first day of school

I just can’t stop talking about school lunches!

Please check out my exhaustive list of healthy options for packing a lunch, easy lunch ideas for virtual school, distance learning or homeschooling, and if you’re concerned about your environment, find some options for reducing lunchtime waste. Finally, today I’ve got a fabulous after-school organizational system for kids and parents to achieve the following goals:

  1. reduce the food waste that is common in school lunches
  2. teach organization and responsibility to the kids
  3. ease parents’ clean-up burden
  4. make kids earn their TV time

I had the great blessing of working with some really extraordinary parents in my two years of teaching third grade. One in particular was a teacher herself who chose to stay at home while her kids were young. She shared the best idea for “earning” TV time and cultivating the habit of responsibility. The kids had a half sheet of paper for each day (I bet I could cut it to ¼ sheet or put the paper in a clear plastic sleeve and write on it with wipe-off markers). On that paper were four come-home-from-school tasks:

  1. Change into play clothes.
  2. Put lunchbox on counter (for older kids: unpack lunchbox with (or without) mom, see below for details)
  3. Complete homework; get assignment notebook signed by parent
  4. Read 15 minutes

And four sets of 15, like this:,

15        15        15        15

For each task completed, the child “earned” 15 minutes of TV time, shown by a “15” being circled or marked off. I’ve also seen parents use poker chips for each 15-minute increment.

Example:  If your favorite half-hour show starts at 4:30, you better make sure you’ve changed your clothes and unpacked your lunch by then so you can have two increments to watch with.


  • Responsible habits
  • Immediate (that day) incentive
  • TV is a privilege, not a right
  • Paper makes system clear, hopefully fewer battles
  • Reward is not a sweet
  • TV doesn’t happen without priorities (reading, homework) coming first

Certainly for some families who might not allow television at all, TV wouldn’t be a proper incentive, but if you allow your kids to watch any television, you may as well make them earn it.

RELATED: Eat the Rainbow with these Health Benefits 

5 tips for packing real food lunches

Remember my adage that all children should know:

If it’s in your lunch, and it doesn’t get eaten, it comes home.

This allows parents to know what kids are eating, what they like and how hungry they are at lunch. When you unpack the lunchboxes with your kids, you can give important reminders about eating healthy foods and teach them about reducing their waste. If something isn’t eaten one day, discuss whether it should be eaten for a snack, used the next day for lunch, or if it has to be thrown away.


  • Reduce the times to 10 minutes, or even 7 (to make ½ hour if all tasks are completed) if you don’t want kids to watch an hour of TV.
  • Change the four tasks to fit your family and your children’s ages.
  • Make the incentive “screen time” including computer or video games of all kinds.
  • Make sure the lunchbox responsibility fits the child’s age. Young children should simply unpack the backpack and get the lunch into the right room. By third grade, the lunchbox should be unpacked and dishes into the sink. By fifth grade (potentially earlier), the entire lunchbox can be their responsibility, especially if you’ve trained them as they grow!
  • Each set of 15 minutes could be for a “category” with multiple tasks in that category (example:  school = homework, read 15 minutes, give notes to mom; kitchen = put lunch on counter, clean up after snack)

RELATED: Plant Based Kid Lunch Ideas

added bonus

Bonus! Packing tips to help the child’s lunch run more smoothly

Two years watching kids eat their lunch taught me a lot about what needs to go in the box. Knowing doesn’t mean I do it though… God teaches me humility in my lunch packing, because I always forget the napkins! I think it’s because I used to inwardly roll my eyes at the parents who consistently forgot the napkin, causing their child to ask for one every day. Here’s a helpful reminder list for you:

  • Don’t forget to include a napkin
  • Put the spoon in! (Trustworthy kids with real lunchboxes get real utensils, scatter-brained ones and those with brown bags that might get thrown away too easily use plastic!)
  • Start the banana peels for little ones (just a little crack will do, nothing that will make it brown by lunch), or teach them to use a spoon to do it themselves.
  • Wash their fruit and make sure it’s ready to eat.
  • Don’t pack whole fruits that aren’t easy to eat (oranges if they can’t peel them, peaches because they’re too juicy, etc). If you want the kids to eat it, cut it.
  • Teach kids to open their own bowls/don’t pack things kids can’t open.
What strategies do you use to build responsibility during school time?
First day of school
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14 thoughts on “Unpack the Lunch: The Child’s Responsibility”

  1. Katie,
    When my girls were in school, we were fortunate enough to have an extra fridge in the garage. The best organization and time-saving thing we did was as soon as you get home unpack and REPACK the lunch with them helping and doing as much of it as they could. Mostly me just encouraging now you need a fruit, etc. This also ensured that they would eat it bc they packed it themselves. By doing this you can even re-use some of the containers if you are just putting crackers, etc. back into them.

  2. My husband, brother in law, and I all take our lunches to college and I wrap all our sandwiches in a cloth napkin so we can make sure we have one. Makes it nice when you are eating between classes and have something to unwrap over your lap. They also save space in my own lunch bag as it doesn’t hold multiple containers very well.

  3. I started using TV tickets for my 4 year old today to help him learn to monitor his own tv time (he already asks me if his brain will turn to mush if he watches too much tv, which of course, I say yes it can!).
    I loved the idea of the ‘chore’ list in order to earn the tv time (we are using 4-10 minute tickets currently). We call his ‘chores’ ‘jobs’ as he’s so into my husband having a job and going to work.
    His are age appropriate. Getting himself dressed in the morning (with minimal help) being the main one, but I’m trying to think of other age appropriate chores during the day. He picks up his toys at the end of the day (so the toy fairy doesn’t take them away, of course).
    Ideas on other age appropriate ‘jobs’ for an almost- 4-year old?

    1. Trinity,
      Some jobs my son (age 4 as well) is expected to do include:
      *put PJs under his pillow and make his bed
      *feed his fish
      *take breakfast and lunch dishes to the sink
      *unload the silverware basket
      *fold washcloths and cloth napkins
      I’m about ready to add some more now that he’s almost 4 1/2. He is learning to set the table with a placemat underneath that has the place settings drawn on it.
      Hope that helps!

      1. My 4yo daughter has a chore list with several things on it. She has to straighten her bed, get dressed, put pj’s away (either in the drawer or in the hamper), clear her dishes after breakfast, wash her hands and brush her teeth. After school (she’s in Jr K) she has to unpack her backpack and hang it up. Before bed, she has to clear her dinner dishes, wash her hands, change into pj’s, put clothes in the hamper, lay out her clothes for the next day, and brush her teeth. I made a chart with simple clip art pictures next to each task so she could look at the pictures and know what she still needed to do. She likes picking a different symbol for marking each one off. I put mine in a plastic sleeve and use a dry erase marker.

        I know it looks like a lot, but they’re all small things, and it helps her create a routine where she gets in the habit of doing small things that hopefully will keep her better organized later. Good luck!

  4. Thanks for this post! It inspired me to print up a chore list for my 4 year old that he’s quite excited about. =) What a great way to keep track of the amount of time they spend on electronic entertainment. =)

    1. Keeley,
      Ooooo, I have a 4-year-old. He needs a chore list, too! Sometimes the answer is right in front of my face and I don’t see it. Thanks for pointing out that this is not just for grade-school kiddos! 🙂

  5. my kids go to public school and unfortunately it is theschools policy that kids maynot share lunches. great advice about cutting up fruit. my kids will not eat a whole apple as is, but will eat one cut up nicely.

    also my kids were capable of bringing in their lunch boxes to the kitchen, unpacking them, and placing the box in it’s designated cupboard by kindergarten.

    1. Emily,
      It’s so good to hear about responsible kiddos! I am guessing my son could do the same by k-g or 1st grade. It depends on how well you train them about “a place for everything and everything in its place” as they grow. I hope all parents challenge their kids to do a little more than they think can be done…and become surprised by their child’s abilities! 🙂 Katie

  6. I’m fairly new here and have really been enjoying your blog! Being a former kindergarten and first grade teacher, I REALLY appreciate your Bonus Tips re: packing for a smooth lunch. It’s very helpful when children don’t need constant assistance with their lunch. Re: sharing, unfortunately we needed to have a no sharing policy (bc of allergies, etc). I think our lunchroom had policies for providing for children who didn’t have lunches.

  7. What great tips! I especially like the ones about packing fruit ready to eat. I pack my own lunch every day and I know that even I don’t eat fruit unless I packed it ready to eat 🙂

    You can see two years worth of my “real food” packed lunches here:

  8. Carissa Houston

    I really like this post. OT, but changing out of school clothes as noted (and thorough handwashing) ASAP after school helps your child stay well.
    What are your feelings on sharing food at school? I’d rather my son share with someone who is hungry than bring extra food home (his teacher indicated that many students’ parents can’t afford to pack a snack) but there are potential allergy and germ pitfalls there.
    He’s in Kindergarten, so I try to keep it simple and tell him to only share things he doesn’t bite into or sip from.

    1. Carissa,
      The sharing food question is a really good one. I remember being surprised at my school’s policy when I started as a teacher – if a child forgot their lunch, the rest of the children were encouraged to be kind Christians and share of their abundance. (Kids weren’t allowed to use the phone for a forgotten lunch.) People would split a sandwich in half, give away a cheese stick or applesauce cup if they knew they could do without, and pour pretzels onto a napkin to share. This was all done before beginning lunch, so germs weren’t really an issue. I came around to the idea quickly; it really built community and gave me a chance to edify my students and compliment their good choices.

      In that light, I would recommend sharing with those who “have not”. You’re right about allergies, but hopefully teachers will make other parents aware of serious ones, like peanuts. The default is always to make sure the teacher’s policy allows for sharing. If it doesn’t, you could talk to him/her about the children who don’t have enough to eat for lunch and your son’s chance to learn generosity.

      Some of these issues will get easier as your son gets older…and some will become more complicated! 🙂

  9. Cara@ Health Home and Happiness

    Great ideas. We don’t do school or TV, but for those who do the earning it immediately after school is a great tip. We *do* do immediate incentives, they work so well with children!

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