Back to School

When to Care about Homemade School Lunches—& When to Give Up

May 15, 2015

If you like reading what Amanda feeds her kids, you'll love taking a look into what other people—both in the food world and the world at large -- prepare for their own children (and occasionally their significant others and maybe even their pets). Prepare to be either resentful or appreciative of your own parents.

Today, Sarah Carey, Food Editor at Large at Martha Stewart Living, has been known to cook dinner in her pajamas before 7 A.M. (just check out the hashtag #sarahbeforeseven). But what does she pack her kids for lunch? 

Shop the Story

Let’s not candy-coat it: Making lunch for your kids is a total bore. Make it every day; make it healthy; make it varied—these rules, mostly self-imposed, can be hard to live up to. It’s especially challenging when you spend all that time making the lunch only to find it comes back half eaten. You might begin to question the importance of the homemade lunch. Why do I bother? Does it really make a difference? I'm already making them dinner every day, so why can't I just let them eat school lunch, that almost-but-not-really-food "meal" offered in the NYC public schools?

The answer is I can (my son) and I can't (my daughter). Let me explain: It got to a point with my son that he really wasn't eating the food I made; “too busy” and “not enough time” were his excuses. It was a big waste, so I stopped (no judgements please: The guilt I feel is quite enough, thank you). My daughter, on the other hand, while she often doesn't finish everything, really appreciates the lunches we pack, so we continue to make them.

What constitutes “lunch” depends on the day. Sometimes it's the classic sandwich, fruit, and vegetable combo, or sometimes a container of leftover dumplings or samosas. Allowing our daughter to be involved—or to even make her own lunch—results in more food eaten/less wasted. Lately, she's been into salads, so anything that can go in or on a salad is great. A bonus of working in a test kitchen: all the leftovers. In this way, bits and pieces from upcoming stories (turkey in April, anyone?) end up on the cafeteria table months before they appear in the pages of the magazine.

Today's lunch (see above): sliced turkey; whole Romaine leaves, cucumber spears, and feta with vinaigrette; broccoli tossed with pesto; and strawberries.

Make it easier by taking a bit of time on Sunday to get stuff ready so that when you are packing the prep is already done: Make a bottle of salad dressing, wash and dry some greens, cut up a few days' worth of your kids' favorite veggies, and make a batch of hummus or pesto.

Did you ever decide to stop making lunch for your kids? Share with us in the comments below! 

Photo by Sarah Carey

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Gillian
  • Anna
  • Lane
  • Adelina
  • Andi Metts
    Andi Metts
Food52 (we cook 52 weeks a year, get it?) is a food and home brand, here to help you eat thoughtfully and live joyfully.


Gillian May 16, 2015
My business is all about kids and meal planning so I'm on board with packing lunch for my three kids. They love to be in charge of what they eat for lunch at school and through this planning process on our app, they've learned about how to build a healthy meal for themselves. They pick, I pack. It's definitely a slog sometimes to pack three lunches but it works for us. Plus my kids usually end up with overlap in what they choose, so it been even easier. My eldest (9), has asked to get pizza at school on friday a handful of times over the last few years and I'm okay with that. There's an aspect of fitting in that I can understand. Lunch at school is a social thing as well as a health and fuel thing. Thats why I'm a big proponent of involving the kids in their meal decisions. Not only does it get them more excited about the food they're eating (therefore less waste), it also encourages them to explore a wider variety of food options and feel empowered over one aspect of their quickly evolving, complex social world.
This article was great. Happy to come read it!
Anna May 16, 2015
I make their lunches everyday. We've invested in good quality thermos' and food containers, so they can bring a variety of foods with them. They love taking macaroni and cheese or leftover pasta, with a salad and fruit parfait. My son loves if I stick meatballs and marinara in his thermos, and a hoagie roll for him to construct his own sandwich. I'll layer carnitas, beans, and cheese in my daughter's thermos. And pack tortilla chips, Pico De Gallo and guacamole for her to make nachos with. They love chili with rice, and a little shredded cheese and sour cream. Lettuce wraps with chopped chicken and veggies. Our new thing is to slice corn on the Cobb into discs, and send them with texas style brisket and elotes. Or we do pulled pork and Cole slaw. It's seldom that they come home with anything left in their lunch boxes. And usually their friends ask them to bring extra.
Lane May 16, 2015
We made lunches for our son the first month of school, but after going to the school to eat with him several times, we realized that what they were making there was actually a lot better looking than the leftovers or sandwich we were sending him with. I understand that mileage varies from school to school, but the ladies who work in food service in our school really seem to take a sense of pride in their cooking, and produce some damn fine meals.
Adelina May 16, 2015
You don't give up when it comes to some school lunches. French fries. (for period).
Andi M. May 16, 2015
I make lunches every day for my two. They refuse to eat school lunch. Can't blame them, it's pretty bad.
Bec May 16, 2015
That lunch looks amazing! So healthy! I don't have any kids (yet) but hope I can be so good :)
Panfusine May 15, 2015
I look forward to making lunch daily for my 9 year old, he's a true pleasure to cook for. A group of friends have a page on Facebook (lunch Tower) where we share our daily offerings. its a great source to give & get inspiration. His lunch Menu has inspired many healthy and quick recipes that I don't always write down.
Amanda S. May 15, 2015
I'm a huge fan of #sarahbeforeseven! :o)
AntoniaJames May 15, 2015
Yes, the day I decided not to make their lunches any more was the day that we decided that the boys would make their own – at ages 7 and 8, respectively. I always made enough of our leftover-friendly main dishes (chili, spaghetti, tortellini, hearty soups, mulligatawny, boeuf a la bourguignonne, coq au vin, etc.) for the boys each to take one lunch in a 10 ounce thermos the next day, if they wanted it. (Sometimes they did, sometimes they didn’t.) Our microwave was hung too high for them to reach in and out safely, so I helped with the heating up of those items. The boys handled everything else – typically, crackers or bread, fruit and homemade cookies, muffins or brownies, or purchased cookies similar to Annie’s Graham Bunny Snacks occasionally, when I was in a trial. When the boys didn’t want leftovers, they’d make themselves sandwiches.

We conferred frequently on what lunch items we needed to replenish. The boys learned planning skills but more importantly, knew that they were making a significant contribution to the family. (They saw how hard I was working professionally, and were not just willing, but happy to lighten my burden.) Giving them responsibility early on also gave them a tremendous sense of pride and self-sufficiency, which came in handy as they grew older and were faced with different, greater challenges.
;o) P.S. I don't "give up."