School Lunch Is Destroying Parents

A new survey says parents stress about packing school lunches that their kids aren’t even eating.

Ah, school lunch. The phrase evokes the assemblage of snacks and sandwiches that parents pack into lunch boxes, which they hand off to their children with the hope that morning breeds. "Here's your lunch, sweetie," these parents might imagine themselves saying. "I packed it with care, and you'll be so excited to eat it mere hours from now."

Emily Dickinson writes that hope is the thing with feathers, and if there's one thing we know about "things with feathers" it's that they inevitably fly away. By the time the lunch box returns home that day, the same parent who handed it to their child with such hope now gazes upon it in horror. The lunch box is full. The food is no longer good. The bulk of it gets thrown away. Worst of all, this is exactly what happened yesterday.

Yes, for some parents, school lunch is essentially Groundhog Day, an endless cycle that costs good money—and bits of our soul—to perpetuate.

Parents hate packing school lunch

According to a new survey conducted by Juicy Juice, parents truly despise packing, and unpacking, school lunch.

While it's no surprise that spurned parents don't enjoy spending time, effort, and money on a meal that will almost certainly go uneaten, the degree to which they admitted their loathing did surprise me a little. According to the data from Juicy Juice:

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  • 44% said they'd rather fold laundry than pack their children's lunch
  • 40% would rather unload the dishwasher than pack their children's lunch
  • 17% said they'd rather get a cavity filled than pack or unpack their child's lunch
  • 29% said they'd rather clean a bathroom than pack or unpack their child's lunch
  • Getting a cavity filled seems extreme. Why do parents hate this task so much?

Kids don’t eat the lunches we pack

As a parent who packs school lunch, I get my fellow parents' horror. It's not only monotonous, it's a tug-of-war: Do I pack things my child might actually eat? Or do I include foods that will, I don't know, help them grow and thrive?

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A whopping 72% of respondents to the Juicy Juice survey said that the school lunch they pack comes back uneaten "often or always," with 16% saying it always comes back uneaten.

And yet, the next morning comes, and we're back to packing the lunches.

What can we do about school lunches?

Pediatric psychologist Dr. Kay Toomey has weighed in on this question. The bottom line: As parents, we should be making lunch as frictionless as possible for kids.

Throughout the school day, most snack and lunch periods are relatively short—just 15-20 minutes, which in some schools includes transit time from the classroom to the cafeteria. Though anecdotally I know some parents pack more food than they think their kid will need, hoping that more options will mean some success, it might also be the case that in such a short period of time, kids might not be able to eat all the food they'd like to.

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Toomey, therefore, suggests that parents make lunch easy for kids to dig into, without any "prep" required. Some suggestions for parents include cutting fruit into small bites, packing cracker sandwiches instead of full-size ones, and including high-calorie, high-impact items like smoothies and pasta with pepperoni.

It's safe to say that most of us are just doing our best, and that we're aiming to give our kids variety and nutritional value in their lunches every day. But Toomey's suggestion has really resonated with me. Next time I'm packing lunch, I'm going to ask myself: How easy can I make this to eat? Hopefully it'll yield some results. Otherwise, the dentist is always just a phone call away, if I'd rather get a cavity filled instead.

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