08/24/2018 16:52 EDT | Updated 09/19/2018 09:39 EDT

The Best School Lunch Hack? Getting Your Kids To Pack Their Own

These tips make it easy.

Betsie Van Der Meer

Packing school lunches might be the bane of most parents' daily routine, but it doesn't have to be.

As the saying goes, "teach a man to fish ..." If you teach your kids to pack their own midday meal, they'll never go hungry — and you'll rarely have to pack one for them — again.

Getting kiddos to pack their own lunch is all about getting them involved in the process, registered dietitian Abby Langer told HuffPost Canada. One of the biggest thing parents should keep in mind when teaching kids how to pack their own lunches is that we're giving them a rounded education about food and healthful eating, and not scaring them or forcing them into eating anything, she said.

"If you make a big deal around food and always having to be healthy, it could create issues around food," Langer said.

"Nobody's perfect and nobody eats healthy all the time. And actually, a healthy diet includes everything. And also includes a healthy attitude toward food."

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It's really more about kids seeing how to create a balanced meal, Langer said.

"You can have some grains, some vegetables, a little bit of fruit, and maybe a treat. And you can have discussions around that and make it seem fun," she said. "It's not like you're sitting them down and telling them that they have to eat healthy."

That said, there are a few steps parents can take to help encourage their kids to pack their own (healthy-ish) lunches.

1. Talk about lunch

The first step in getting kids to pack their own lunches is to get them interested in choosing what goes in their lunch box, Langer said.

"Ask them what they want to eat for lunch," she said. "Ask if they've seen anybody at school eating something that they want to eat."

2. Hit the grocery store together

Since research shows that children who participate in preparing their own food are more likely to eat it, make a date out of taking your kiddo to the grocery store to help you shop for ingredients.

"If you just go and buy what you think they're going to like, and you don't give them any sort of input into what you're packing, you're probably going to have a situation where they eat less or you'll have things come back," Langer said.

3. Pre-prep

Another trick Langer uses to encourage her daughters to pack their own lunches is to prep healthy ingredients for them. As part of her family's weekly meal prepping, she'll wash and slice different fruits and veggies, pre-packing them into large containers in the fridge.

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When it comes time for the kids to make their lunch, all they have to do is reach into the fridge for one of the large containers, and put however much of the food they'd like into their lunches.

"They can grab what they want, but I always have stipulations," she said. "There has to be one fruit and there has to be one vegetable."

4. Create healthy versions of not-so-healthy options

If your child is firmly in team Lunchables, you can easily make your own healthier version.

"Use actual cheese, like block cheddar cheese," Langer said. "You can use real roasted turkey or roasted chicken — even if it's just leftovers, and you can use whole-grain crackers."

5. Include a treat

Langer sends her kids with a treat in their lunch every single day, as it helps them enjoy their meal and gives them something to look forward to, she said.

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"It's OK to send them with a couple of cookies or a granola bar, which aren't necessarily healthy," she said, "I think the best way to go is healthy-ish."

6. Don't force them to eat

While it might be tempting to make your kid eat whatever they don't finish from their school lunch when they get home, Langer says it's important to consider food safety.

"I don't think it's safe sometimes to get your kid to eat something that's been sitting in the lunch bag. Even if there's a cooler pack, it gets warm. I definitely wouldn't do it for protein foods," she said.

"I'm not a big fan of forcing your kids to eat or to finish their plate. I just think it creates issues around food."

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