How should I pack a four year olds lunch?
November 21, 2012 1:10 PM   Subscribe

What's the best way to pack my four year old's lunch and snacks?

We're looking for something she can open and close independently, is reusable, is non-toxic and preferably not plastic and does a good job containing the mess. Ideally she should be able to distinguish between her snacks and lunch without opening the containers.

Being able to open and close it herself is most important. She doesn't have the finger strength to open most containers.

Containing mess is a close second as everything we send to school comes home including food waste which often creates a huge mess inside her backpack.
posted by samhyland to Food & Drink (12 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Bento boxes! Note that in English parlance, "bento" refers both to both a single-serving, take-out meal and the containers that they come in. They even make metal ones.

The snack/lunch distinction can be maintained by getting different-shaped boxes for each, or by labeling them. Colors will work even if she can't read.
posted by valkyryn at 1:18 PM on November 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

What kinds of food are you packing?

Traditionally, lunches were sent in brown paper bags. You can now get (or make) re-usable velcro ones. Both are easy to open. I'm not sure bento containers are.

There are very few things that cannot be packaged in foil or the old-fashioned baggies with twist-ties instead of new-fangled zippers, if that's an issue. If you pack her snacks into the same bag, put a sticker on the snack. If not, use two different velcro bags, or get a stamp for the paper lunch bags.
posted by DarlingBri at 1:22 PM on November 21, 2012

Check out these examples and you should find several suitable ideas.
posted by Paalen at 1:28 PM on November 21, 2012

How about a cloth or canvas lunchbag that closes with velcro?

If you're sending stuff that can be packed flat like sandwiches made from sliced bread and it goes to school in her backpack, maybe a cookie tin?

Or along the same lines, perhaps a "document envelope" that's actually intended for holding papers and folders like these? They're normally made from plastic or cardboard, unfortunately, but what I was thinking of was how they're often made to close with a cloth-covered elastic band that might be easier for her to handle than some other kind of closure. Maybe you could find recyclable cardboard ones and just give her a new one every day.
posted by XMLicious at 1:28 PM on November 21, 2012

We do a Skip Hop fabric lunch bag for our 4 year old.

While I appreciate your interest in non-plastic, it is a harder thing.
Line brand is Kleen Kontainer. We found they didn't last.
And a lot of that stuff is so expensive, we were getting annoyed when it got lost.

So then we do those Munchkin or whatever brand Take-N-Toss (but use them for years.) We do fabric bags from Etsy for pretzels. Then a thermos or a milk box.
Some people at our co-op last year did the tupperware that has hinges. Lots of people did ziploc bags.
We do the squeezy yogurt. I send a applesauce packet - but I use reusable ones. Sometimes we do the squeeze ones.

Unless there is something going on, your 4 year old should be able to open a Take-N-Toss. Based on our co-op of 3 year olds last year, all of them were capable of this. And the teachers/assistants are there for special cases.

I would maybe just go with what's eaisest for now, personally.
posted by k8t at 2:17 PM on November 21, 2012

There's always the classic metal lunchbox. You could get cloth sandwich and snack bags if the food is primarily dry; or a metal thermos for wet foods (though I think any liquid-containing device may need an adult's help).
posted by rabbitrabbit at 2:18 PM on November 21, 2012

I have multiple lunch containers (all lead, BPA free, etc). I find that having a range of choices works best. I shy away from all in one containers as I find that, if your kid can't close the whole thing up, you end up with the entire lunch dumped out. And if they get bumped at lunch, the entire container goes flying. Better to just lose the container of carrots.
posted by Chaussette and the Pussy Cats at 2:33 PM on November 21, 2012

Aside from failing on the plastic score (though it is BPA- and phthalate free), the Goodbyn Bynto and its matching snack container might fit the bill nicely. There are also matching insulated bags, bottles, ice packs, etc.

They're fairly easy to open for even little critters, and they're very low-waste.
posted by charmcityblues at 4:33 PM on November 21, 2012

So far my three year old does well with bento boxes - I have small onigiri containers for snacks and larger ones for lunch. They aren't leak proof but I don't pack terribly leaky stuff for her anyway. She has no trouble opening them (they are MUCH easier to open than any other lunch box we have) and we've even got a small carrier for them. If the meal itself can fit in waste will fit. They're a great reminder on portion size too (most kid's lunchboxes are HUGE - no wonder the poor buggers don't eat it all) (until they're older at which point they stop being big enough - a three year old's lunchbox should be markedly different to a ten year olds but they're all pretty much the same size).
posted by geek anachronism at 7:46 PM on November 21, 2012

I work as a Lunchroom Supervisor, and have just spent much of the first part of this school year visiting the Kindergarten Classrooms and working with them to learn eat their lunches in the school setting, though I'm normally in the 1-6 Lunchroom.

My first suggestion is to put candy inside any container, and you can bet they will figure how to get it out. You'll see finger strength like you've never seen before. I am never asked to help open candy - they always figure it out. Especially because I also mysteriously can't open candy until they're done with their other foods, though I can unscrew the tightest thermoses in seconds...

Seriously, it's not always about finger strength - work with her on leverage and how to open things. I show students how to position hands to open things. And I show them how to open things with their eyes first. For example, wiggly edges on wrappers mean "tear down" and straight edges mean "pull apart." Parents can help by precutting a little slits, but soon enough you won't need to. Since scissors skills don't come until close to age 4, we do put scissors on the tables, but some of the kids aren't there yet.

My second suggestion is to just label your containers "1" for morning snack, "2" for lunch and "3" for afternoon snack. We implemented that in all the classrooms, and it works. Some classrooms put all the snacks in one bin or on one shelf, so students don't keep going to their cubbies and digging through their lunches and getting distracted by Millennium Falcons in their backpacks. And label everything, every component, lid and bottom and bag with her name. Because if she doesn't know that you packed her that cheese sandwich that morning, when it hits the floor later, she won't know it's hers.

The cloth sandwich and snack bags that rabbitrabbit mentioned work best and beautifully, and I LOVE wrappers that fold out into placemats, but I'll say it here and everywhere - kids really, really like being able to see their food before they eat it, and need to digest it with their eyes a bit before they go at it. Clear zip lock bags are great, and they can be washed and re-used. We do have fancy cloth ones, but somehow they keep becoming pouches for chestnuts and pencil leads and other found on the playground treasures.

If you provide opaque individual containers for things, they'll eat one thing at a time. It makes me nuts. Kindergarteners will often spend 18 minutes eating 18 goldfish crackers from one container, and not realize they have three more things left to go. Anything that makes for a lot of visual clutter makes it really hard for kids to focus on the food. There's a reason lunchables are designed the way they are... I use paper muffin cups or I wrap things in parchment if I fear her berries will get mushy and foul her sandwich.

Bento-type boxes are a good idea, and we do have a stainless oval one with a hinged lid (like this Tiffin) but my daughter says food doesn't seem as nice in it (insert cocked eyebrow at my kid). The plastic ones, in my experience with other students, often send food flying if they're hard to unsnap (we teach students to open them on the table, not on their laps - otherwise the food hits the floor). And they can be bulky and take up a lot of room on the table, and kids with their wee yet-to-be-developed motor skills tend to send things flying a lot. Really, one simple container is the most manageable thing.

I am not freaked out by plastic, and love the Ikea PRUTA containers for snacks and small things like hummus or yogurt or dips or things that get "slime" on things like chick peas. They work beautifully, kids can use them, and you don't cry when they're lost.

Most often, my Grade 3 kid gets her food in the JÄMKA containers. Her lunches look like this (though I only do the silly lunches once a week or so) and it's the closest thing to eating off a plate like she does at home. She's used them since SK, and if I could issue them to every child in JK-6, I would.

Also, remember - your child's stomach is about the size of her two fists put together, so the container at this age does not need to be large at all.

As for the carrier and mess - for years my daughter used one of these oilcloth lunchbags from the store where I used to work until it fell apart. It was the best - light to carry; easy to wash and dry every day. I've got to poke around for another. Now I only wash her typical nylon one once a week or so - but I see other kids' lunchbags and boxes at school are just filthy.
posted by peagood at 7:55 PM on November 21, 2012 [8 favorites]

Thanks everyone for their suggestions. Lots of great ideas here.
posted by samhyland at 2:41 AM on November 22, 2012

I bought my daughter's lunch stuff from Fenigo. They have lots of the items mentioned here in Canadian prices and they ship reasonably quickly.

We use the Dabba Walla lunch bag which holds lots, and is machine washable (I wash it once a week and rinse out when necessary.) I use these containers, which are plastic (so not quite what you want), but they are BPA-free and easy to open.

For a drink, I was using a Contigo cup, but that just broke. It had over seven months of continuous use and was probably chucked around a bit, so I think I'll get a replacement. It wasn't leaky.

My girl has been using this stuff since she was 3.5 years old without issue. Label it all so you don't lose it. :)
posted by melissa at 7:57 AM on November 22, 2012

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