Lunch is Not a Democracy!

Ready for a little parental guidance that will help you stay sane while serving time in the lunch box trenches? Remember this:

Lunch isn’t a democracy. At best it is a benevolent dictatorship.

Face it, lunch packing is a pain in the butt. Between the shopping and the prepping and the packing, there is little about it that is convenient or fun.

Even if you have an angel of a child who gleefully gulps down anything you care to toss in a brown bag, lunch packing can be an onerous part of the morning rush.

Now complicate things with a picky eater – No crusts! No vegetables! Nothing can touch! Only white and blue foods! – and it’s easy to despise this task.

So what’s a harried parent to do as the kids head back to school? Turn to Dr. Google and you’re bound to get ample advice, much of it centered around letting the kid guide the ship.

It’s a nice idea. Because truth is, if kids feel they can influence the process, they are more likely to embrace whatever lands in their lunch boxes.

But it’s also the sort of idea that works best in those fairy tale cookbooks that assume children are always agreeable and decisive, and parents somehow have time to carve cheese into cartoon characters and mold rice into 3D animals.

My life just isn’t quite so precious.

The trouble with the “involve your kids” advice is that it is so easily followed out the window.

Suddenly, you find yourself battling at the grocery store over why this or that is or isn’t acceptable. And the battles kick up again each morning as the kids hem and haw over what pleases their royal tummies that day.

No thanks. At that point, we’ve ceded control over this to the kids. And that never ends well for anyone involved.

So let’s break it down with some sensible ways parents can reap the benefits of involving their kids in their lunches, but still retain control (and their sanity).


I don’t have a problem with letting kids help with the shopping. Or even in making decisions about what goes in the cart. But this isn’t a free-for-all.

Because remember, grocery stores are designed to tempt kids with sugary junk. Food companies pay serious cash to get their brightly colored boxes placed at eye level for kids. It’s intended to make your job harder.

So while it’s fine to give kids choices while shopping, you also need to set clear parameters.

As in, this is not a “Go pick what you want for lunch.” Rather, it is a, “Pick two of these three vegetables.” And “Which whole-grain cracker do you want?”


I never let my son decide what goes in his lunch box on any give day.

Let me repeat that. I never let my son decide what goes in his lunch box.

And neither should you.

Once you invite debate about lunch, you’ve opened yourself up to a lovely morning of knock-down, dragged out haggling over what goes in the box.

Because none of us has anything better to do in the morning, right?

That’s why I say, what I pack each day isn’t up to him.

I might sometimes ask, “Do you want this or that?” But even that level of discretion is limited.

I will sometimes warn my son about the contents of his lunch box. If, for example, I packed something I know he won’t be thrilled with, I’ll let him know, but also tell him about the thing I packed that he will look forward to. Neither he nor I like surprises, so this just seems fair.

Why not let kids decide? Not because I enjoy being a cruel dictator who quashes his son’s free will (though there are days when that joy gets me through the morning).

I try hard to pack things I know he will enjoy. But I also try hard to balance that with the things I know he needs to eat more of.

I leave him out of the equation because I often have good reasons for wanting to pack one thing over another.

Maybe I’m trying to use up leftovers before they spoil. Maybe I don’t have time to make something more complicated. Maybe I know that his diet for the past couple days has been sketchy and today really ought to focus on healthy choices.

Kids aren’t – and shouldn’t – take any of these things into account. That’s our job.

Which is why I say, lunch is not a democracy.

J.M. Hirsch is the national food editor for The Associated Press. He blogs about the trials and tribulations of his son’s lunches at His upcoming cookbook, Beating the Lunch Box Blues, will be the first to be released by Rachael’s new publishing venture, Rachael Ray Books. Hirsch’s previous books include High Flavor, Low Labor: Reinventing Weeknight Cooking and Venturesome Vegan Cooking. He lives in New Hampshire with his son, wife, and too many cats.

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