3 Tips to Help Kids Beat the Clock at Lunch

So here’s yet another annoying irony of parenting…

We spend years asking-scolding-begging-threatening-demanding in no particular order that our children slow down when they eat.

Because if it was up to them, most kids — especially boys — would face-plant into their food, surfacing 30 seconds later with a bare plate.

Yet when we send them off to school — where lunch periods admittedly tend to be short — suddenly eating… takes… for… ever… And somehow our otherwise Hoover-happy children are entirely unable to eat their lunches in the allotted time.

So when I asked parents for their lunch duty conundrums, this was one of the two that came up most often. (I talked about the other — dealing with children who covet their friends’ lunches — last week in this post.)

Truth is, my son frequently complains about not having enough time to eat his lunch. Except I happen to know his school gives him 20 minutes for lunch. And I happen to know he could eat a side of beef in that time at home.

And we all know that the real reason my kid and yours run out of time is because they are too busy babbling to their friends.

So we have to be honest with ourselves. It’s a lost cause to try to stem the tide of babble.

So if we want our kids to eat their lunches — or at least most of their lunches… — we need to get creative. We need to pack their lunches in ways that make it easier for them to eat them more quickly. Or at least make it easy to talk and eat at the same time.

Tip 1: Pack small items for small hands.

I have found that packing lots of small items makes it easier for Parker to inhale bites in between babbles. So sandwich wraps, for example, are easier to eat when cut up into sushi-style bites (roll it into a log, then cut it into rounds).

Ditto for more conventional sandwiches. I’ll cut larger sandwiches into quarters, or even eighths.

It may not seem like a big deal to adults, but for little ones little bites are easier to hold, easier to eat. And all that adds up to faster to eat.

Tip 2: Do some of the work for them.

As in, if you’re sending a hunk of meat, do the kid a favor and cut it into bite-sized pieces before you pack it. I’ll even pull grapes off the vine so he can just pop them in his mouth. Likewise, I cut apples and plums and any other similar fruit into slices or chunks.

It sounds stupid, but it does make it easier (and faster) for the kids to eat.

I think part of it is psychological. Faced with one large sandwich or one big apple, kids feel daunted and slow down, babble more, etc. But break the food down into bites, and suddenly it’s easy for them to pop the food in their mouths fast.

I even do this with pasta. If I pack him a pasta dish made from spaghetti or some other long form of pasta, I will use kitchen shears to cut it into easy bites before popping it in the thermos. It’s a small thing, but I believe it does make it easier for them to eat it faster.

Tip 3: Save the green bean battles for dinner.

Of course we want our kids to eat healthy lunches. And of course we should pack the best, healthiest lunches we can. But we also shouldn’t draw lines in the sand over lunch.

Think about how your kids act at dinner when an unappealing food lands on their plates. They push it around, avoid it, try to cover it, and basically do anything they can to avoid eating it.

Now think about them doing that at lunch, when you aren’t there to ask-scold-beg-threaten-demand. Before you know it, lunch is over and the food is uneaten.

Which doesn’t mean you should fill their lunch boxes with cookies just because you know they’ll eat them. Rather, work with the healthy foods you know they enjoy and build lunches around those.

Kind of obvious, right? If they like it, they’re more likely to eat it quickly.

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 cookbookBeating the Lunch Box Blues, is 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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