It sounds counter-intuitive, but packing LESS food in lunch boxes may encourage your kids to eat MORE! Here's why.

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Woman packing school lunch

Packing lunches is not always a task I enjoy. To put it mildly. So when my kids were bringing their lunch boxes home at the end of a school day and half the food was uneaten, it felt like insult to injury. I knew they should be eating more food because they were famished after school. So I made a change: I started packing less food. And when I did, they actually started eating more. As in, everything (or very close to it).

You may be thinking that's because I'm starving them out. I'm not—I promise! And I know it sounds counter-intuitive to pack LESS if you want your kids to eat MORE. And sure, uneaten food still occasionally comes home. But here's why I think this strategy can work for elementary-aged kids:

Big lunches can be overwhelming, especially to small people: Most students have very little time to eat—sometimes just 20 minutes (or less), a lot of which is spent talking with friends and figuring out how to open their assorted containers and packages. Large amounts of food may seem insurmountable and therefore, get ignored altogether.

Smaller portions means they don't fill up on one food: Smaller amounts encourage them to eat a larger variety of what I pack. For example, I used to get frustrated that my son would finish his pretzels but not touch his blackberries. But how could I blame him when I knew pretzels were a favorite? Packing less of both meant he could eat all of his pretzels but still be hungry for his berries.

A big pile of veggies doesn't seem doable—but just a few do: My kids both like raw veggies. If I pack a big pile of them, they might go completely untouched. When I downsize to just three carrots or sugar snap peas, they're more likely to eat them.

And, as a bonus, there's less food waste. With less food in the trash there's more in the fridge to pack tomorrow--and more money in my wallet.

If you're reluctant to pack less food, here are two other things to try:

  • Talk to your kids: Find out what kinds of foods they want in their lunch box. They may be ignoring their apples because they're bored to tears with them and would prefer oranges instead. They may not be eating their turkey sandwiches because they don't like the new bread you're buying. In some cases, bullying may even be at the root of uneaten lunches (read: Bullying In The Lunch Room—What You Need To Know).
  • Pack fast food (not THAT kind of fast food): If time is a factor for your child, be sure your child's lunch is easy to eat quickly. For instance, sliced fruit is quicker to eat than whole, and a sandwich cut into small pieces may be easier to eat than a thermos of soup.

Otherwise, why not give downsizing a try? Scaling back just a little bit may make a big difference!

Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RD, is a registered dietitian, educator, and mom of two who blogs at Real Mom Nutrition. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. She collaborated with Cooking Light on Dinnertime Survival Guide, a cookbook for busy families. In her spare time, she loads and unloads the dishwasher. Then loads it again.