The Competent Parent: Overpacked Lunches



Welcome to our weekly online series on parenting advice with local expert Dr. Deborah Wood.

Overpacked Lunches


Dear Dr. Debbie,

This may not seem like a serious issue, but I’m having trouble with one of the moms in my child care class. She packs way too much food for her two-year-old, then fusses at pick up time about the leftovers.

Her daughter is slightly on the small side, and has plenty of energy. I’ve tried to explain to mom that there’s nothing wrong with her daughter’s eating habits. And that rather than being upset over how much food is left at the end of the day, maybe she could pack less so there’s less wasted. By the way, she seems to buy a lot of food from health food stores – things the other children don’t have in their lunches.

No Food Fights, Please


Dear No Food Fights,

Mom may be judging the amount of food she should pack on her daughter’s prior appetite. At age two, growth is still occurring, but at a slower rate than before. I agree that if we let a child’s appetite dictate when she’s hungry and when she’s full, and only offer healthy foods, she’ll eat just right. And this pattern will help her have a healthy relationship with food the rest of her life. On the other hand, if mom persists in fussing about the food, her daughter may think that eating is something we do for others, and don’t do when we want to displease them.

Meal times should be relaxed. Pleasant conversation – as opposed to anxiety about how much food is being eaten – aids digestion and helps children look forward to sitting at the table. When the atmosphere is pleasant, your little ones can focus better on mastering some independence with cups and spoons, and maybe napkins.

You could try to initiate some discussion between this mom and some other parents of two-year-olds so she can make some realistic comparisons. If her only frame of reference for how much food a two-year-old should eat is her own experience with a one-year-old, no wonder she is upset. And healthy food doesn’t have to come from a health food store. In fact some so-called health foods contain unhealthy amounts of sugars, salt, or fat. A healthy lunch should include whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables, low-fat proteins, and dairy products (or other calcium source). With your leadership, parents can share ideas for healthy lunch items with each other. Conversations could happen informally at pick up time, or at a scheduled parents’ discussion meeting.

As a professional child care provider, your responsibilities include sharing resources that will help the parents with parenting. You can be a provider of sound information, such as this USDA hand-out on the recommended amounts of foods young children should be eating:

Perhaps mom’s overpacking stems from wanting to be more of a part of her daughter’s day. You might ignore the food issue entirely, and instead, find ways for mom to contribute to the child care program while she’s at work. Ask for some music CD’s to add to your collection for dancing and nap time. Parents can be asked to bring in junk mail and envelopes so the children can play Post Office. Newspaper is useful to cover tables during messy art projects. Empty egg cartons can be used for making caterpillars. Etc., etc., etc.

For your part in easing this mother’s separation from her daughter, take lots of photographs of the little girl at work and play. Display them in a class photo album or bulletin board. Some child care centers email photos to parents on a regular basis. And maybe if your photos include the children enjoying their lunches, this mom might relax a bit about it.

Dr. Debbie

Dr. Deborah Wood is a child development specialist in Annapolis.  She holds a doctorate in Human Development from the University of Maryland at College Park and is founding director of the Chesapeake Children’s Museum.  Long time fans and new readers can find many of her “Understanding Children” columns archived on the Chesapeake Family Magazine website. You can find her online at

What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments or submit a question to Dr. Debbie at [email protected]