Packing school lunch is one of my least favorite tasks as a parent. It has to happen every school day. And then happens again the following night.

Then, the lunches come home, often not completely eaten, with the kids complaining about what you packed and saying that they are hungry.

It’s enough to drive you mad. It was a vicious cycle of frustration and angst. Quite frankly, it was sucking some of the joy of our lives. The kids were unhappy, too. They weren’t getting what they wanted out of lunch, either. We were packing the wrong snack or gave them the wrong drink or messed up the quantity. On top of that, packing lunches was a huge time suck for the adults. We’ve got limited time in the evening to take care of the household before we collapse from exhaustion. These are just some of the observations that we and our kids had.

Observations in hand, we pulled out the Innovator’s Compass as a way of exploring and changing this frustrating reality.

We started with wondering what was important to us about our kids’ lunches. We wanted to make sure that they were eating the right kinds of foods and had energy for the second half of the school day. We thought that variety was important; we quickly learned that it wasn’t important to them at all. They wanted things that they didn’t need help opening. The kids also wanted to make healthy choices, but within their own comfort range. And, of course,  they wanted more snacks, partially because they didn’t want to be hungry either.

We also talked about why the parents were packing lunch. Somehow, we had just assumed that it was our responsibility. After all, we took care of prepping dinner, so why not lunch? My wife and I realized that this ran against a principle that we held off fostering independence for our kids.

Brainstorming about meals with our kids has been and continues to be a pretty interesting experience. Their suggestions are often things that we didn’t think of, in part, because they are observing their friend’s lunches. We’re so used to serving sandwiches that we never thought of putting mac and cheese in a thermos. They also thought of interesting combinations. Have you ever tried a chocolate spread and cream cheese sandwich? I haven’t, but my six year old thinks that it is wonderful (and it has the same nutritional value as a peanut butter and chocolate sandwich).

Ideas in hand, we turned to our experiment. We put the kids in charge of packing their lunches. We had talked about what healthy choices were when we were generating our ideas together and we made a commitment to keeping those kinds of things in the house. With every lunch made, we tweaked things. Different kinds of lunch containers were purchased. The pantry was re-arranged to move their lunch foods lower, placing them within reach. After a freestanding cabinet toppled, lunch containers were moved to a more stable location.

We’ve continued to have to observe, discuss principles, generate ideas, and try out experiments. Recently, lunches were coming back unfinished (or at least with the healthy parts unfinished) and we knew that we needed to reinforce our value of healthy choices since it was conflicting with their value of “let’s eat the junk food first.” We worked with the kids to identify more palatable healthy choices and they’ve helped us make the shopping list.

This will probably always be a work in progress, but we’re closer to having “hacked” the school lunch than we were before.

For more on this experiment, take a look at some of the results on my wife’s blog. And if you are looking for some interesting lunch ideas, take a look here.