School’s right around the corner! If that means having to buy a new lunch bag and backpack for your child, then we’ve got excellent tips for you from kindergarten teacher Kimberly Marshall.

While most of this advice is geared toward kids who are starting school for the first time, the general principles also apply to what works for any school-ager, says Marshall, who also founded the Starting School with Roots and Wings Facebook group to help families best support their kindergarten-aged kids in school. Read on to find out how to buy the right version of these essential items for your child, no matter their age.

Your lunch-gear plan

Step one

While you may be excited to get shopping, Marshall says that first you need to find out about the school’s eating schedule is. Will your child be eating two snacks and a full lunch? And if so, do you have to provide those snacks? Another possibility is that they may follow the balanced day format where students eat two smaller lunches at separate times, and no snacks. Does your school have a litterless lunch program in place? This is information you’ll need to get the right containers for your child.

Step two

Think about your child’s eating habits. Are they a grazer who likes a bunch of little snacks, or do they prefer a hot lunch? This is also something you’ll need to think about so you can decide which containers and accessories to use or buy.

After finding out the school’s lunch schedule, consider the foods your child loves at home that you can pack for lunch and snack, and plan your container needs around that. “It’s really important that this food is nourishing, and it’s really important that this food is familiar to the child, as it’s very comforting to them to eat food from home,” she says. “Whether it’s lunch or snack, they really enjoy that time.”

This is particularly true for kindergarten kids, as most everything about school will be new and potentially overwhelming to them. They will also likely be rushed when eating, so do send foods they can eat easily and quickly.

If they prefer a variety of finger foods, Marshall recommends choosing a Bento-box style lunchbox, but suggests you may want to avoid large ones with hinged lids as they take up a lot of space at the lunch table since the lids can’t be tucked under. Some options include LunchBots, the Yumbox and many others.

If your kid leans toward warm foods like soup, pasta, or stir fry, or even something cold like oats or smoothies, you may consider buying an insulated container (a larger one will work for the more meal-like items, whereas a smaller one will do for snacks like yogurt).

If they like a bit of both styles, take a look at something like the OmieBox, which has a built-in lidded insulated container alongside sections for smaller bites.

And if a sandwich does the trick for your little one, then a square or rectangular container is what you’ll need. There are also hybrid versions of containers that accommodate both sandwiches and snack foods.

Thinking of sending a type of dip, such as hummus or ketchup? A small container with a lid is a good bet for that.

When you feel confident in the type of container that works for your child, Marshall suggests buying a stainless-steel version. They are an investment in terms of cost, she notes — hence the wait-and-see approach — but their benefits include being environmentally friendly, since they won’t degrade, being gender neutral and adults can use them too.

When it comes to containers, you should also consider picking up a couple of each, so you have options and don’t need to wash them every night. A collection can be built up over time, she notes. You likely already have a few in your cupboard that can be used for school lunches, so there’s no need to buy everything new.

And while you do need to have something to send your child with on the first day of school, don’t stress that you must have all of the items from the get-go.

“It’s nice to have these things ahead of time, it’s nice to practice in the summer so they feel confident and independent with the lids, but it’s trial and error,” she emphasizes.

Step three

After you’ve got the container situation sorted, it’s time to purchase a lunch bag. “It’s really easy to find a lunch bag, but you just need to make sure that the container that you choose is going to fit in the lunch bag,” explains Marshall. Here, the must-have qualities are a bag that fits the containers you have, is insulated and washable (either in the machine or can be wiped out by hand).

Consider buying a fairly neutral bag in terms of design that’s well-made. It’s more likely to last your child several years of school.

The scoop on water bottles

When buying a water bottle for school, Marshall says the best choice is one where you press a button that opens a lid that reveals a straw, as this kind of bottle will help prevent your child from getting sick. “There are germs in a kindergarten classroom. There’s sneezing and coughing, and their hands are always wiping their noses and touching toys,” she explains. “So, if they don’t have to handle the mouthpiece, and the mouthpiece isn’t exposed, it’s going to be cleaner.”

For little kids, a bottle with a built-in straw will also help them be independent, as unscrewing a lid is sometimes beyond the capabilities of most in this age group. Plus, an open-top bottle is more likely to get spilled or leak if the lid isn’t placed on properly.

Marshall also recommends choosing an insulated bottle, as that will keep their water cool. She likes Thermos-brand Funtainers.

Open-top bottles with screw-on tops are fine for most older kids, she notes, but you know your child, and what they can manage best.

Big or small? The importance of the backpack

While you may be tempted to buy a smaller backpack that looks like it fits your child’s body, Marshall suggests focusing less on this aspect and more on whether the bag will easily hold everything your kindergarten-age child will use it for. “The reason that it has to be a little bit roomy is because the child has to be responsible for packing and unpacking that backpack without feeling frustrated about everything fitting. And if there’s no room to zip it up, they’re going to be frustrated,” she says.

So, pick a school-aged size pack that will allow your child to slide the following in easily: a large picture book, artwork, lunch bag, water bottle, a communication folder, which is usually the size of a legal envelope, extra clothes, shoes and snow pants. It may look big on your kid, but the truth is that kindergarteners rarely carry their own backpacks for much time at all. Fit is a bit more important for older kids, as they will be carting their bags around by themselves.

You also don’t want a backpack that’s ridiculously bulky or has a million pockets, which may tempt your child to bring toys or other treasured items that may distract them when it’s time to get ready for recess or go home.

Other factors to consider if you want them to use it year after year are buy one that isn’t too trendy, is washable and is as high quality as you can afford.

Stick a label on it!

Make sure to label all of the items you send to school, so that your child and educators can easily find their gear – there are bound to be several duplicates in a classroom.

Add labels to the tops and bottoms of containers, backpacks, lunch bags, water bottles and reusable cutlery.

If you have kids who share these items, one trick is to use their family name, rather than their given name, says Marshall.

There are plenty of options for labels; choose one that’s machine washable for soft goods and dishwasher friendly for the other items.

Be prepared

If you can, in the weeks before school starts, serve meals to your child in any containers you plan to use. That way they’ll have some practice time with them. And, give your child their backpack as early as possible. Have them use it for daycare, day camp or on any trips your family takes. “It should feel like theirs, and should be recognizable to them,” says Marshall. “Let them use the zipper and get used to it.”

But it’s important to remember that these are just guidelines, not hard-and-fast rules.

“I would just encourage families to really do what feels right for them, and that there’s no one way,” emphasizes Marshall. “Focus on your child’s needs. Don’t worry about doing the right thing and don’t be afraid to pivot if something’s not working.”

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