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The Verdict on Packed School Lunches: Parents vs Kids

published: October 26, 2023
Mother packing a lunch with her child

On average, children attend 179 school days in the U.S., and for some parents, this means nearly 200 school lunches to pack! This task can be daunting, with costs and ever changing preferences of children. So we set out to find which lunch items are best left in the pantry and which are sure to have your kid smiling as they open up their lunchbox each day.

To determine this, our team surveyed parents and children across the U.S. to find which items are most commonly packed, how often parents are packing lunch, reasons behind packing lunch, which food items are kids’ favorites, and more. Read on to find out which lunch items reign supreme and which states have the most kid-approved lunches.

Key Takeaways

  1. Parents in Tennessee, South Carolina, and Illinois pack the most kid-approved lunches.
  2. Parents in California, Massachusetts, and Minnesota pack the least kid-approved lunches.
  3. Parents in North Carolina, Maryland, and New York are the most likely to pack their child’s lunch.
  4. The main reason that 1 in 2 parents pack their child's lunch is to ensure they eat healthy.
  5. Fresh fruit, chips, and sandwiches with deli meat are the most common items packed in kids’ lunches.
  6. Pizza, fresh fruit, cookies, brownies, and candy are the lunch items that kids want most.

States with the Most Kid-Approved Lunches

U.S. map showing the states with the most kid-approved lunches

Let’s face it, many parents know that if they allowed their kids to pack their own lunches, it would probably lead to a box full of cookies, candy, and other junk food. Leaving the kids out of the packing process can also lead to lunchboxes returned with uneaten foods.

To help find the right balance, we asked parents what foods they typically pack and then asked children to pick the items they enjoy. Using this data, we applied scores to each item parents packed that were deemed kid-approved. We then totaled each state’s score to find where the most kid-approved lunches are being packed.

Leading the way is Tennessee with a score of 97.7 out of 100. The most common items being packed in kids lunches in this state, include fresh fruit, sandwiches with deli meat, and chips. A simple but delicious lunch in the eyes of kids across the country.

In second for kid-approved lunches is South Carolina with a score of 96.2 out of 100. Residents of the Palmetto State are the second most likely to dedicate more than 20 minutes of their day to packing their child’s lunch. The average parent in the U.S. says they spend about 10 to 15 minutes packing their child’s lunch.

In third is Illinois with a score of 94.4 out of 100, where residents are most likely to mix up what they’re making in their kid’s lunch. Perhaps the variety offered has helped parents find which items their child likes best.

On average, 3 in 4 parents say they typically pack their child’s lunch for school, and our study found a majority of children prefer a packed lunch as well. Parents in North Carolina, Maryland, and New York got the memo as these states are the most likely to pack their child’s lunch.

On the other end of the spectrum, California ranked number one for the least kid-approved lunches. Residents of the Golden State are the third most likely to say a healthy lunch is most important, which could be part of the reason for this lower ranking from kids.

Following closely behind is Massachusetts, where nearly 3 in 10 parents opt for a school lunch rather than a packed lunch for their children.

Most Common Food Parents Pack vs. Kids’ Favorites

Two tables showing the most common foods parents pack for their child’s lunch and kids’ favorite foods

When it comes time to pack your child’s lunch, there are multiple things to consider. Which foods will offer a healthy and balanced lunch? Which foods will ensure your child finishes their meal? Which foods will ensure your child is full and ready to focus in the classroom? These questions can cause a lot of stress for parents who are unsure. To help ease the pressure, we asked kids across the country to pick their favorite foods.

Overall, we found fresh fruit, chips, and sandwiches with deli meat are the most common items packed in kids’ lunches. While those items are approved among many kids, the favorites include pizza, fresh fruit, cookies, brownies, and candy. Now that list of less-than-healthy foods may not come as a surprise for many parents, but hey, at least the kids were honest.

That junk food–filled lunch will not work for 1 in 2 parents, as they say the main reason they pack their child’s lunch is to ensure they eat healthy. Another common reason for parents packing their child’s lunch is due to picky eaters.

For 1 in 4 parents, packing their child’s lunch is cheaper than allowing them to eat the school-offered lunch each day. We also found that 1 in 20 parents pack their child’s lunch as a safety precaution due to allergies.

More thought goes into packing a child’s lunch than simply picking out different foods. We found 1 in 5 parents like to include colorful food picks in their child’s lunch. In addition, 1 in 6 parents say they enjoy using shape cutouts, and 1 in 8 will even use themes when packing the lunches.

Nearly 70% of parents say they typically spend less than $5 on their child’s lunch. Coming in at an average cost of $4.39 each day, parents across the U.S. spend about $785.71 each year when packing their child’s lunch.


Every child is different and while some of these food items may be a national favorite, they might not be kid-approved by your child. Whether you add a handwritten note or use special cutouts to customize your child’s lunch, remember it’s the personalized touch that matters.

At Crestline, we understand the importance of that personal touch. Whether you need distinctive spirit merch for your child’s school, teacher appreciation gifts for your PTO to distribute, or fun graduation giveaways, customized products can make you stand out.

We offer a variety of customizable education items from sweatshirts and mugs to gift boxes and lunch bags that you can show off your school logo or words of recognition on. Get started today by checking out our best sellers to find the best personalized items for your organization.


In this study, we surveyed parents across the country to determine which food items they include in their child's lunch, how often they pack their child's lunch, and more. To determine which states have the most "kid-approved" lunches, we surveyed a group of children across the U.S. to determine which food items are their favorite.

Using that data, we scored each state's food selections to create an overall approval score. We then adjusted those scores on a scale from 0 to 100, with 100 being the most kid-approved.

States excluded due to a lack of respondents include Alaska, Delaware, Hawaii, Idaho, Iowa, Maine, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Dakota, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Vermont and Wyoming.