Why I do not pack lunches the night before

Since I write about mornings, I am sometimes asked for tips to make mornings go well. When I read the resulting articles, some other expert will often be quoted on making lots of preparations the night before. Save time by laying out clothes! Make the lunches! Pack the bags!

That may work for some people, but in my current life, I tend not to do any of this. I will often leave dishes undone too (defying the instruction to have everything orderly so the day starts fresh).

There are two reasons for this. First, doing stuff the night before does not actually save you time. Packing a lunch the night before still takes time. It just takes time at a different time of day. Indeed, since people who do almost everything the night before still spend some time getting ready in the morning, I suspect that spreading the getting ready out actually increases the time spent on preparation, rather than being a neutral time-shifting option.

But there is a broader reason I do not make lunches the night before, and that has to do with my feelings toward leisure time. I have a toddler who inevitably gets up before I want him to. This means I have long dark mornings to fill. I can do any of these other things — making lunches, cleaning the kitchen — while he is sitting in his high chair devouring Cheerios. If I do these things the night before, I have cut into my potential leisure time, but I still have to be up with the baby in the morning.

Cutting into leisure time is a problem, and not just for me. As I study time logs, I see that one of the reasons mornings do not go well is that people stay up too late. They stay up late since people — particularly working parents of young kids! — crave me time. That time after the kids go to sleep is yours. If you do chores and morning preparations before you start the me-time, then you will stay up later to get adequate me-time. Then when the kid is screaming in the morning, your lunches may be packed and your kitchen may be clean, but you are sleep deprived. And then it is hard to start the day well.

Granted, the situation may be different for other people. Maybe you have older kids who wake up at the last possible second. Maybe you want to exercise, and fumbling around in your closet for your workout clothes will wake up and really piss off your partner. Maybe you cannot think in the morning, and so you always walk out the door without your bus pass or some such. If that is the case, then put the bus pass in your bag while you are coherent at night.

But in order to do something the night before, it should be important enough that the additional time cost and leisure time loss is worth the peace of mind in the morning. If it is, great. But putting an apple and a sandwich in a lunch box does not meet that threshold for me.

In other news: I wrote a piece for Fast Company on How Having Kids Helped My Career. I also have a post on 10 Research Proven Things Working Parents Can Stop Feeling Guilty About. I would really appreciate a read and a share on both of those. This Second Shift section of Fast Company is a temporary thing right now, and if it is to continue, we need good readership numbers.

Also, while I am asking for favors, if you enjoy my blog, would you consider buying one of my books? I Know How She Does It is an empowering (and research-based!) guide to building a big career while raising a family. What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast is a very quick ebook about making over your mornings (and at $3, it is more of an impulse buy). 168 Hours is a broad overview of holistic time management principles.

33 thoughts on “Why I do not pack lunches the night before

  1. I currently do not have to pack lunches for my children, but that will change this coming school year- and I am nervous about that upcoming change! I have been working to bring my own lunch to work, I do not pack it the night before but I have an idea of what I will get together in the morning and I find that putting some forethought into that, has helped me stick with it.
    I am taking a fb break, but I will be reading your articles and sharing them with friends via email. I will be adding your 168 Hours book to my collection soon, and I will continue to tell my friends about your work!

  2. I’ve enjoyed reading your posts these past few weeks. I have a 9-5 job that I like (plus a 45-min commute each way). On those “bad” days, I want to be an occasional WFHM but my employer is not supportive (ironically, I’m a writer, so I could totally WFH full time). For now, I like my paycheck enough that I keep at it. Thanks for your words of widsom.

  3. Another reason not to make lunch the night before – it may not be needed. In fact on Monday this week I made a packed lunch in the morning for my eleven year old who I thought was getting ready for school as usual and when I eventually noticed she wasn’t at about departure time minus 15 minutes it was because she was feeling ill and ended up staying home with her dad (who works from home). Lunch went in the fridge but not eaten as she felt too ill so ended up being thrown away. How’s that for a waste of time? Making lunch the night before just opens up even more possible reasons why it may not be needed next day after all.

    1. @Katherine – good point. I read a few years ago one of those morning stories where a woman had organized her kids’ clothes and uniforms (scouts, athletics) for the entire week on Sunday. My first thought was that planning that far ahead would inevitably waste some time, as the weather forecast for Friday is probably not 100% accurate on Sunday, plus the Girl Scout leader will email that they need to wear something different, or soccer will be canceled for rain…

    2. Katherine – I have a great time-saving tip for you: the 11 year old can make her own lunch, either night before or morning of πŸ™‚ I outsourced lunch making to my 11 and 9 year olds and will help out with the odd thing. They haven’t starved and are better about packing something they will actually eat. (The 6 year old still gets his lunch made.)

  4. My kids pack their own lunches while I’m fixing dinner. They’re 5 and 2 (3 next month), so it can be done. I make the sandwiches and suggestions (pick a fruit, pick a cracker), but that’s it.
    *
    Mornings are very, very, very rough for me (no matter how early I go to bed) and we have to be out of the house by 7:15. It’s much, much less stressful to get as much ready as possible before going to bed. I do me time first, and the 5 minutes spent collecting backpacks and setting out clothes is just part of how I wind down. We keep coats in the car, since they have to be removed to buckle into carseats anyway. Shoes go in a bin by the door, so they’re always easy to find.
    *
    But I’ve had those early mornings to fill before, too. Whatever works best for you!

    1. @Meghan – packing lunches while you’re making dinner is probably the best time to do it if you’re doing it the night before. You’re in the kitchen and pulling stuff out of the fridge anyway, so that probably doesn’t increase the total time. I make lunches while I’m making breakfast for the same reason. And hey, if your kids are doing it at 5 and almost 3 — wow! Next year I am going to start instituting the make-your-own policy.

      1. My whole parenting goal is to make myself obsolete, at least as far as tasks I don’t like to do πŸ™‚

        I find this whole discussion fascinating — seeing what is the lowest effort for all sorts of different situations!

        1. AMEN to this! We are the same way – when I’m on top of it, the 6 and 3yo pack their own lunches. However, this needs to be done during dinner prep the day before because they are serious dawdlers in the morning.

    2. I make my 4 year old’s lunch while I cook dinner and my teenagers pack their own lunches while I bathe the 4 year old. I have to be out the house daily at 6:40 am so for me it makes sense to do it at night.

  5. I’m even worse than the person who packs the lunches the night before. I prepare all of the lunches and snacks for school on Sunday! I like that I do it once and then just put the containers into the lunchbox daily. I also pre-prep all adult lunches on Sunday too. Every morning I jsut grab one of the pre-packed lunches and I am good to go. I don’t know if it saves time but it saves my sanity/patience which is as precious as my time.

    Perhaps I can join an over-preparers support group. πŸ˜‰

    1. @beth – I think it’s more likely that batching like that (doing all 5 days at once) would save time vs. doing it each night the night before. You probably get into a bit of a groove lining up 15 sandwiches – as long as they don’t go all mushy during the week!

      1. I remember growing up, I had to make my lunch the night before — and I really, REALLY disliked it (for several reasons). One, I’m more eat-to-live than live-to-eat, so I don’t want to think about food unless I’m actually hungry (and I never was when I was making lunch for the next day). Two, it was virtually impossible to make something that I didn’t find got at least SOME “mushy” by lunch the next day. This made lunch even more disdainful for me. (To this day, I cannot stomach lunchmeat sandwiches on white bread.) Three, given the first two reasons, I always felt like I had to “force” myself to eat the semi-mushy sandwich (and not just that, but I had to eat it when I might not be hungry), so there were more than a few times a month when I would just toss the sandwich altogether. Most of the time, I’d pull out and eat just the meat, then toss the rest. Anyway, made me feel guilty for wasting food like that. (My parents never knew; I just felt guilty by myself.)
        Now don’t get me wrong: I think batching (certain things) is great. My wife makes multiple meals in batches and freezes them in single servings. So I can just pull whatever I want (of what’s frozen) and hit the road. Or if I’m bach’ing it, I can grab one and throw it in the microwave for dinner. I love that my wife cares for me like that.
        So, while I agree with the idea in general, in actual practice, I’m very much against specifically making sandwiches too far in advance, which would be any earlier than the morning of. I like my french-fries to have a little “mush”, but past that, I’m very anti-mush. πŸ˜‰ You’ve seen that guy holding the sign with the words “Mushy Sandwiches” and a big circle with a slash over it? Yeah, that’s me. πŸ˜‰

        1. Same here! packing when I wasn’t hungry always lead to not enough of a lunch, and I would buy something and gorge on junk when I got home from school! I also loathe plain white bread to this day because that’s all I had for the main part of my lunch, I’ll eat sandwiches on rolls, otherwise I have to toast it!

        2. I don’t do sandwiches for lunch very often so I don’t worry about the mush factor too much. Lots of grilled chicken/fish, and steamed veggies for the adults. Lots of raw veggies, fruits and non-sandwiches for the kids too. You do sometimes have to be strategic with fruit (bananas/berries go bad faster than apples/oranges).

          I think people find what works for them and go with it. Maybe someday my kids will hate that I prepped a week in advance and boycott that for the rest of their lives. They’ll be the ones writing about mushy food. But right now they are fine with it and it makes my life easier.

          I think it also depends on your morning/evening schedule. The bus comes for my kids at 7:10 (elementary is early here). My kids get up at 6:00AM so our morning time is limited. I like to spend it having breakfast with them and being less harried about making lunches (there’s enough other stuff to be harried about). I prep and freeze breakfasts of the same reason. If the bus didn’t come until 8:30 I might feel differently.

          Different strategies for different lives.

    2. I’ll be in your support group! It definitely saves time doing it all at once. Some things do go mushy, so we only do 2-3 days in a row, vs. 5. Still doing it twice takes way less time than every day—you make an assembly line for yourself and get it done. I do my kids and my own lunches in batches, and generally during dinner clean up.
      I like the general point of thinking about why you are doing something at a certain time, and seeing if a different strategy is better. Blanket advice like “make lunches the night before” seems geared towards a certain personality/lifestyle that may not apply to you.
      Like SHU I also have been splitting my “me time” into evening and morning hours (my kids get up around 7-7:30)

  6. Our kids are still in daycare/preschool (lunch provided) so only the adults need a packed lunch, but we do pack them the night before (although it’s usually just leftovers from supper to reheat at work). I don’t necessarily lay out an outfit, but for myself I do need to make sure that I have everything I need clean & ironed, and any extras going to work or daycare are left at the door so we’ll remember. Our kids’ wake-up times are variable & my work day has an iron-clad start time, so leaving anything to the whims of my kids’ mornings moods causes a lot of undue stress & rush. I think you’re right that it probably takes more time to do it in the evening and then still do some of it the next morning (similar to your meal prep argument) but for me it gives a little peace of mind to do it when I’m feeling less time crunched. Yes, I should be going to bed earlier, but bedtime is more flexible than my shift starting & for me there’s a psychological benefit to doing a task at 10 pm rather than 6 or 7 am.

    On weeks when I start work early I’m out of the house before anyone else is up. My husband is less worried about having anything ready the night before as walking into his office at 9:15 vs 9:00 is no big deal. Or maybe it’s just the difference in our personalities!

    1. @Christine – I’m all about school lunch. The 8-year-old buys every day. My 6-year-old is in half day kindergarten + a half day enrichment program at a different location (without food service). So lunch packing is part of the deal, but I do suspect he could do more of it. Next year when he is full day he can buy or pack his own. But then the 4-year-old will be in a full day program without food service so…

  7. Our nanny packs – I don’t πŸ™‚ The EASIEST option! However, if I were packing, I probably would do it while doing dinner cleanup so that I can include dinner leftovers (which is often what our lunches are anyway) and to minimize cleanup.

    I tend to split my non-kids leisure time btw night and morning. Like 1.5 hours 8 – 9:30 pm, and then 1.5 hours 5 – 6:30am. This way I can do fun/relaxing stuff in evening and workout/planning type stuff in AM.

    1. @SHU – I am really looking forward to the time (hopefully soon!) when I can predictably wake up before the little one. Then I plan to do more work/planning/reading stuff in the AM. Right now, it just isn’t happening…

  8. I haven’t seen feed updates from your site in over a week (in Feedly); I’m glad I stopped by to see what I missed. Good post.

    1. This happened to me too. I deleted and then added this back to Feedly. Fingers crossed, the next post will show up automatically tomorrow.

  9. I do pack my kids’ lunches the night before, but 90% of the time that is done before the older ones go to bed. Ideally it gets done after the baby goes to bed, since I want to have time with him. Then there’s another half an hour or so before we start the bedtime routine for his sisters. They are often playing together nicely, so it’s easy for me to spend a few minutes in the kitchen.

    I pack basically the same lunch every day. We switch out the fruits and veggies, but they get the same three items (sandwich, fruit/veg combo, yogurt) every day. That alone helps keep me sane.

  10. My husband handles lunches for the kids, and for myself it is a matter of grabbing a lean cuisine from the freezer – an idea I got from you! Since I’m a recovering make-everything-from-scratch person, it was a big leap for me to go there. I weighed the pros and cons and realized that obsessing over perfect healthy lunches to save a few dollars wasn’t worth my time (frozen still way cheaper than eating out!)

  11. Hi Laura,

    You’re spot on! I do exactly the same thing. I enjoy my leisure time in the evening after dinner, doing exactly what I want and then in the morning wake up fresh and doing chores such as washing the dishes from the night before, packing lunches, cleaning the house – this is great for setting me up in an achievement-oriented mode, as it makes me feel so productive. Then when I go to work and finally get to sit down, am feeling very accomplished. In a self-generating process, the various things I get done in the morning fuel my productivity for the whole day. It’s amazing. I love my super efficient mornings. Evenings are for leisure and me-time, just like you said.

  12. Much like @Christine, my start times are much more firm than my end times.
    My mornings are more rushed (admittedly, because I’m not waking up earlier, because I’m not going to bed earlier because I’m more a night owl), so if there’s something important for me to remember [to do] in the morning, it greatly helps to at least prep something the night before.
    For instance, there’s a department policy to wear a company shirt the first Wednesday of the month. I have an alarm that’s set to go off the night before so I can set out the shirt; that way, when I’m throwing on clothes in the morning, I don’t have to “remember” that it’s the first Wednesday of the month, the shirt itself serves as its own reminder to wear it. I have a discussion group this quarter and I put out the materials for it and do any other non-standard prep the night before. When running out the door, I would literally trip over the materials if I didn’t pick them up. When traveling, I always do the majority if not all of the packing the night before. (If I don’t actually pack it the night before, I write it down on a list.) It puts my mind at ease and I can get more restful sleep that way.
    BUT, I understand and fully agree with doing things at a time that is best suited for accomplishing the task WITHOUT eating into personal time. If that happens to be in the morning during “forced” blocks of time that require little direct involvement/focus, then it makes sense to do those things during that time in the morning. But if the blocks of time happen to be at night (by design or poor planning) rather than the morning, then the night makes the most sense for that individual.

  13. My 11-y-o and I make lunches in the evening, after the 4-y-o has gone to bed. We need to be out the door at 7:45 in the morning, and frequently at least one of the three of us is still in bed by 7:25. So while I will also leave dishes undone (I can always do them during the days when I’m home), leaving lunch isn’t possible… speaking of which, it’s time to make the lunches!

  14. I just don’t pack lunches – ever! πŸ™‚ Cafeteria lunch is cheap, easy and just as healthy as anything I’d pack (probably more so). I see these “lunch packing systems” that people set up on Pinterest with multiple bins stocked with all different kinds of foods and the kids can choose one from each bin, and I wonder how much time they spend re-stocking those bins, dividing food items into snack-sized containers, washing all those containers, etc. I write a monthly check to the school, and it takes 15 seconds πŸ™‚

  15. My girls all made their own lunches too. They never took sandwiches. They are all successful adults now and my youngest is a mother of 2. I think her husband makes the lunch for my 9 year old granddaughter!

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