Lunchbox Lessons: Secrets to Packing a (Healthy Enough!) School Lunch Your Child Will Actually Eat
|September 4, 2012||Posted by Stacy under Healthy lunch|
The early morning sky is inky black as I tiptoe down the dark hallway, trying my best to avoid creaky floorboards that might sound a wake-up call for my three little ones, still snuggled in their beds (or, as the case may be, in MY bed). The first day of school has finally arrived, and it’s time to get to the kitchen and start packing lunches—three, to be exact. Over the course of the next 180 school days, I will make a total of 540 lunches, give or take a few. If you ask me, that puts me in the category of professional lunch packer.
My 4-year-old twins go to a preschool that doesn’t serve food, so I have to make their lunch. But for my older son (who is entering first grade), I choose to do it. While the food at his elementary school could be worse, it isn’t exactly made from scratch or brimming with garden-fresh ingredients. (Or at least that was the situation last year–in the coming weeks, I plan to join him for lunch in the cafeteria to investigate how the new U.S.D.A. food regs have affected the menu). To me, sending it with him to school is the only way to guarantee that he gets a healthy meal. But I don’t always get it right. Occasionally, the food in my kids’ lunchboxes comes back barely touched. And I feel terrible not just about the waste but about the fact that they went without brain food for a good part of the day.
According to a recent survey, 55 percent of moms say that they get stressed out at the thought of shopping for and packing school lunches. For most of the parents that I know, preparing the food isn’t the hard part—they don’t mind waking up a little earlier to make a sandwich or fill a Thermos with soup. What’s challenging is deciding what should go in the lunchbox. You want it to be nutritious, but also something that your child will eat. Because there’s nothing worse than discovering the meal that you so lovingly prepared was a total bomb.
I’m not promising miracles, but I just may have found an answer to the what-to-pack (and-what-not-to-pack!) question. It comes from Dina Rose, Ph.D., a parent educator and feeding expert who blogs at It’s Not About Nutrition: The Art and Science of Teaching Kids to Eat Right. If her name sounds familiar, it’s because I’ve mentioned her before. (Read: “Can I have cotton candy?!? Tips for handling all those junk food requests”). I just love her advice, which emphasizes the importance of teaching good habits (by, say, serving a fruit and/or veggie at every meal and snack) and introducing kids to a wide variety of healthy foods (with a range of flavors and textures) to cultivate their palates.
I started implementing her school lunch-packing tips a few weeks ago, while my kids were still at camp. They make a ton of sense to me, and I do feel I’ve had less uneaten food coming home at the end of the day. I hope they work for you as well.
Never pack the same lunch two days in a row Packing the same old foods in your child’s lunchbox every day only reinforces a picky eating mentality. So switch it up on a daily basis. Start by writing down all the lunch foods that he likes and rotate through the list. Once he gets used to the idea of eating different foods on different days, then you can try expanding his repertoire. (Rose stresses that you should follow this rule at all meals, not just at lunch!).
Make it different from other meals Varying the foods that he eats throughout the day also is important for preventing food ruts. So consider the breakfast and dinner menu before deciding on lunch. Think about the taste, texture and appearance of the food. If your child will be eating pancakes for breakfast, then limit the sweet flavors at lunch, Rose says. If dinner will be pizza, then don’t pack a ham and cheese sandwich.
Include one (very small!) fruit and (very small!) veggie Rose is a big proponent of serving a fruit and/or vegetable at every meal and snack. With greater exposure, fruits and veggies become more familiar, which, in turn, makes children more willing to eat them, she explains. But make the challenge “doable” by keeping the portion size small–say, a couple bites of broccoli or baby carrots. And consider pairing the veggie with a healthy dip (like hummus or guacamole) to add appeal.
Watch the other portion sizes, too To up the chances that your child will actually eat those bites of broccoli, include smaller portions of preferred foods like yogurt and cheese.
Skip the chips Leave out the salty, crunchy snacks (think Goldfish, pretzels and potato chips) unless you want a kid who craves them (and asks you for them!) all the time. That includes more virtuous sounding veggie and multigrain chips, too! They all have the same potential to create a preference for processed snack foods.
Don’t include too many options Stuffing your child’s lunchbox full of food could have the unwanted effect of making him eat less. And it will certainly lower the odds that he’ll gravitate to the healthier stuff. “Give your children too many choices and you can forget about the vegetables,” Rose points out.
Get his approval on every item Yes, that’s right: If you want your child to eat his lunch, forget about surprising him with an unfamiliar food or a super-healthy item that he just doesn’t really like! Instead, talk to him about what will go in his lunchbox. Give him some healthy options and let him pick. He’ll be much more likely to consume it if he’s the one who gets to decide.
How do you feel about packing school lunches? What lunch-packing strategies have worked (or not worked) for you?