A reader recently asked if I could blog about school lunches as she felt she had exhausted her options for her daughter (age 9). I understand her anguish. Lunches can be a bore and a burden for all involved. Complaints about sandwiches and snacks can wear on the nerves, as can half-eaten lunch bags – such a waste!
But here’s the thing about kids and food – it’s THEIR food. Why not give them a role in deciding what they eat? And, get them to HELP making the meals! Even a three-year-old can help pack a lunch box. Empower the child in mealtime decision making and you will create an engaged and thoughtful sous-chef!
Now, I’m not saying we should agree to pancakes and marshmallows for lunch. But there is a simple framework you can follow with your kids:
- A main course (includes a protein if possible)
- A vegetable serving (or more)
- A fruit (ideally whole versus processed)
- A snack
- A drink
- A treat (this requires negotiation)
First, make a list of acceptable contents for each of these categories with your child. From this list, the children can decide what they will have for lunch. It will help you rotate lunch ideas (so they don’t get bored) and it helps organize the groceries!
Some child friendly main courses include soup, pasta (ravioli or regular), grilled cheese, rice with veggies, bagels and wraps. These are very basic ideas that pack well and can be customized to your children’s taste buds. It’s wise to invest in a good thermos and freezer pack.
For vegetables, try to incorporate some into the main course, where possible. Otherwise, simply include vegetable sticks and dip on the side, but don’t be limited. Include all the different vegetables your children enjoy at different times throughout the week.
Fruit – always keep a good supply on hand as kids love the sweetness it delivers. If you are low on vegetables one meal, up the fruit servings! Berries, pears and apples travel well and usually get eaten as kids can do so with their hands!
Snacks can vary, depending on the child and meal. They can include an extra fruit or vegetable, or they can more substantial, if your child does not eat a large main course. In fact, my children sometimes love a giant snack bag of options for lunch – cheese, crackers, vegetables, fruit, a smoothie (made at home), frozen yogurt (individual cartons frozen and then eaten with a spoon at school, like ice cream!), seeds and dried fruit, croissant or bagel. This way, they can nosh on what they feel like, when they feel like it.
Drinks can be tricky. Water is best, but unless your child has hyperactivity or concentration issues, I don’t think there is anything wrong with a little juice box (or cup of juice) in the lunch box. If you send milk, please chose organic and send your own from home. The tetra “milk” drinks have so much junk in them that I question how these products support health.
Treats and desserts are even trickier. All the other kids have them and your child will definitely request them. This subject is up to you, mom! For my kids, I ask for their help in making treats at home, or picking the pre-packaged kind at the grocery store. Together, we look at ingredients and we decide what is best. Rice Crispy Squares? Not so much. “Organic junk food”? Better. Homemade or products with ingredients we can pronounce? Best!
Hopefully, there are a few ideas that will help with lunchtime madness. Remember, it’s not your lunch – it’s your child’s. Get them involved in the decision making. Ask them to help prepare lunches. Seize the opportunity to educate on nutrition. And if necessary, let go of the reigns! They may chose a bagel and cream cheese EVERY DAY. That’s o.k. Try to help them round out their nutrition in other ways. Not one size fits all – together, you’ll figure it out! Good luck!