This is a question I get often in those hallway pick-up discussion with parents….sometimes with a tone of curiosity and sometimes with a touch of good natured sarcasm….once of course they find out I am a family nutrition dietitian.
You know that saying “the plumber’s pipes are always leaky”? I say, trying to assure them that my son’s Ninja Turtles lunch bag is definitely not filled with a co-ordinating Bento worthy of an Instagram post.
Maybe people assume I’m trying to make them feel better, but alas, I struggle as much as any parent to create a lunch that is more than a collection of colourful packages from the “kid food” isle!
Though sometimes it may be tempting to dump in 4 different flavour granola bars (they probably have SOMETHING from each food group right?), I muster up that last spurt of energy, spend no more than 5 minutes pulling together a balanced offering for my growing boy……it may not be photo-worthy, but it’s nutritious and edible.
Variety is key; to really encourage and promote your child’s decision-making ability, offer a variety, even if they are very simple things.
Here are 5 tips for packing a healthy but appetizing lunch for your child:
Offer vegetables….Don’t stop reading!
I know you may be thinking REEALLY? You’re such a dietitian!
The reason I say this is because lunch is a perfect storm of Autonomy and Community for kids, and you need to take advantage of it. Children, all people, are designed to eat together in a social and communal atmosphere, and though chaotic, school lunchtime offers this opportunity. And the Golden Rule of feeding babies and children is that they decide what goes into their little bellies, based on what you offer.
Even if you think “no way would my kid eat veggies”, give it a try! Any form of vegetables that your child enjoys, and use this great opportunity for introducing new veggies without the pressure of parental monitoring and goading.
- Frozen green peas: yes, literally, in a little container
- Celery sticks with Sun or Wow butter on them; a few raisins…Ants on a Log… Classic
- Edamame: you can use the frozen shelled or in the pod and quick steam them the night before then refrigerate; they are an excellent source of protein
- Cucumber sticks or circles
- Bell pepper sticks; all colours, red in particular great source of Vitamin C
- Carrots; large cut into spears or baby carrots (my daughter find eating anything in a “baby” format appealing right now….something that will change sharply in adolescence :J
- Cherry or grape tomatoes
Keep the portions small
Many children are overwhelmed and put-off by being served large, adult portions of food. Of course there may be exceptions, but smaller portions that are more in line with a child’s size allow the child to approach the food without trepidation and anxiety that they can’t eat it all or it looks unappealing. Use small containers for portions of each food offered if you can; it adds to the fun of opening and revealing what’s inside.
Offer something from all food groups:
Variety is key; to really encourage and promote your child’s decision-making ability, offer a variety, even if they are very simple things. This promotes the diversity of their diet over time and that is truly what affects long-term growth and development. It is also a chance to have a discussion point around the dinner or snack table later (although increasingly I am realizing what happens at JK STAYS at JK)…it’s worth a shot: “Hey, what was your favourite part of your lunch today?” Hide the discouraged look on your face when they say “crackers!!” in the long term, the more they are offered variety, the more varied their diet may become.
Pack it the night before and get your child involved if you can
This is important to reduce chaos and morning stress. Getting two children under 5 wrapped up and packed up in the winter to make the school bell shouldn’t be any more stressful!
I encourage looking in the fridge together to pick out things that stimulate interest. Allow your child to describe their favourite things; then describe some of yours. Try samples of foods if necessary and then start packing. If you are using a thermos-based meal, you could portion it out, get the ice packs and the rest of lunch ready and then heat in the morning and pack.
Manage your expectations
This may actually be the last line of every blog post I write now that I am a parent! At first, even I found it challenging when my son would come home with full room-temperature, smushed and rattled version of the beautiful little lunch I had packed…completely uneaten. But I remind myself, healthy children will self-regulate intake, and the new environment and excitement of school and friends takes time to adjust to! Expect your children to be offered nutritious food, and that THEY are the best judges of what should be eaten.