Parents: Could getting your child involved in making lunch simply end up creating a mess of unappetizing foods not even appealing to a hungry dog? It doesn’t have to be! (Enjoy this short piece of nostalgia on Lilly Tomlin’s Edith Ann, creating her lunch masterpiece from Sesame Street, above.)
Since the article on vending machines and poor eating in schools , I’ve received some questions from parents who want to know about how to get their children to eat a better lunch while at school.
No, I’m not a proponent of bribing or threatening children to eat lunch and I’m certainly not a fan of the whole “clean your plate club” way of thinking. But there are some ways that make it more likely that your children will eat a healthy, nourishing lunch.
I know, it’s sometimes hard enough to get children to eat healthy, nutritious foods while their at home—how are you supposed to help them choose healthy foods while they’re in school? And all the competition with processed, colorful Lunchables, overly sweetened juices, frosted pop tarts, and imitation pressed fruit in the shapes of animals and cartoons—what carrot stick and whole wheat bread sandwich is going to stack up?
The truth is, while you may not always be able to choose what they eat that day, you may be able to influence what choices they have to choose from!
Here’s some ways to get started:
(1) Get the children involved in the weekly menu: When children get to choose what they’re going to eat, they are much more likely to eat it. If they can accompany you to the grocery store, that would be a great start. Have a farmer’s market or farm stand nearby? Going together would be a gift. However, if you’re strapped for time, pull up a chair and have a weekly meeting with your children about what they’d like to eat that week. For young children, give them a few choices to choose from so that they don’t get overwhelmed. Have them choose which protein, veggie, fruit, carb, and desert or snack they’ll have in their bag each day of the week. Post up their choices on a sheet with their name on it so that everyone can see it. Get them excited about the good choices they’ve made and praise them for taking care of their body. This will certainly help them to feel powerful!
(2) Keep it interesting: You can expand on your children’s choices and introduce them to things they may not have tried before. My brothers used to love cereals when they were little. Mom got creative and made “Mom’s Magical Mixed Up Cereal” that was comprised of little bits of this cereal and that. While it was comprised to make use of small bits of leftovers in several boxes, you can do the same to up the nutritional content and fun factor. Also, offer alternatives. If they ask for candy or chocolate for their snack, you can offer a great alternative like a trailmix or a homemade granola that the two of you make together with coconut, oats, nuts, and chocolate chips. If they like fruit, offer it dried, sauced, whole, or baked. If they like sandwiches, offer bagels, crackers, wraps, or special breads you can make together one weekend in your kitchen or bread maker. Why not?
(3) Don’t forget about last night’s dinner: I was never much of a lunch person when I was little. I like hot food much better than wilted salads and lunch meats. So Mom often packed me little bits of “last night’s dinner” and tended to make extra when we were having chicken cutlets or soups. My favorite lunch was always soup in a thermos. It was always hot and predictable and never got smooshed or soggy. Take a look at what healthy foods your child really likes and see how you can give it to him for lunch.
(4) Make food fun: Lunch is a social time for children and “best friends” for a day can be made over who gives who a piece of their watermelon. In first grade I remember Jenny Colona told me she’d be my “very best friend” if I traded her a pretzel for a potato chip. Anyway, it may not seem important to you, but it’s important to them. After all, socialization, negotiation, and sharing are an important part of growing up. Cut sandwiches into fun shapes and sections. Put in a bunch of sharable baby carrots, raisins, or animal crackers. Provide finger foods like cut up fruit, “baby sandwiches” and wheel-shaped pasta salads. Construct a “make your own” taco or pizza so that your children can put together their own concoction (while you still know that the food isn’t processed and fake). Give them things to dunk and dip, roll, or smoosh together.
(5) A little can go a long way: I mean this is 2 ways. First, many children don’t eat a whole lot at lunch. Don’t overwhelm them with huge servings. Instead, give them little things that are nutritious and fun. Secondly, you may not want them snacking on huge donuts and candy bars, but you can provide them with a carefully chosen small sweet that will keep them from eying their friend’s HoHo.
(6) Get them to help pack the lunch: Again, when children are involved, they take more ownership and are more likely to eat what’s packed. Get them to scoop their trail mix into a container or help you cut out stars and hearts into their sandwiches. Get them to get the peanut butter out of the fridge and pick which fruit they want to go into their fruit salad for lunch. If they want fruit and Jell-O, have them help you make it.
(7) Provide them with some love: Let your kids know you’re thinking about them even when they’re at school. You can slip a note of love into their lunch box and tell them what special thing you’re going to do after school. You can put a holiday card or special sticker in there on Valentine’s Day or the first day of spring. Why not put a funny joke in their lunch box or little cartoon? Your child will love you for it!
It takes some imagination and at first, some additional time, however, it’s certainly worth it. It allows your children to get the nutrition they need to pay attention in school and feel their best. And of course, that give all of us piece of mind.