How to pack healthy lunches for picky eaters

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School is good for a lot of things; however, in my experience, developing a diverse palate isn’t one of them. Last year when my daughter started kindergarten, I learned just how picky she is about food.

At the beginning of the school year, she never wanted to buy a lunch and she frequently brought a majority of her packed lunch home. I didn’t understand it at first. She had always eaten well when I made her lunch at home.

At school

Things are just different at school.

Tater didn’t want to eat her lunch because she wasn’t used to the dynamics of school lunch time. The biggest thing that helped me pack better lunches for her was considering the things that had changed.

Before she ate lunch at school every day, she never had a time limit for finishing her food. Since lunch was usually our time to take a break and enjoy each other’s company, we ate at a pretty leisurely pace.

She had never eaten lunch around peers before school. As an only child, she had my undivided attention at every meal. She never had to wait to have her Go-Gurt or juice box opened, nor was she expected to do it herself. I just took care of it.

She never had so many distractions before either. How could she possibly focus on eating with so many friends to talk to?

Furthermore, she never had so many friends to impress. Maybe, the pudding cups that were so attractive before weren’t such a good idea now that she had to clean up after herself and eat in front of her friends.

Besides the schedule change and social changes associated with eating school lunches, the food itself was different. Working second-shift at the time, I was fortunate enough to cook hot meals for lunch every day. Getting her to accept that she would be eating a cold lunch most days was half the battle.

Fixing the problem

Once I isolated some of the factors that were contributing to her sudden pickiness towards food, it was a lot easier to get her to eat the healthy lunches I packed.

Saving time. The first change I made was to start packing things that would take less time for her to eat. Rather than packing a whole apple or dill pickle, I started cutting all of her fruits and vegetables into bite sized pieces. By cutting up fruits and vegetables, it makes foods easier to eat and helps her with time management.

Preparation. When you’re preparing your little one for school you’re juggling so many different things that it’s easy to let opening a juice box slip through the cracks. It’s not that she couldn’t or wouldn’t open prepackaged drinks and foods, it’s just something I usually did to save time.

To make her more independent at school, I simply stopped helping her with things she could do on her own at home — even if it meant sacrificing a little more time to let her figure it out. In the long run, it’s actually saved me a lot of time. Instead of going through the cycle of asking for a snack, waiting for me to list off choices and then open it and give it to her, our process has turned into “mom, can I have a snack,” followed by her disappearing into the kitchen to fix it herself.

Cleanliness. At home, Tater never concerned herself with how messy it would be to eat a specific food. When she got it on her hands or face we’d just get the washrag and wipe her down. A big part of making her lunches less messy went a long with the first two items. Having her food cut into smaller pieces made it easier to handle and easier to eat. Showing her how to open prepackaged foods and drinks, not only saved time, it also cut down on messes.

I also made her lunches cleaner by considering how much trouble she had eating certain foods. It usually only took small changes to make healthy foods more appealing. By reducing the amount of mustard, mayonnaise, ketchup, peanut butter and jelly I was putting on her sandwiches, it made them a lot easier and less messy for her. Sometimes all it took was better packaging. Putting watermelon in a Ziploc bag is definitely messier than packing it in a Tupperware container.

Social experiment. After realizing that socializing was a big reason perfectly good food got brought home each day, I made a point to teach her to balance eating and talking during meals. Instead of offering unlimited time at dinner or lunch time on the weekends, I encouraged her to try harder to finish her meal at the same time as everyone else. Usually, a few gentle reminders about how much she’s talking in comparison to how much she’s eating gets her back on track. And if that doesn’t work, the last one done does the dishes.

Working together. When we started packing her lunches Tater expected to get macaroni and cheese, chicken nuggets, quesadillas or some other hot meal I frequently made her for lunch before she started school. She had to adjust to eating a cold lunch every day unless she wanted to start buying lunches occasionally (which she did not).

Part of the problem was not knowing what she liked cold. Sure, she ate bologna from time to time, but we had to expand her love of lunch meats and familiarize her with PB&J. We needed to try hard boiled eggs and tuna salad — all the meat salads you spread on bread. And so we tried new things. Letting her help me prepare them made her a lot more willing to try new things.

I also compromised and bought her an insulated thermos, so she could have macaroni and cheese, turkey pot pie or her favorite leftovers from time to time.

Don’t sacrifice healthy food

The most important thing is keeping lunch healthy. When you’re dealing with picky eaters that frequently refuse food, it’s easy to want to give in and substitute with foods they will eat that aren’t as healthy. Sure, you may feel like you’re doing them a favor because eating something is better than nothing at all, but in the long run, you’re enabling poor eating habits. The things you teach them while they’re young stick with them for a lifetime. Giving them good eating habits now, will help them develop into healthy adults and encourage them to make healthier decisions for the rest of their lives.

Before you decide that your child doesn’t like any of the foods he or she used to enjoy, consider what’s changed and work with him or her the solve the underlying issue. Just because the food you packed in the morning comes back in the afternoon doesn’t mean it isn’t delicious and healthy.

For the most part, I just needed to consider what was more appealing to my daughter. In a way, yes, she got pickier, but it wasn’t all about the foods I was packing. A big part of her pickiness came from the food preparation and packaging, and the changes to her eating habits. It took a while to get everything worked out, but here we are in first grade and her lunch box is empty after school.

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