By: Cecelia Wilken a Recent ASU Nutrition Student
Growing up I always brought my lunch to school. My dad would always fill my lunchbox with delicious and healthy food. Sometimes the theme would be breakfast, and I’d open my lunchbox up to pancakes, bacon, orange juice, and fresh fruit. Sometimes he would put in leftover lasagna in from the night before. Sometimes it would be basic peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Fortunately for my parents, I was never a picky eater and I’d return home with my lunchbox cleaned out. However, the opposite happened with my younger brother, who returned with his lunchbox contents barely touched.
A lot of parents find their children returning home with untouched lunches. Uneaten apples stare back blankly, soggy sandwiches end up in the trash and the only thing eaten was the bag of unhealthy chips. What can we do to change this? How can we get our children to eat their school lunches? My own picky preschooler is sent to school with a small meal and it has taken some adjustments before I discovered what motivates her to eat her lunch.
In my struggles to discover the perfect school lunch, I’ve developed a few tricks you can try to help motivate your picky eater.
- The container is just as important as the contents!
Unless you are blessed with artistic skills to decorate it yourself, sometimes the blank brown paper bag simply won’t cut it. Having your child pick out their own lunch box can help get them excited about lunch. The lunch box that is the envy of the other school kids is uplifting, motivating and exciting. My own daughter chose a cute little unicorn lunchbox.
But as you know, children are brutal on their stuff, so unless your child decides on a metal container you might have to invest in some sturdy tuber ware or lunchbox containers to fit inside.
- Bento boxes are your new best friend.
My daughter also dislikes having her food touch, so it was important for me to find something that would keep things separated and insulated. Cue, the bento box. Bento boxes are single portion take-out or home-packed meals common in Japanese cuisine. I discovered them on a journey through Pinterest and fell in love. Alternatively, varying sizes of plastic food containers will also do the trick. I like the seal proof type, especially for my rambunctious little one. There are tons of different options online, but we like this one: https://amzn.to/2RndKnK
Bento boxes are essentially fancy tuber ware containers that are characteristically designed to hold a variety of different types of foods. Many bento boxes come with inserts of varying sizes and fit snugly into a lunch box. There are as many different styles and shapes as can be imagined. It is a societal custom in Japan for mothers to create colorful and visually pleasing lunches for their children. Pop-culture icons are crafted out of rice-balls, vegetables are chopped into fun shapes, picturesque scenes are molded from a variety of foods. If I had food made like that for me, I’d eat it too.
If you’re like me, you’re probably thinking that is WAY too much work. And I don’t blame you. Which brings me to my next point.
- Cookie cutters are underrated! Use them year-round!
You can easily buy a set of “fun sandwich-cutters” on Amazon for around $20.
Check one out here! https://amzn.to/2SrOqOy
But if you’re like me, you probably also have a bunch of cookie cutters that collect dust in the pantry. This opens a whole new world of lunch decorating opportunities for you! Suddenly you can transform a boring sandwich into a WORK OF ART! And it will make removing those pesky crusts easy. You can also use them for cutting more than sandwiches. Transform fruits and vegetables, quesadillas even cut shapes out of lasagna noodles! You are only limited by your imagination.
Photo Courtesy of Alpha Mom: https://bit.ly/2PtfC0O
- The power of accessories.
Not to keep adding things your Amazon shopping cart, but there are also tons of other things you can add that will liven up a boring lunch.
- Check here to add some cute eyes to apples, meatballs, hardboiled eggs, vegetables! https://amzn.to/2Puyaxx
- Use these adorable and brightly colored reusable silicone baking molds to separate out snacks! https://amzn.to/2yG7TD8
- Secure galaxies of stars made from carrots with these fun picks! https://amzn.to/2yCoaJ9
- Spice up a boring condiment container with a colorful fun one like these! https://amzn.to/2DdcrVe
- Leave personalized messages on post-it notes inside for a mid-day pick me up!
- Variety is key! Change is Good!
If your child is anything like mine, she would willingly eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Every day. Probably for the rest of her life. But in my hopes to widen her palette I try to include new and exciting dishes into her lunches, with added flair. She is far more likely to try mango shaped into a flower, than if it were in cubes. And she will gladly gobble up that grilled cheese cut in the shape of a dinosaur. Some days I’ll even pull a trick my dad used on me and create a “breakfast for lunch” meal, complete with a little syrup.
Additionally, by incorporating “a little bit of everything” into their lunch box, there is bound to be something your child will eat. In my case, my daughter will always eat gold-fish crackers. So if I make a lunch for her that I know might be questionable, I’ll throw a handle of gold-fish into it so she will at least eat SOMETHING.
In older children, changing up the meals frequently can help prevent the “ham sandwich burn-out” phenomenon. I know I don’t like eating the same meal for more than 3 days, and I don’t imagine most kids like that either.
- Have your Child Make Their Lunch! (or at least help…)
To me, this seems like the most important thing you can do when making lunches for your kids. Them. Help.
Including your child in food preparation is a great way to not only help cultivate critical life-skills but also promotes independence and self-confidence. Having young children help pick out their drink of choice, choose fruits and vegetables they want to eat, put snacks in containers, and even choosing what cookie cutter shape to cut their food in seem like minor decisions to us adults, but in the eyes of a kindergartener or grade schooler this can make a big difference and help them feel pride in both helping and making decisions for themselves.
You can even take it a step further by researching recipes and lunch ideas together! My daughter and I love watching food preparation videos on social media and quite frequently she will ask me if we can make whatever we are watching! If there is something that looks promising, we will build our grocery list, pick up the ingredients from the store and make it together.
- Ask Siri or Alexa to Hunt Down More Recipes.
The internet is a treasure for discovering new ideas and recipes. I know I have a Pinterest board devoted entirely to healthy (and fun!) meal ideas to feed my family. When you feel stumped for ideas a quick search usually holds the answer.
As a busy parent myself, I know how stressful meal prep can be. All too often we are more concerned about what is fast and convenient. The thought of making extravagant lunches not only seems time-consuming but might also seem like a waste of time. Children seem to change their minds about food at the flip of a hat for seemingly ridiculous reasons! But you don’t need to create a four-course meal to get your child to eat.
Here are some quick and easy recipe ideas to help expand your lunch box ideas:
- Bagels with ham and cheese
- Pizza tortilla roll-ups
- Grilled cheese
- Pasta! Mac & Cheese, ravioli, leftover spaghetti!
- DIY Lunchables
- Pita bread with Hummus
- Teriyaki Chicken and Rice
- Hot dog octopus (See recipe below!)
- Waffles or Pancakes
- Cheese – String Cheese, Babybel, Cheddar stars
- Dry Cereal
Creating fun and engaging lunches doesn’t have to be a lot of work to make a big impression. With some simple additions, you can fun and healthy lunches your kids will be excited for!
Octopus Hotdogs – Bonus recipe!
I’m sure you’ve seen pictures of those cute little hot dogs that are cut to curl up after being cooked to look like tiny little octopi! So CUTE! I’ve taken it a step further by incorporating SPAGHETTI NOODLES!
– Hotdogs or sausage, as many as you want!
– A handful of spaghetti noodles, uncooked
- Bring a pot of water to a boil.
- Cut the hot dogs into 2-inch tubes, push 4-5 uncooked noodles through the hot dog so that the dog lies in the middle of the noodle. Little hands can help with this part!
- Boil until the noodles are done.
- Take them out and either serve them in a sea of marinara sauce or a little bit of melted butter!
- Let the fun begin!
You can also use slightly cooked carrots, sweet potatoes or other vegetables to change it up!
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