Like many 6-year-olds, Jennifer Ward’s son, Caden, is particular about his food. “He dislikes common lunch staples, like sandwiches,” she says. “He especially dislikes dairy products, so convenient proteins like cheese and yogurt are out.”
Ward’s younger son (London, age 3) will try anything and has a diverse palate, so she knows her older son’s pickiness has nothing to do with her parenting style.
But Ward didn’t throw up her hands with Caden, and send him to school with buttered white bread and a hunk of meat. Like many parents, she’s getting creative, packing healthy lunches that even a picky eater can enjoy. For protein, she puts in hardboiled eggs, hummus or a sliced salmon burger. Carbs come from whole-grain bread or pancakes. Veggies (frozen corn, cauliflower) and fruits (grapes, apples) round out the meal.
Even young eaters who typically aren’t picky can become more discriminating after checking out the goodies in their friends’ lunches. And few children want to open their lunchbox and find a liverwurst sandwich, a mealy apple and raw broccoli. So what’s a parent to do?
Planning for success
“Parents have to make an effort to not ‘give in’ to overly processed white food with no nutritional value,” says chef Lisa Dupar, the owner of Pomegranate Bistro in Redmond and mom of two college-age kids.
And packing a great lunch doesn’t happen in five minutes flat. “It does take time and planning,” says Connie Evers, a registered dietician and author of the book How to Teach Nutrition to Kids: An Integrated, Creative Approach to Nutrition Education for Children Ages 6–10.
A shortcut? Get the kids involved. “By 5 or 6, they’re old enough to help you make lunch,” Evers says. “The child will feel some ownership and more likely to eat.” They can make lists of favorite lunch foods, shop with you and help make lunch the night before. By the age of 8 or 9, they’re old enough to make their own meals-to-go.
Ward preps in advance, freezing her kids’ favorite foods. “I freeze homemade batches of healthy banana bread or pancakes,” she says. “I also make a breakfast cookie that I keep in the freezer, or homemade granola bars.”
To inspire her sons’ appetites, Ward likes the bento-style Laptop Lunches carrier, which comes with multiple containers for holding just-right portions of peas or pears. She says it helps her to “pack a beautiful, colorful lunch.”
And don’t dis the school-supplied meal. Evers says that kids who eat a hot school lunch tend to get more nutrients, because the federal lunch program’s guidelines require fruits, veggies and low-fat dairy. “Have your child go over the school lunch menu and pick out days with healthy options,” she suggests.
But if everyone woke up late, parents are better off skipping overpackaged quickies from the supermarket. Visit the deli section of the local grocery and go for wraps or sandwiches or fresh-made sushi rolls.
Or just reuse favorite leftovers such as soups, organic mac 'n’ cheese or last night’s veggie pizza. An insulated food jar keeps foods hot. “My Brazilian friend cut up pieces of beef from the dinner the night before and packed it with little potatoes and cooked broccoli,” Dupar says, and points out that kids will often eat what they’ve grown up with. So try to maintain a balanced diet all day, and don’t worry too much over the midday meal.
Tips and tricks:
Dip it! Two-thirds of moms said their child eats more vegetables when served with dips, Evers notes. She suggests using a flavored yogurt, ketchup, salsa and ranch dressing as dip options. Hummus, refried beans and Thai-style peanut sauce each provide a protein boost.
Shape up. Think of new ways to present foods: craft rocket-ship sandwiches with cookie cutters. Cube, slice or ball that cantaloupe. “I do veggie fries, which are just veggies cut up like French fries,” Ward says, including colorful combos like purple cabbage, jicama and carrots.
Fruit fun. Dupar suggests packing low-fat fruit yogurt, adding a quarter-cup of chopped strawberries, peaches or melon. Top it off with “crunchies” like Grape Nuts, or supply a separate container of granola.
Goodbye, boring bread. Try a variety of whole-grains breads, such as pita or pumpernickel, bagels or buns. Try an English muffin and fixin’s (sauce, pepperoni and cheese) for a make-your-own-pizza-pie, Evers says.
Logging healthy calories. Tired of bread? Take a favorite string cheese, unwrap it and roll it up in a thin slice of turkey or ham, Dupar suggests. Kids with more adventurous appetites might enjoy a layer of pesto or light mustard on the roll.
Skewing results. Create kabobs by alternating sliced turkey dogs and a hard or semi-soft cheese on a skewer, Dupar suggests. (Be sure to cut off the sharpened end of the skewer before packing.) Or go all-veg or all-fruit, “marinated” in a favorite sauce.
Fennel fans. “Kids love raw fennel because it has natural sweetness and tastes like licorice,” Dupar says. Take a large bulb of fennel, then clean, slice and pull it apart to create little “dippers.” Pack a healthy low-sugar pear or apple sauce alongside.
Don’t forget the treat. “Cookies are fine,” Dupar says. “So is good chocolate — in balance and moderation.”
Lora Shinn’s daughter recently staged a lunchbox rebellion and now requires something besides peanut butter and jelly.
Chef Lisa Dupar’s Breakfast Bar
“This bar is packed with protein, dried fruit, nuts and whole grains,” Dupar says. “It tastes like a fun dessert cookie, and they don’t need to know how healthy it really is.”
4 tbsp. butter, melted
1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp. baking powder
1/4 cup + 1 tbsp. nonfat milk powder
2/3 cup oats
1 tsp. salt
2 cups organic dark brown sugar
2 cups dried fruits, your choice
2 1/2 cups chopped and toasted nuts, of your choice
1. Combine the butter and eggs in a mixer.
2. Combine the dry ingredients and add to the liquid mixture.
3. Fold in the fruit and nuts.
4. Pour into a greased and lined pan.
5. Bake at 350° for about 30 minutes or until it springs back when touched in the center. The edges will be golden, and the center can still be a little bit soft.
6. Cool completely and cut into bars.