School lunches are the one thing that strike fear into the heart of many parents. The pressure to come up with something healthy, that the kids will eat and not trade off for a classmate's sugary/processed/food coloring laced item that is also devoid of nuts or anything else that the school restricts, is high. Throughout the internet there are lunch ideas, but for busy moms some of the cutesy lunch box fare just seems like a whole lot of work.
I don't blame moms for wanting to throw in the towel. After twenty years of working in schools, packing my own lunch and packing my son's all the way through (he's now in grade 12), there were times that I wanted to give up as well. I specifically remember when he was in elementary school and recently diagnosed with lactose intolerance, as well as being sensitive to corn, soy, msg, and red food dye. A classmate was allergic to nuts, and still another very dramatically protested if seafood or fish were even present in the classroom. Couple that with some adults who would protest over a home made brownie, and it seemed like nothing I packed was good enough.
It was time to get creative and play around with what I could put in his lunch and along the way, I learned some truths.
Kids will only eat 'kid food'
Reality: Kids will eat whatever you give them. Sure, they like 'kid food,' because it is marketed directly at them in a specific way to grab their attention. Bright colors, loads of sugar and fat, why not? It doesn't mean that it's good for them or will be only what they will eat. Don't allow yourself to be fooled by marketing aimed specifically to grab your kid's attention, and to get them to pester you. Don't feel that you have to ban kid food entirely, but pay attention to how much you slip into the lunch box. Supplement lunch with things like fruit, veggies, home made dips, yogurt, hummus, and more. You'd be surprised how many kids are envious of another child when they have home made food in their lunch box. Sure, everyone has granola bars-but when a kid shows up with a yogurt parfait and gets to sprinkle granola on it? THAT gets their attention.
Kids should eat everything you pack
Reality: Kids go through growth spurts. Some will clean out that lunch box and still be hungry, others will eat hardly anything. You are the best judge of how much your child may eat. Some schools have a rule that the kids must eat everything, and if that is the case, talk to the teacher. We allowed Kevin to eat when he was hungry and listen to his body; if he didn't eat much lunch at lunchtime, maybe he would want more after school. I always packed more when I noticed he was having a growth spurt, or if I knew it would be a particularly active day. High schoolers need a little extra, especially for that mid afternoon slump. Often they will head for a vending machine, but you can help them to make healthier choices by adding things like nuts, hummus, pita, cheese, crackers, or fruit to their lunch when hunger strikes.
You're a better Mom if the lunch is cute
Reality: In 20 years, I've never seen a cutesie lunch. Ever. Parents are stressed and throw together what they can, without the time to make it photo worthy. To me, it's way too much pressure to try to make it adorable. The emphasis should be on the fact that it's good, wholesome food, not that it's ready to be put into a magazine. To keep your kids interested in what they are eating, involve them in the packing the night before. Give them two choices of fruit or veggies, see if they'd like a little of the leftovers of the dinner they loved, or if they'd prefer ranch dip or hummus with their carrots. The trick is to give them choices, but keep it limited as they get overwhelmed if there are too many options. Also, get the kids to rate their lunches when they get home from school. Kevin rated his lunches on a scale of 1-5, with 5 meaning "I love that please make it again!" and 1 meaning, "I really didn't like that. Try again!" Without making it personal, he could tell me liked the dish or not and then we'd brainstorm other things that would be delicious. Often, he gathered ideas just from looking at his friend's lunches.
Your kids should eat a lot of variety and you're a bad mom if they eat the same thing every day
Reality: Some kids go on food jags and believe it or not, this is common! When Kevin was four, he ate grilled cheese sandwiches for lunch every single day for about two months. Nothing else. Was it worth a fight to make him eat something else? Not really. He grew out of it quickly, and moved on to something else. Kids are funny creatures and it's not always worth the fight to get them to eat something they don't want, or move away from something they love. Don't like broccoli? Try it in a broccoli cheese soup. If that doesn't work? Move on. I didn't like cantaloupe as a child, and I still am not fond of the melon. Does he want grilled cheese every day? Go with it-it's just lunch, you can supplement with other things throughout the day. Don't make food a fight. It's not worth it.
Kids should never, ever have treats in their lunches
Reality: We all love them, and I can't even tell you how many times I've eaten a cookie or brownie at recess with my coffee at work. This really is personal preference; I have no issue packing my child a home made brownie or couple of cookies, as long as he eats the rest of his lunch. We did, however, have a rule. You could have the treat in your lunch, or after school, but not both. I allowed Kevin to pick, and sometimes, he chose to save the treat for when he came home, depending on what it was. When you send treats, they should be a small add on to the lunch, not the focus. Little people need to focus and learn, which is really hard if they are buzzed up on caffeine. This really is personal choice but I think should be looked at with care. If you wouldn't allow your child to have it when you are on a road trip and trapped in a car with them for 5 hours, best not to send it to school.