I make my kid’s school lunches, and I have made them for the last 9 years. It doesn’t matter what you send, though, if they don’t eat it. So! How do you make sure they eat what you send, so that their bodies are ready for daily exercise and learning? I have a few pointers for making lunches and then I’ll show you my fun solution for encouraging my kids to eat.
First off, my kids are not going to eat what I send if it isn’t something we eat as a family at home. So, if a family is eating only: fast food and chips and fries at home; those kids would not be interested in the apples and broccoli sent in their lunches. Another thing that I’ve learned over the years is: just because it looks cute in a picture online, doesn’t mean it’ll fly in my kid’s lunches. I wouldn’t send something they’ve never had before, unless you have a miracle child, that enjoys trying new things in front of their friends and the whole school.
Second, I don’t believe I need to switch out what my kids eat at lunch every day. I mix up the ratios but rarely the ingredients. If you have to plan something new for both lunch and dinner, daily, you are going to burn out, or at least I would. I cover all the food groups, sometimes more than once, but I send the exact same lunch every day (although, I use seasonal fruit.)
My job (as I see it) with my kids lunch is:
To encourage variety through different colors of fruit and veggies. Different colors: equal different vitamins. Here’s a good article on that: Fruit Color And Vitamin Content)
Include enough calories to keep my kids growing and going (my boys are super active. They play team soccer, jump on the trampoline or are playing nerf gun wars, with our neighbor’s kids, in our 103 degree heat down here. So you need to keep activity levels in mind as you choose your lunch ingredients.)
I also encourage everyone reading this to rethink breakfast.
I make sure my kids start their day with something with protein and fat, to get them going in the morning.
I always had cereal for breakfast. So did my husband. We both always fell asleep in our morning classes. That’s not something I wish on my kids. Lunch isn’t the only thing you can focus on to help your kid’s attention spans and activity levels. Breakfast is important. We choose to do eggs and omelets for breakfast. It doesn’t take much time to cook some eggs and toast, instead of pouring a bowl of sugary cereal or serving an unhealthy pre-made snack food.
We also model those food beliefs in front of our kids. Just like: “do as I say, not as I do” doesn’t work in regular parenting, it won’t work here. Everyone needs to be on the same page. Whatever those goals are, you’ve got to to share them or it tends to not work.
Lastly, sugar is a big evil in a kid’s life. I work at limiting sugar in my kid’s diets. I don’t ban it, but I make sure it’s not the first or second, or even the fifth ingredient in most of what we eat. Then, when I need my kids to do something (that they would normally not focus on without help) while I’m not at lunch with them: I can add a treat. I don’t mind giving them something sugary as a reward. I figure if I got them to do what I want (eat what I consider a healthy lunch), then I am happy to give them something that they want.
All you really need to keep in mind is: that this is your child. Whatever your food goals are: go for those!
The type of food doesn’t change day to day, month to month or even year to year. The only thing that changes is the amount of food. All of the ingredients are almost always the same, until one of them picks something they like more. (For instance: going from hotdogs to ham.) And unless I’m noticing growth spurts, or slow downs, I don’t change the ratios much. My two boys are in fourth and seventh grade. I ask them a couple of times a month if they need more or less in their lunch and try to adjust. But most of the time it’s really obvious, because they’ll come home for a week with a half eaten sandwich or eat everything I send and then hit the kitchen right when they get home.
My youngest son likes chocolate milk and doesn’t like sandwiches. I’m OK with both of those things and work with him with his lunches. I choose ovaltine for his chocolate milk. We prefer the taste of it, and it’s full of vitamins. There was a time when all he wanted for protein was hotdogs and seemed to otherwise subsist on air. I found the healthiest version I could, and just celebrated that he would eat it without my supervision!
My older boy likes regular milk and certain things on his sandwich, like mustard and mayo, so I go with that. One kid only likes red grapes. The other one likes red, and green grapes. One is a picky eater, the other one is proud (as am, I!) that he’ll try anything. We have had a lot of practice with the saying “You get what you get, and you don’t throw a fit.”
The point is: to have a framework to work around and to swap things out as their preferences change. I want everyone to be happy with our lunch situation! Otherwise nobody eats, and my efforts are all for nought. Plus, nobody needs a weird relationship with food. It’s too basic a need for unhealthy emotional attachments.
Here’s my regular list between the two kids:
Fourth grade lunch: three slices of ham, a slice of cheese, tomatoes, cucumber, carrots, snap peas, grapes, a cup and a half of full fat yogurt, a small bag of chia seed with some candy sprinkles (for the yogurt), chocolate whole milk, whole grain cereal bar and beef jerky for the daily snack.
Seventh grade lunch: ham (2 slices) and cheese on whole grain sandwich bread with mustard and full fat mayo, broccoli, snap peas, carrots, grapes, 2 cups full fat yogurt, a small bag of chia seed with some candy sprinkles (for the yogurt), whole milk and whole grain crackers for the daily snack.
This works out to be about exactly the recommended calories for each kid. I know when I need to adjust, based on their attitudes when they get home and what (if anything) comes back in their lunch boxes.
I also have always included a bag of chia seeds (with some candy sprinkles to make it more appetizing). I figured if Aztec warriors could carry around chia for quick energy, my kids might benefit from them too. Chia is the only grain I can think of that is fully digestible without cooking.
So, now that we have the ingredients I choose for my kids: here’s how I make sure they finish.
You don’t have to decorate them (although I do), you could use any kind of motivator your kids like, like a very small piece of candy or a small cookie.
I would use something that won’t ruin their lunch but that they REALLY want included. The rules we have at our house are: if you eat ALL of your lunch, including the milk and snacks that I send, then you get a marshmallow the next day.
1. I don’t send a marshmallow the next day
2. If it is happening frequently I rethink the amount or type of food I’m sending and adjust it so they can finish, so they can earn their marshmallow.
Also it’s a good indicator as to their health. Since my kids regularly finish their lunches, it is a red flag for me if they don’t. If they are sniffling and not eating, it may be time to get out our thieve’s oil, hot turmeric milk and sambuca!
It’s that simple, and I have two kids who eat everything I send: everyday.
I choose to decorate their marshmallows because it is much better received than notes in their bags. Plus, I could send decorated marshmallows in their lunches well before they could read a note. I use food grade, edible markers and cake aerosol spray food coloring. (Please don’t try to use regular markers for this!) You can find these things at Michael’s arts and crafts and other craft stores that have a baking department.
As a tip for a beginner: You can’t push a marker across a marshmallow. You have to drag it. Scissors are how I add mouths, tongues, ears and eyes. Don’t use toothpicks to add extra marshmallows unless your kids are old enough to look out for them AND you’ve warned them ahead of time that they’re in there. I spray color onto the marshmallows in a zip lock bag. I keep a bag for each color and reuse them. If you spray them they need to set out on the counter to dry before you work on them any more. If you don’t like the idea of aerosol sprays you can color a couple of Tbsp of powdered sugar with a couple of drops of food dye in a baggie. Massage the bag until the color spreads evenly. The color will be lighter than the spray, but you can save the excess and reuse it.
Some kids have dye sensitivity. Mine don’t. My kids have sugar crashes instead, it’s why I work so hard to get them to eat properly. But if yours do have dye issues, then finding something without dye that will motivate them, is an option. Or you can leave your marshmallow “as is” instead of decorating it.
I only take a couple of minutes after I’ve made their lunches to decorate these. I usually Google something and copy the idea. That’s why I’ve put all of these examples in here. I know at the end of the day sometimes thinking up a marshmallow idea is tough. There’s a lot of times that I just do confetti or smiley faces.
This really works for us! I’m happy that: we’ve now been through 8 years of lunches and my kids always finish, and I’m satisfied that I’ve done what I can to encourage that from my end.
I hope these ideas help anyone frustrated with their child’s inconsistent eating, or who are just looking for some new ideas. I’m always happy to know that my kid takes a moment at lunch to think about me.
Growing up is hard, but so is letting go! As a mom, I try to walk that line between being too much, and being to little, an influence in my kid’s day at school. I believe the time I put into feeding my kids healthy food, is well spent. I know a lot of us are aware of what can go wrong with a child’s day if they are not eating well. I hope I’ve helped their teachers a bit, too!
Let me know how this works for you in the comment section! Good luck!