Another day, another lukewarm yogurt coming home in my son’s lunchbox. The ice pack I’ve carefully put in to keep everything fresh until his lunch period is now at room temperature. I have to dump the cheesestick too, no longer edible after sitting in his backpack all day. “Oh, I only had time to eat half my sandwich,” Aidan says as I sadly put the rest in the trash. But what’s this? The cookie is gone? Hmmm.
If this scenario sounds similar, I’m glad I’m not alone in the struggle to get my kid to actually EAT his packed lunch every day! There can be so many factors preventing children from eating most of their lunch, from a too-quick cafeteria period to the influence of what other kids are bringing to being full from the cupcake brought into the classroom for someone’s birthday. I’ve been disappointed many times to find Aidan coming home with most or at least half of his lunch still in his Thermos, untouched. Lunch periods go by very quickly, and any parent who has been allowed to visit their child during lunchtime knows how chaotic the cafeteria can get. It’s like a bunch of animals have just been released from captivity! It’s no surprise that sometimes children have a hard time actually eating in that environment. For Aidan, it’s the perfect storm of being a very slow eater with selective tastes paired with wanting to spend time talking to his friends. I don’t care so much if he finishes everything, but not wasting perishable food is an important value in our household, so that’s the bare minimum I hope for.
Finally, after a few years of just being frustrated about this, I’ve discovered a few ways to alleviate the issue and help Aidan actually eat his packed lunch! Read on if you’ve ever unzipped a lunchbox at the end of the day and sighed with frustration!
Make it a Game: You’ve got to try this! Aidan and his friends at school love riddles. In the past when I’d stop in the cafeteria to say hello, sometimes it would get a little awkward trying to make conversation with all the classmates who were excited that a parent was there. So I’d prepare a riddle for them to mull over while they ate. It was a big hit, so I decided to bring the riddle game directly into the lunchbox. I leave a riddle for Aidan to try to figure out with his friends during their lunch period, but I don’t give the answer. He only gets it when he returns home with most of his lunch eaten. My son is too smart to fall for most parental tricks like this, so I was blown away when he hopped off the bus the first time with his guesses to the riddle….and an empty lunchbox! Here is a great site for kid-appropriate riddles. We do it every day now!
Involve the Kids: Let your children assist with preparing and packing their own lunches for school. They naturally enjoy helping with things, and it will give them a sense of autonomy and control over what goes into their lunch. If packing healthier items is important to you, let the children select a more “fun” side to go along with the carrot sticks you put in there. Working together will demonstrate teamwork and letting children have some control will give them a sense of pride in what they have packed for themselves.
Lower Your Expectations: Consider that you may be providing too much food for one meal. It’s normal and instinctual for us to want to leave our children very prepared when they are not with us, and this can translate into how much we pack for them in the lunchbox. What if they get hungry? What if this isn’t enough for them? Unless your child is directly telling you that they are still hungry after eating everything in their packed lunch, it’s best not to overdo it. If they are already eating a complete breakfast and dinner as well, they just need a simple lunch to get through the day, especially since younger grades still have snack time.
Keep it Simple: The Pinterest pages and school lunch blogs have beautiful images of creative lunches to make for your children, but most days, kids don’t need fancy things or artfully-crafted sandwiches. I love a good fun food recipe, and when Aidan was younger, we had fun turning cheese slices and waffles into dinosaurs, flowers, and other works of art. But for school lunches, it’s best to keep it simple. Kids these days really don’t have a lot of time in the cafeteria, and they truly are too busy talking with friends and just want to decompress from academics. Save the artsy creations for the weekends, when you can surprise them with a pancake monkey face. For packed lunches, even just cutting sandwiches differently one day is creative enough for you both. Speaking of simple, make sure your kids are able to open all their containers and food packages easily. That might seem obvious but sometimes a kid might not bother with that yogurt or snack mix if he can’t open it. He may not want to waste time keeping his hand raised while the cafeteria aides make the rounds helping out with this. Don’t go crazy searching for the best Bento boxes out there – when it comes down to it, foil and plastic wrap are fine enough sometimes!
Think Outside the Bread: My son is more of a “hot lunch” person just like me. In fact, when I have to pack a picnic lunch for myself, I actually have a hard time coming up with different ideas, as I’m not much of a sandwich person. What do your kids naturally love to eat? How can you translate these foods into lunchbox items? For example, Aidan loves bagels, but I’ve found they can get too hard sitting all day. Instead, I spread a little cream cheese on bagel chips and pair with a few other sides. They stay fresh without getting soggy or stale. What about turning every kid’s favorite food, pizza, into lunchbox-friendly pizza muffins that pack well? Breakfast for lunch? Grilled cheese and chicken nuggets stay warm in a hot Thermos too! See here for my post on other great picnic meals. They can translate easily into a packed lunch for school.
Finally, take the pressure off both yourself and your children. I have struggled with this as well but when we encourage eating too much, we are engaging in a control issue with our children and that will make them even less likely to eat their food. You can have an honest talk with your children about eating their lunches, and it’s good to educate them on the difference between perishable food, which we unfortunately cannot save after a long, hot day in the backpack, and non-perishable items, which can be brought home and saved if time runs out. But beyond that, children will pick up on our stress and it won't help. As with all food and eating issues, our goal as parents is to remain consistent and model good eating ourselves. Other than that, we can just hope for the best! I encourage you to try some of these tips for your school-aged children. Best of luck!