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Troubleshooting school lunch: problems and solutions

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It’s a whole new era for school lunch! While we contented ourselves with a peanut butter sandwich and a Fruit Roll-Up, packed in a paper bag or a metal box with a Thermos of milk, or ate sodium-laden pizza purchased in the cafeteria, today’s kids are accustomed to insulated soft lunchboxes, sectioned-off bento-style containers, and items like quinoa, which I definitely never heard of as a kid (did you?).

Still, many of the same problems and irritations persist: packing school lunch takes time, kids don’t want to eat the healthy staples you’ve prepared for them, multiple kids in your family want different meals, and cafeteria food is unappetizing. So, here in the first month of the new school year, we have some suggestions for how to get your kid to eat.

 

1. Choose items that they like.
You probably already have a pretty good idea of the items your child won’t touch, but it’s a good idea to also get them to “buy in” by giving them some power over what you pack for their school lunch. I like blogger Wendy Copley’s idea of printing out a big list of items you might pack, handing your kid a highlighter, and having him select his preferences. (Highlighting is fun!)

2. Have them help to make their lunch.
Copley also brought out a cookbook to let her son choose some recipes, some of which they can make together. Bonus: kids get really excited to help out in the kitchen, and teaching them cooking skills now means that by the time they’re in middle school or high school, they may be able to make dinner for the whole family on occasion, giving you a nice break.

3. Seriously, bento boxes are great.
It isn’t just a trend: many kids and even adults don’t like it when their foods touch! A school lunch box with lots of little compartments will help to keep everything comfortably separated. Plus, kids like snack-style dining. You don’t have to go nuts cutting everything into perfect little shapes and arranging it perfectly, but if it makes you happy, go for it!

4. Make sure they can open the containers.
Remember the agony of attempting to precision-drill a tiny straw into your slippery package of Capri-Sun? Author Asha Dornfest helped her less-dexterous kid master opening her lunch containers by practicing at home.

5. Let them be hungry sometimes.
Blogger Cynthia Dermody’s little guy was a chatterbox, and wound up bringing a bunch of his lunch home with him every day because he was too busy talking to the other kids at lunch to get any eating done. Dermody decided, after much consideration, to just let her son learn the lesson organically: being hungry isn’t fun!

6. DON’T pressure kids to eat.
Trying to wheedle or force them into eating more will cause them to dial up the resistance, and, worse, teaches them to ignore their natural hunger/fullness cues. Family Nutrition Educator Sarah Remmer writes: “Toddlers and kids were born intuitive eaters, and it’s important to nurture that intuition as long as you possibly can… our responsibility as the parent is to ensure your child is offered a healthy, tasty, balanced meal three times a day and healthy snacks in between most meals. It’s your children’s responsibility to decide whether they eat and how much.”

 

Finally: remember that we grew up with Kraft Handi-Snacks, Wonder Bread, Ding-Dongs, and intensely sugary drinks for lunch, and somehow managed to survive to adulthood. And the problem of kids refusing to eat what you pack is an age-old one, as demonstrated by this advice from Good Housekeeping circa 1936:

If your family is anything like mine, they will be brutally frank in letting you know what they like and what they don’t. Let these criticisms be a warning to you and profit by them. It’s so easy to be smug and assume that what we ourselves want the rest of the world ought to like top…I’m not going to try to persuade you that packing lunches is just fun…But I do say that it can be made an interesting job if we approach it in a spirit of adventure…In box lunches particularly it’s the sameness that gets you down, whether you eat them or pack them. Don’t waste time lamenting that Mother Nature doesn’t produce a brand-new foodstuff every day. Sit back and consider how shortsighted you’ve been in the numberless things you’ve overlooked…Just because there’s a cafeteria in the school is no reason for dropping all lunch responsibility. Any mother who hears that Johnny is turning up his nose at the soup or cocoa can be pretty sure that he’s leaving most of it in the cup. It may really be poor, or only unattractively served, but why not see about it?

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