Cramming an entire food pyramid’s worth of nutrition into a lunch box can be a daunting task for parents, especially given that school lunches are generally packed as the morning clock winds down and kids rampage through the house. Still, it’s possible to jam each of the food groups into a relatively appetizing (by kid standards anyway) lunch. Making that happen — and prepping age-appropriate servings — just takes a bit of planning. Still, it’s worth it. For kids, dinner is probably the actual most important meal of the day, but lunch is extremely important as well.
“Remember, lunch is brain food for the learners in school — it helps kids focus and pay attention while re-energizing their bodies for the second half of the school day,” says author, registered dietitian, and childhood nutrition expert Jill Castle. “I recommend trying to get most of the food groups into lunch, if possible, so that a blend of nutrients such as protein, fiber and vitamins and minerals are offered. This can be tough, though!”
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Grains can be relatively straightforward with even the most picky eater, with bread and crackers hitting the sweet spot, while protein can include servings of anything from turkey to peanut butter. Dairy, too, is generally an easy sell for kids, with cheese sticks and yogurt widely available and easy to fit into a bag. But including both a fruit and a vegetable in a way that’s likely to result in kids actually eating either is tough. The easy way out? Dried fruit and dippable vegetables like carrot sticks (hummus is basically a protein pack).
What that means for parents is that there are a lot of moving parts. This is why many parents find it helpful to print off a checklist of lunch ingredients to stick on the fridge while packing. Lists like that are also helpful in creating a grocery list, allowing mom and dad a reference point so they can purchase various options for each food group when visiting the grocery store. Castle admits that it might not be possible to hit every food time every morning, but says that parents should definitely make sure that their kid is getting protein, some fruit, and a fiber-rich grain. That’s sort of the hard minimum.
How to Make a Balanced Meal a Little Kid Might Eat
- Try to get a grain, a protein, a dairy, a fruit, and a vegetable in the lunchbox daily. When you fail, prioritize grains and toss in some appealing fruit snacks.
- Plan ahead by making lists and using them when shopping. There are too many moving parts to just wing it.
- Watch what the kid eats at home and try to prioritize packing foods he or she likes. Ask kids what they like if it’s not clear. Just don’t be aggressive about it as antagonism can lead to unhealthy eating habits.
It’s also important to think about what we might call, for lack of a better word, marketing. Kids are notoriously picky, which often means parents resort to hiding the food groups in more fun packaging (squeezable yogurt, fruit leathers in fun shapes, veggie packets). Thats all good, but its naive to believe that this guarantees success. Look in a cafeteria trash sometime and you’ll see plenty of yogurt spilled from packages. The truth is that kids can’t be trusted to eat what they’re given and that there’s no clear solution for this.
The one thing parents can do is monitor what their children are eating at home and try to offer items the kids actually like in the school lunch, filling in some of the nutritional gaps absent in breakfast, which they actually see the kids eating. Simply asking children what they’re eating at school, too, is a good way to figure out what’s missing in a packed lunch. But Castle cautions against grilling a kid too hard.
“I always caution parents about being too intrusive with monitoring because it may break down the communication with your child if you start the inquisition when your child comes home from school,” Castle says. “I advise keeping it positive and being aware, but not the topic of conversation all the time. Another way around this issue is to offer all food groups at all meals, and make sure snacks are nutritious and balanced, showcasing two to three food groups.”
Even the most diligent parent generally relinquishes control of their child’s diet once they’re out the door. Public school cafeterias are not much better than prison cafeterias at this point, bad meals get traded for junk food and junk food gets traded for favors. It’s not a great scene. Though they’d be right to be concerned, parents, Castle is quick to stress, still have control of what’s consumed under their own roof. Mid-day dietary disruptions can be countered with consistency at home.
“The good news is that a child’s nutritional status is not anchored in one meal. Lunch is but a small component of the daily food intake; most kids have four to five opportunities to eat throughout the day, and this allows a solid representation of nutrition and nutrients,” says Castle.”