Kids are the world’s best food critics. Whether it’s a Michelin-starred full course dinner or Tuesday night’s pizza delivery, if they don’t like it you’ll know. Best-case scenario: they’ll complain. Worst-case scenario: they won’t eat it. This is especially a problem when it comes to school lunch, a meal they need to perform well in school, and one you can’t be there to remedy with an alternative. To solve this dilemma, we recruited Olivia Roszkowski, Chef Instructor for Natural Gourmet Institute, to teach us how to master packing a kid’s lunch. Here are seven clutch tips to ensure there will be no more lunchboxes coming home with wilted lettuce and crushed potato in them anymore — and that you’re not spending your precious time cutting PB&Js into dragons.
1. Invest in Bento Boxes
Not only do bento boxes keep foods from touching (a cardinal sin according to some kids) but they also make portions and variety a little more exciting than a handful of Ziploc bags can. Chef Roszkowski recommends buying metal bento boxes — they’re pricey but they’re long lasting.
2. Make Veggies Easy to Eat
The biggest obstacles between your kid and a carrot? Convenience and appeal. So make eating healthily as simple (and delicious) as opening a bag of chips. “Cut vegetables into strips for easy handheld snacking,” Roszkowski suggests. “And make veggie strips fun by including hummus, cashew ranch, roasted red pepper dip, almond butter, or green goddess dressing to dip into.”
Roszkowski also recommends blanching vegetables to bring out their natural sweetness and to make them a little easier for kids to eat. To blanche veggies, bring salted water to a boil, cut veggies into desired shapes, and cook for 30 seconds or until desired texture is reached. Place in ice bath to stop cooking.
3. Try Different Textures
According to science, texture is one of the most important factors of meal satisfaction. So include different textures in lunchboxes — like soft, crunchy, creamy and chewy. “I recommend starting with fruit leathers, pretzels, cookies, crackers, granola bars, and dried fruit,” Roszkowski says.
4. Avoid a Flavor Rut
Sure, your kid has his or her favorite flavors, but changing it up can make their palate more comprehensive and, more importantly, keeps them from getting bored. “Change up the flavor throughout the week to keep it interesting — from different jelly to popcorn flavors,” Roszkowski says. Just make sure that if you’re switching from strawberry jelly to blackberry or buttery popcorn to salt and pepper-flavored that you don’t sacrifice good nutrition in the process. “Look for low sugar jellies that use natural sweeteners like apple juice. For popcorn, air poppers are great to get the kids involved. Use an oil spray on the popped corn to have favorite spices or seasonings adhere,” Roszkowski suggests.
5. Pack and Pick Seasonally
Just so there’s no excuse of not knowing what fruits and veggies are in season near you, here’s a guide. Not only does in-season produce guarantee that lunches with be packed with peak freshness and flavor, but it also allows you kiddo to learn the relationship of seasons with available foods and try different produce. “Right now for early fall look for zucchini, tomatoes, squash, cucumbers, cauliflower, broccoli, squash, apples,” Roszkowski says.
6. Make Shapes
Okay, we mentioned dragon-shaped PB&Js earlier, but what we didn’t mention is that you don’t have to slave away to make fun shapes out of your kids’ food. There’s a hack for that. “Use cookie cutters to cut sandwiches, cheese and fruit into fun shapes,” Roszkowski says. “Look for cookie cutters that are holiday themed — like leaves for fall or pumpkins for Halloween, or look for something your child loves — like their favorite animal.”
7. Disguise Veggies
It’s not as hard as you might think to disguise vegetables. All you need is some zucchini, carrots, pumpkin, a mini muffin tin, and a recipe. Trust us, your kids won’t complain about eating muffins and you won’t have to worry about those five servings a day.