As a parent, you always pack your child’s lunchbox and hope that they’ll eat everything in it. But at the end of the school day when they return home, it can be disheartening to see sandwich with some tiny bites in it still in there. As you prepare to send your child back to school, it’s a good idea to learn how to pack the perfect kid-approved lunchbox that your kid will actually eat.
Upwards of 77% of parents find it very important to speak to their child about health and nutrition from a young age, according to experts Erin Quann, Ph.D., R.D., Head of Medical Affairs and Nutrition at Gerber and Sarah Smith-Simpson Principal Food Scientist at Nestle Nutrition (Gerber). So why do we wind up sticking the same (overly processed) stuff in our child’s lunchbox? Oftentimes, it comes down to convenience — and frankly, fear that your child won’t eat during the day. “The best way for food to not come back is to make sure your kids are excited by what they’re eating!” says Melissa Kathryn, a certified nutritionist, wholeness coach, and celebrity weight loss expert.
Here’s how to ensure that your child loves their lunch—every last bite.
1. Keep It Fresh
When you have to make a meal for your child every day, it can be hard to know just what to pack. But when it comes to your kiddo’s lunchbox, it’s not that difficult. “Just like adults, a child’s lunch should consist of three macronutrients which are protein, fat and carbohydrates for optimal health and a well-rounded diet,” says Kathryn. “Choose naturally colorful foods like fresh fruits and veggies, and the fresher the better.” And if all that sounds overwhelming, it shouldn’t be. “It doesn’t have to be complicated at all,” says Kara Hoerr, a registered dietitian nutritionist and owner of Kara Hoerr Nutrition. “Even whole grain crackers with deli meat and cheese, fruit, and some cut up veggies count as a great lunch option.”
2. Pass On The Overly Processed
Sometimes, you just need to get lunched packed—now. But before you toss some processed (but yummy) food into your kiddo’s lunchbox, think about your healthy food goals, both for your child and your family. “Processed foods and prepackaged lunch kits contain high amounts of sodium and sugar, which can affect focus and concentration,” says Dr. Olivia Audrey, ND, BCDN. Other foods to avoid would be processed meats, like lunchmeat, unless it’s antibiotic and hormone-free. And instead of filling your child’s water bottle with fruit juice, stick with H2) instead.
“Just like adults, food is meant for fuel, and for children, optimal fuel leaves them focused and energized, not lethargic, moody or on a sugar high,” says Kathryn. But if you need to search for a quick snack, Kathryn recommends Pirate’s Booty, or Annie’s Cheddar Bunnies, graham crackers, or mini granola bars.
3. Make Kids Part Of The Meal Planning
Although it’s ultimately up to you as the parent to decide what your child is going to eat, you should include them in the meal-making process. “They will tell you what they want to eat, and this is the best way to educate them on eating a healthy, nutritious and well-rounded diet!” says Kathryn. You can start by taking them food shopping with you to see what they like—and what they don’t. But don’t stop there.
“Grocery shopping can teach your child about food and nutrition,” she says. “Discuss where vegetables, fruits, grains, dairy, and protein foods come from. Let your children make healthy choices. Education and connecting with them is key to them learning to choose a healthy lifestyle for themselves.”
You should always offer options to your child to ensure that they have a lunch that they’ll eat. “Even though it’s the parents’ role to decide what to serve their child, they can still offer a child a limited choice, such as two options they’d be comfortable giving their child,” says Hoerr. “For instance, ask them if they would like a turkey or chicken salad sandwich or carrots or cucumber. It gives the child a sense of autonomy while still allowing the parent to have control.”
4. Switch It Up Slowly
Ideally, you’d like your child to eat a completely healthy and nutritious meal. But if they’re used to eating junk food, it’s going to take some time to prep their palette for healthier options. “When making a change to a healthier option, keep everything else the same,” suggests Hoerr. “Your child is more likely to try the new food if a more familiar option is with it. For example, rather than having whole grain crackers with hummus, pair it with cheese slices.”
5. Keep Open Communication
As you begin to switch up those sloppy joes for healthy alternatives (like hummus), you should check in with your child to see how they’re enjoying their lunch. “The goal is to keep open communication with your children about their likes and dislikes,” says Kathryn. “At the end of the day, ask them and give them a safe space to answer you and let you know if they liked their food and ate it all.” And if they didn’t, find out why, and explain how it’s important to have a balanced diet. Then, work together to see how you can compromise and find foods that are both healthy and delicious.
6. Make The Meal Fun
Lunch (and any meal, really) should be lovely, and not laborious. So look for ways to make mealtime fun for your child. You can start by packing lunch in a cute container, and add a note from you telling your child how much you love theme, or wishing them luck on their science test today. That ham and cheese sammie can be cut with a cute sandwich cutter to form it into fun shapes, and then “Try using bento boxes as a way for them to create their own dish,” suggests Dr. Audrey.
“Make your kids lunches look fun and visually appealing with lots of color and creating an experience they’ll enjoy eating,” says Kathryn. “Kids love finger foods and dipping things, so the smaller, the better.” And you can always include something special that you know that your child would love, Hoerr agrees. “This could be a few chocolate chips or M&Ms, but it doesn’t have to be food,” says Hoerr. “Include a fun note, a sticker, a joke, or a silly drawing. You could also add sprinkles to the yogurt or fruit for a special surprise.” It’ll definitely make your child the rockstar of their lunch table.
7. Have A Backup
“If you’re offering something new that your child isn’t familiar with or isn’t a favorite, make sure you have a ‘safe food in the lunch as well,” says Hoerr. “This is a food you know your child will eat if he or she is hungry (perhaps it’s fruit or your child’s favorite crackers). This provides exposure to new foods for your child yet also gives you a peace of mind that your child won’t go hungry while at school either.”
8. Be An Example
Ultimately, your own eating habits will be an example for your child. So mirror good eating habits by picking the best foods for your family. “Eat vegetables, fruits, and whole grains with meals or as snacks,” advises Kathryn. “Let your child see that you like to munch on raw vegetables and view fruit as being just as good, if not better than ice cream or cake.”
It can be challenging to create lunches every day that are healthy and that your child will eat. But by making small but significant dietary changes, (and including your child in on the process), you can make mealtime fun and healthy — and ensure that an empty lunchbox comes home everyday.