Thinking Outside the Lunchbox: School lunch ideas for your child
Is your child a picky or resistant eater? Do you need help figuring out how to get your child to eat at school? Have you run out of ideas for recipes or types of food that your child may eat for lunch? I’m not a dietician or physician, but I have plenty of experience with questions like these. You see, I’m the mother of two picky eaters (one with food allergies), I’m married to a picky eater, and I myself am a lifelong picky and resistant eater.
And I know how to pack a lunch.
1. Start With Breakfast
Start with a high-protein, high-calorie breakfast. If your child prefers not to eat at school like my older son, then you need to make sure that your child gets nutrition and calories before school. I give my kids a citrus-flavored liquid multivitamin mixed with lemon-flavored cod liver oil -- believe it or not, it’s the least offensive tasting vitamin combo I’ve ever found. I serve up eggs, potatoes, fresh fruit and plain yogurt or kefir with honey. If your child doesn’t like eggs, try cooking oatmeal on the stovetop at a low temperature, and stir in an egg for a protein boost. My kids also like my homemade meatballs for breakfast -- I use oatmeal instead of bread crumbs in that recipe. I know from personal experience that sugary breakfast cereals cause my blood sugar to rise and then drop right before lunchtime, which makes me sick to my stomach so that I can’t eat at midday. A high-protein breakfast provides a more steady source of energy throughout the day.
2. School Lunch?
Don’t buy the school lunch. I know it saves time for the parent, but most picky eaters won’t eat it, so it’s a waste of money in the end.
3. The Lunchroom Environment
Consider all aspects of the eating environment. School lunchrooms are notoriously loud places. Sometimes smelly, too. The lighting may even be hurting your child's eyes if the lights flicker or if the sunlight is too bright. I get a headache and feel sick to my stomach with a sensory whammy like that -- I can't eat in those circumstances. If the sensory input is affecting your child’s ability to eat, request a quieter room at lunchtime.
4. Sensitive Tastes
Be aware that your child may be able to taste things that you can’t taste. I love to give the example of my husband, who insists that stainless steel utensils impart a metallic flavor to food. He prefers to eat with bamboo chopsticks because of this. My older son can tell with one sniff whether I cooked with fresh garlic or substituted garlic powder in a recipe. My younger son can taste spoiled milk three days before it actually spoils.
5. Packing Lunch
Pack each lunch or snack item in a separate sealed bag or container. Those bento-box lunch boxes are trendy and adorable, but they’re a sensory integration nightmare. The food flavors and odors get mixed together, and it’s nauseating. A better bet is an insulated lunchbox with 2 compartments, so that you can put cold items in one compartment and warm or room-temperature items in the other compartment.
6. The Right Types Food
Limit the number of items you pack. Many schools only allow 20 or 25 minutes for eating lunch, with the rest of the lunch hour devoted to recess and lining up. I pack 3 or 4 items in the lunchbox: a serving of fruit, a serving of protein, a serving of whole grains and a drink (usually drinkable yogurt to help with digestion). For snack time, I usually pack some raisins or other dried fruit plus some tortilla or vegetable chips, since chewy and crunchy snacks help my son with his sensory issues. If the school allows the child to keep a water bottle at his or her desk, then send in a water bottle every day. I do not pack dessert, since kids will usually eat dessert first at school, which causes all non-sweet foods to taste sour immediately afterwards and reduces the likelihood that those foods will be eaten at lunchtime.
7. Portion Control
Keep portion sizes extra small. Large portions are unappetizing and put unnecessary pressure on the child. 10 grapes or half a sliced apple, 1 ounce of protein, 4 or 5 tablespoons of whole grains will give the child energy to perform well in the afternoon.
8. Think Outside The Lunchbox
Don’t limit lunch choices to sandwiches. Many people who are sensitive to taste and texture don’t like the mingled flavors of a sandwich. Think outside the lunchbox. Instead of bread, provide a plain rice cake and a separate container of hummus, cream cheese, sunflower seed butter (peanut butter is discouraged at many school s due to allergies), egg salad, whatever your child prefers. Or cut up 1 ounce of a protein option such as tofu or leftover chicken or chick peas and put it in a sealed bag, then put some whole grain dish like quinoa or fried rice in a thermos. That was the trick that finally got my son to start eating lunch at school. He suddenly realized that he could request his favorite leftover rice casserole (rice cooked in vegetable broth and mixed with pureed butternut squash, seasoned with pepper and paprika) in a thermos -- not your typical fourth grade lunch, but there never was anything typical about my son anyway.
9. Give Your Child What They Like
This leads me to my most important rule of packing a child's lunch: allow your child's unique tastes to be your guide. If your child likes curry or enchiladas, then find a way to make that happen. If your child prefers plain food that doesn't touch other items, then pack it. You can offer food variations at other meals. My mother still tells the story of my brother requesting the same lunch every day for 3 consecutive years: peanut butter and jelly on white bread, an apple and milk. He needed sameness and emotional security in this one small area of his life. He grew up into a 6'4" tall rugby player with a business degree. I think our mother did something right for him along the way.
Karen Wang is a Friendship Circle parent. You may have seen her sneaking into the volunteer lounge for ice cream or being pushed into the cheese pit by laughing children. She is a contributing author to the anthology "My Baby Rides the Short Bus: The Unabashedly Human Experience of Raising Kids With Disabilities"