When my kids were little, I remember opening up the refrigerator and pantry doors and closing them. Then opening them, then closing them. I’d scratch my head and think, “I’m a nutritionist, for the love of God; why is making lunch for my 4-year-old so hard?!” My second thought was always, “If this is hard for me, it must be even more stressful for moms who didn’t study food!” In all fairness, there’s a lot of pressure surrounding what goes into what we put into those superhero boxes every day.
Mostly, we want our kids to eat something at lunch, because if they don’t, they’re grumpy, lack focus and move about their day with low energy. We also need to feed them food they’ll actually eat. This is the tricky part! The foods not only need to be delicious to the child, but they also have to meet your high standards, pack easily and withstand tough criticism from the surrounding 4-year-olds. They need to be resilient to the tossing about that comes from hanging off of your child’s swinging arm and from accidental dropping (and the occasional trample of shoes). Finally, the contents of that carefully selected lunchbox need to be so engagingly wonderful that your kids want to — no, look forward to — eating what you’ve lovingly made! Perhaps this is less pressure than Tom Brady and the Patriots faced in the Super Bowl, but to us moms and dads, it’s all relative!
I’m here to help.
Come up with a formula. I tell my clients to put five things in their child’s lunch box every day: “main” + vegetable + fruit + snack + water. Having a formula like this one helps to assure they’re getting good nutrition in and makes it easy for you to assemble.
Main: Have a rotation of seven or so things you know your child enjoys. They don’t have to be labor-intensive. Some examples are: hard-boiled eggs, sandwich, meatball leftovers from dinner, yogurt, soup, cheese and crackers, hummus and crackers.
Vegetable: Raw or cooked, these can be eaten at room temperature. Carrot sticks get b-o-r-i-n-g after a while. Think outside the box: green beans, edamame, peas, kale chips, and little rings of hearts of palm sometimes even make for an enviable treat.
Fruit: Yes, fresh, seasonal, local and organic, but in the name of simplicity there is nothing wrong with the occasional cup of applesauce or box of raisins or dried apricots (sans added sugar!).
Snack: “Snack” doesn’t have to mean “snack food,” and the definition is personal to each of us. Examples of my kids’ faves include: trail mix, fruit leather (not if that was the “fruit,” of course), roasted seasoned chickpeas, homemade mini muffins and coconut chips.
Be conventional. Be unconventional. There’s nothing wrong with the tried-and true-mains: a sandwich, wrap, mini bagel and thermos of soup are all great choices. When variety is challenging, think outside the sandwich bread and use homemade pancakes with your (nut-free?) PB&J. When yogurt feels boring, replace it with cottage cheese or ricotta to mix things up. Make a quinoa salad with beans, cucumbers and tomatoes, instead of the usual pasta salad. Try filling up a thermos with oatmeal or even scrambled eggs. If you can, offer a bento box with easy-to-open lids for an exciting “reveal” of what’s inside. Don’t you wish you were able to see your kids’ little faces when they open up their lunch and find something unexpected that they love?
Embrace your invisibility. So, the unknown is really unsettling for many of us. We want the uneaten food sent home so we can see if we scored big with our lunch choices. The truth of the matter is, you’re better off asking than seeing how much of your hard work was actually eaten. Your little one is navigating more than lunch independence in the cafeteria. Sometimes they don’t eat as much because there was a snack or celebration in the classroom. Maybe they got stuck in line washing their hands in the restroom. Sometimes they’re too busy socializing to eat. Just because you see untouched food doesn’t mean you didn’t hit it out of the park.
Collaborate. My Maizy looks forward to her lunch when she knows what she’s looking forward to. When you can, ask your kid what he WANTS to eat for lunch. Give him some choices and take some pressure off of yourself. Going through phases of wanting the same yogurt every day is normal, so mix up the fruit, veggies and snack until he’s ready to change it up.
If they loved it, repeat it. If your dinner was a total hit last night, give it to ’em again in their lunchbox. From crudites to dessert, take the whole meal and turn it into tomorrow’s lunch. This one’s a gift to you both, since you can pack tomorrow’s lunch as you’re cleaning up tonight’s dinner and your kiddo will be thrilled to get a favorite twice!
Time: 35 minutes
1/4 cup brown rice, uncooked
3/4 cup water
1/3 cup kale, cut into 2-by-2-inch pieces
1/3 cup broccoli, chopped
1/3 cup sweet potato, sliced into ¼-inch pieces
1 hard-boiled egg
2 cups water
1/3 cup avocado, chopped
Place brown rice in large saucepan with 2 1/2 cups water. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to low and simmer, covered, until almost all the water is absorbed, approximately 40 minutes. Steam kale, broccoli and sweet potato. Place each cooked ingredient into a different section of compartmentalized lunchbox.
Keri Glassman is the founder and president of Keri Glassman, Nutritious Life and The Nutrition School. She is a contributing editor and advisory board member for Women’s Health Magazine, the Health and Wellness partner for JW Marriott, was Lead Nutritionist for Turner’s health and wellness entertainment brand, upwave and the Nutritionist and Judge on the healthy cooking competition show, “Cook Your Ass Off”. She has authored four books and is regularly featured on The Today Show, Good Morning America, and Access Hollywood Live.