Think Outside the Lunchbox

How to be the parent who packs the pro lunch.

Your kids’ school lunches don’t have to be the bane of your existence – it is totally possible to make them fun, easy, and healthy to boot.

“Think beyond sandwiches,” suggests registered dietitian Claudia Lemay, though there’s nothing wrong with a good ole PB&J or a nice cheese and avocado.

What to pack

The most important thing to put in every kids’ meal (and in snacks if you can, too) is protein, says Lemay, who’s based in Surrey, BC. Examples are hardboiled eggs, soy milk, milk, yogurt, hummus, bean salad, cheese, marinated tofu, nuts and seeds (seeds are great for adhering to allergy restrictions at school), and edamame (soy beans) with salt.

In addition to protein, a fruit or vegetable and a carb should be included at every meal.

Lunch Ideas

  • Cold salads using whole grain rice, quinoa, pasta, and/or beans
  • Homemade soup
  • Mini pizzas on whole wheat bagels or English muffins (can be made ahead and frozen)
  • Colourful pinwheels cut from a wrap filled with your choice of hummus, cheese, red peppers, and spinach
  • Hummus and healthy chips made from cut up whole wheat pita bread, brushed with olive oil and baked
  • Sandwiches made with slices of chicken you cook yourself, as opposed to processed deli slices

Top Tip: Batch prep

Make a bunch of sandwiches in advance without a sandwich spread, Lemay suggests. This way you can freeze them without the bread getting soggy. Then add individual squirt packets of mayo or mustard to your kid’s lunch kit.

Lemay also buys large tubs of yogurt, one plain and one flavoured, then measures some of each into small containers for her kids, adding seeds, fruit, or jam, so she can control the sugar levels in their school snacks.

Top Tip: Recipe

Lemay offers her personal recipe for an alternative to regular mayo or a dip for veggies.

  • ½ cup mayo
  • ½ cup 2% Greek yogurt
  • Juice and zest of one lemon
  • Salt and pepper
  • Herbs to your liking (Lemay likes tarragon)

How to handle picky eaters

The mother of a picky eater herself, Lemay wrote Stargold the Food Fairy, an award-winning children’s book that explains the importance of nutrition in a fun way kids can understand. She equates the vitamins and minerals in food to the building materials and tools required to build a house.

Lemay also cites renowned authority on eating and feeding, Ellyn Satter, a registered dietitian nutritionist and family therapist who created the guiding standard, the Division of Responsibility in Feeding, and pioneered models for feeding children.

Satter’s philosophy boils down to two basic tenets, according to the Ellyn Satter Institute’s website. They are:

  • The parent is responsible for what, when, where.
  • The child is responsible for how much and whether.

In other words, for toddlers through to adolescents, the parent determines what the food is, when it is served, and where it is served. The child decides whether or not to eat it and how much of it to eat. This approach builds on children’s natural ability with eating and allows them to learn and grow without pressure.

“The child decides when they’re hungry and when they’re full,” Lemay explains. “We want to keep the internal rules of satiety working in children.”

When those rules don’t work, children learn to stop listening to their bodies. In that same vein, don’t worry if it seems to take forever for your kid to try new things or develop her palate.

“Keep offering,” Lemay says, adding that it takes 10 to 20 tries for a child to like a food. If they don’t want it, just leave it, don’t mention it. They’ll get used to the new food being around on the plate and eventually, with multiple offers, they may grow to like it. But remember, don’t force or cajole them into eating anything.

“We don’t bribe children with food,” Lemay says.

How to make lunch appealing

Top Tip: Get your kids in the kitchen

“They’re more likely to eat it if they’ve been involved,” Lemay says. So whenever possible, give your kids tasks in the kitchen to help prepare the week’s school lunches or tonight’s dinner.

Another great way to keep them involved is to ask them what they want – but do it strategically. Don’t say, “What do you want for lunch this week?” Lemay cautions, because kids can easily answer with “Chips!” Instead, use an either-or question to give them choice, but keep the options healthy. Say, “Would you like carrots or peas?” Or “Would you like an apple and cheese or yogurt and sunflower seeds?”

Top Tip: Make it fun

If you have time, Lemay says, try to make lunch look cute for your kids. Think about how much money major food brands spend on marketing – visuals do count. Of course, making things colourful or putting a smiley face on a pancake is time-consuming – so don’t beat yourself up if you can’t.