A healthy lunch keeps students running strong throughout the long school day. And, feeding them essential nutrients can help them avoid sicknesses that travel like wildfire through classrooms during the year.
However, getting kids to eat nutritious foods isn’t always easy. They may prefer that you stuff their lunch sack with chicken nuggets and Sour Patch Kids, but you’re not doing them (or yourself) any favors in the long term by giving in to their demands in the short term.
We’ve put together a few tips on how to create healthy lunches and how to encourage your kids to enjoy them.
1. Limit processed foods but not flavor.
Here’s an anecdote we heard at a recent school parents’ meeting. The school’s director mentioned that chocolate milk and juice are not allowed on campus. A parent looked at her blankly and asked what in the world kids were expected to drink (hint: water and plain milk are excellent hydrating choices).
While kids may crave things like sugary drinks or sweet treats in their lunch boxes, you can still pack a meal that’s filled with flavor without adding too many highly processed treats. For example, a lunch box filled with healthy and delicious fruit almost never gets sent home full.
And, adding options like a savory sunbutter or roasted hummus for dipping can be good options to enhance the taste quotient of their lunchboxes.
2. Give them what they like – in a healthier form.
If you have a kid who clamors for Paw Patrol gummies, look to see if there’s another way to humor their character-loving sweet tooth. For example, you may be able to find a healthier cheese stick or yogurt for their lunchbox that’s adorned with the princess or superhero of their choice.
While some parents worry about encouraging commercialism, the benefits of upping their healthy food intake may outweigh your worries over occasionally indulging their whims until they learn to like the food of its own accord.
One mom recounted how her daughter, a child who begged for milk or a sweet beverage at every meal, had a special character cup available only when she chose to drink water. After using the character cup on a regular basis, the child started to ask for water as a drink even when the special cup wasn’t available, thus cementing a healthy habit.
3. Make it colorful.
Engaging kids’ minds can help you engage their taste buds. They may not want to try melon but may be happy to gobble up a rainbow of strawberry, cantaloupe, and honeydew combined on a skewer. Red bell pepper and broccoli make a festive Christmas in July combination, and golden raisins or sweet blueberries add excitement to boring oatmeal.
Making birds’ nest from mashed potatoes and peas have always been a standby in the top-secret parenting handbook; why not up the cool factor by using bright orange sweet potatoes (with a higher nutritional quotient than regular) or even substituting a purple potato every once in a while?
4. Try out fun textures.
Texture can be a huge issue for kids who are picky eaters. You may be able to prepare the same food in different ways and get a completely different reaction.
For example, a raw carrot’s crunchiness may not work with your picky eater; however, the same child may adore the sweetness and creaminess of a roasted one.
And, if you find a texture that works, see what else you can do with it. If you have a tater tot lover, you may want to try out a baked broccoli and potato lookalike. If you have a mac and cheese fan on your hands, add some cauliflower or carrots to your cheese sauce to pack in the additional nutrients.
5. Be persistent.
Children need to be offered new foods frequently in order to become acclimated to them. Don’t worry and don’t give up if you make squash for dinner and your child sullenly refuses to touch it.
Just keep serving it. Kids sometimes need to be offered a new food 10 to 15 times before they accept it as part of their regular diet.
If you serve foods frequently and model good behavior when it comes to eating them yourself, you may see your child’s culinary horizons begin to slowly expand.
6. But don’t overdo it.
Sometimes mealtimes can become a stressful situation at home, when parents and kids get into a standoff on how many bites of broccoli are required before they can leave the table, or when kids are “so full” until dessert comes around, and they’re “so starving.”
It can be tempting to hammer home a learning experience at each mealtime or to want to offer a lecture each time a child brings home a hardly-touched lunchbox.
Instead, just say, “The food is the food.” Give your child a variety of flavors, colors, and textures on their plate and avoid forcing them to eat it or becoming angry and creating food-related anxiety.
If you have a kid who is not a big fan of healthy lunches, don’t feel that you have to give in and pack them a lunchbox full of preservatives, or feel like you’ve failed as a parent when they’re happier munching on a Fruit Roll-Up than enjoying a fruit cup.
Instead of focusing your attention on the meal they eat when they’re not with you, put additional effort into what you can control.
Making sure your kids get a healthy breakfast before they leave home can help them power through the day, even if they decide to only pick at their lunch. And, a healthy breakfast is linked to greater productivity and better outcomes for students as well.
Dealing with food fights can be frustrating, but take heart. By increasing your child’s consumption of healthy and wholesome food options, you’re helping them to build good dietary habits and safeguard their health for the long term.
If you’re concerned about your child’s nutrition or food intake, their physical exam can be an excellent time to address your concerns with a medical professional. In fact, our Integra physicians can involve you and your child in the conversation to underscore for your young ones how important it is to eat well and make wise nutritional choices. You can walk in or can check in online to visit with a member of our medical team. Our state-of-the-art urgent care clinics are open in Grand Prairie, Weatherford, and Las Colinas, where we provide on-demand, affordable healthcare to all.