My four kids had varying degrees of pickiness when it came to food and, as a result, my fridge was decorated with four different charts listing the foods each child would eat and, in some cases, how it had to be prepared (Dan: Will eat pears and grapes, no other fruits. Sandwiches must have mustard and ketchup, no mayo). Packing up the school lunches each day required constant reference to the lists. Eventually I just got tired of it.
My new plan? Get them to make their own lunches. This can achieve two goals at once: simplifying your busy mornings and motivating the kids to eat what’s packed.
At the same time, I want to be sure the meal that gets shoved into the backpack is nutritious and healthy, which means I have to continue with some level of supervision. How do you achieve the right balance?
A little preparation on your part gives you more control. For example, Nancy Martin has a section of her freezer stocked with individually wrapped sandwiches, calzones, wraps and muffins. All her son has to do is reach in and choose an item to add to his pack.
Don’t want to do that much? Containers with sandwich fillings (sliced meats and cheeses, hummus) can make sandwich prep easier, and another container of parent-approved snacks or treats helps you feel confident about the nutritional value of the meal.
• Be sure to give your kids guidance about packing. They may not realize that bananas tossed into a backpack are going to be bruised and mushy by the time they get to school.
• Set some guidelines. For example, I expect each lunch to include a vegetable, fruit, whole grain and protein. Veggies live in one crisper at the bottom of our fridge and fruits are in the other. I try to do a little prep when I bring groceries home so that it’s easy to grab some carrot sticks or cucumber slices when packing a lunch.
• Ruth McAllister, a mother of two, finds it helpful to prepare her evening meals with tomorrow’s lunches in mind. Leftover meat can become sandwich filling. Couscous, sushi, black bean salad and other meals pack nicely and offer variety.
• Food safety is always important. McAllister’s girls like frozen juice boxes in their lunches — they enjoy the slushy drinks — but they also help keep the food cold and safe until it’s time to eat. Freezer packs work well too, as long as you remember to put them back in the freezer each night.
• Get input from your kids about what they’d like to have. For our family, spending some weekend afternoons making homemade cookies, granola bars and muffins to stock up the freezer ensures they have some healthy treats to add to their lunch boxes.
Don’t expect that you’ll be relaxing at the breakfast table reading your newest copy of Today’s Parent while the kids create culinary delights for their lunches — they’ll still need quite a lot of help, at least in the beginning. But, hey, it’s a start.