Packing Lunch For A Picky Eater: Back To School Tips For Busy Moms

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One of my friends complains her daughter’s lunch box comes back from school with a considerable amount of uneaten food still in it. “I don’t understand it,” she says, “We were smart enough to throw out what we didn’t want to eat, and our mothers never knew - and therefore never worried about us.” She feels compelled to find and pack food that will be eaten.

A client of mine over-packs her daughter’s lunchbox in hopes some amount of food will be consumed by her child. We are starting a new season of Battle of the Lunchbox. And for those moms who’d like to come out on the winning side, I am here to coach you.

Tips For Avoiding Lunchbox Battles

1. Make the lunch packing a choice, so the child feels as if he/she has input and some power.

2. If you are trying to limit an unhealthy food that your child likes, let them eat it a certain number of times a week (or day), and let them choose when.

3. Remember that when you look at a child’s nutrition you are looking at everything consumed in a day or a week, not one meal. Determine at which meal your child is the hungriest. That is when you have the best chance that they will eat what you pack or put in front of them.

4. Most kids like fruit. Fruit contains vitamins and antioxidants that keep us healthy and the whole fruit versus a processed fruit product has all of the things needed for us to digest and incorporate those nutrients. Most fruit also contains a lot of water. Most kids don’t get to drink enough water during a school day. Either limited by availability or self-limited by permitted bathroom trips. So I would start with fruit when thinking about what you’re putting in the lunchbox.

5. Every lunch needs a protein such as: Eggs (hard boiled, scrambled on a sandwich), beans (hummus and pita or carrots or edamame to pop out of the pod), meat (diced as finger food, topping a salad, sliced on a sandwich or rolled up with cheese or lettuce), nuts if permitted and tolerated - nut butter on bread, cracker, fruit slices or with vegetables like celery or carrots. Give your child a choice of these many options.

6. Include a little fat. Nuts, eggs and meat all have fat that will sustain a child through the school day. If the child won’t eat those proteins, there is yogurt - which if it is fruit flavor is often very high in sugar. I think most kids eat too much sugar, but for some kids this might be an option. There is also cheese - either in a cheese stick or cubed cheese. Cheese is fine for kids who eat dairy as long as it is not in an excessive amount and they don’t have trouble digesting it. I would include cheese in a lunch for a big carb eater - say a kid who takes fruit and crackers and popcorn but doesn’t want or won’t eat a protein. They will need something to slow down the digestion of the carbs, the cheese will help. If your child takes a salad to school, include dressing with some olive oil in it. Not only will the fat slow the digestion of the carbs, but the oil will actually improve absorption of the nutrients in the salad.

7. A pasta salad with some cut up meat, beans, veggies and a little olive oil (good fat) would be great in a lunch.

8. Give your child extra credit if he or she will take cut up veggies and dip such as hummus or guacamole.

The biggest complaints I hear from parents are: a child’s refusal to eat sandwiches and an inability to send hot food like soup. If you have the sandwich issue, try to find a vehicle for the protein that isn’t bread if your kids isn’t a bread eater - such as crackers, pasta, veggies or apple chips (I personally love the Bare brand of organic apple chips instead of a cracker). If hot food is the problem, there are some thermoses that do keep hot liquid like soup hot. Be sure to put boiling water in the thermos and let it sit for a few minutes to pre-heat it, then dump it out, before putting the hot food in in it.

If you have a lunchbox issue you need help resolving, leave me a comment and I will try to help. And, you might like to read my related blog post “Start a Healthy Fall Routine”.

Nancy Popkin is a nutrition coach who helps busy women and men heal their relationship with food to live energetic, balanced and body-loving lives. She works 1:1 in person, and via phone and Skype. You can visit her online at and download her FREE 3-Step Workshop to create a customized plan to change unwanted eating habits.

Healthy Back To School Lunch Ideas