Updated: Jul 6, 2020
Scene: You spend extra grocery money and extra time during the week, preparing a balanced and healthy meal for your child's cold lunch at school. You are happy with your effort. You even remember to include a sweet note on a napkin, reminding said child of how much you love him.
Rising Action: You run an errand at school during lunchtime, and happen to see your child standing in the lunch line, ready to walk into the cafeteria. All of the other cold-lunchers have their lunch boxes in hand. Your child stands there, lunchless, happily chatting away with his friends about important things like Fortnite.
Climax: You jog over, shaking off your brain fog, 100% sure that you saw that kid holding his Batman lunchbox as he disappeared through the school gates earlier this morning. You give him a warm squeeze, say hi to his friends, and ask him where his lunch is. He throws you a sheepish smile.
"My lunch was gross", says he.
"What? That's a good, healthy lunch!", says you. "Did you sneak a lunch ticket? (suspicious face). Are you eating hot lunch"?
"Nope", comes the reply. "I just don't eat lunch".
His friends all silently nod in agreement, an 8-year-old chorus of understanding.
Denouement: You start packing lunches that prick your nutrition conscience but that your kid actually eats.
You feel like this is a win.
We won't name names, kid...
So let me help you, mama. You work hard. You budget for your healthy groceries and supplements and gym membership. Don't let the 4 foot man get you down. Compromise a little bit and both of you can enjoy lunch time.
No longer do I hold my head a little higher as I walk past the mom at Sam's Club with 3 mega packs of Lunchables in her cart. I get where she is coming from.
If your kid doesn't have food allergies or celiac disease, it's okay to relax a bit on what you pack for lunch. Too long have I read mommy blogs that make me feel crappy about the fact that my kid isn't eating smoked salmon and snap peas in their bento box in the cafeteria.
I mean, have you ever opened a bento box full of fish? It smells like a sewer. I don't blame my kid for not wanting to be the weirdo on the bench seat. I've been there. My mom used to wrap my sandwiches in that morning's long, dirty, plastic newspaper bag because it saved money. (She also literally made me wear an eye patch in junior high because she didn't want to buy me glasses, but you have to ask me that story yourself.) You bet your ass I threw my mom's sandwich away more often than not. But I never skipped lunch. Rest assured, I always had backup. I was a chubby little resourceful kid. I would trade my mom's homemade, margarine-rich chocolate chip cookies for April Dailey's delicious bologna and mayo sandwich on white bread. My mom never let me eat that stuff. It was heavenly.
Ok, a few ground rules:
1) Many kids are legit gluten free.
Gluten can cause a pretty fast IgE reaction that can be life-threatening for many children. Take it seriously when your school tells you that they have Gluten Free Zones. I have friends whose children would need an immediate Epi Pen treatment if they even touched gluten. If you are gluten free because it is trendy, rethink your position. Please don't ever put your kid on a low carb diet. Let them eat starch- oats, barley, rice, teff, etc. Their growing bodies need it. If you are gluten free because it is life-threatening, that is something completely different.
In my private practice, we are all gluten free anyway. There are plenty of gluten free options for breads, crackers, pasta, and tortillas. Our American wheat gluten is a hybridized, glyphosated, gut-irritating mess.
2) Many kids are peanut free.
This allergy can also be life threatening. Our school won't allow any peanuts in the entirety of 6th grade because a little girl is so allergic to peanuts. We, as parents, respect this because it could be our kid. Legumes are high in lectins and can be irritating to the gut and immune system anyway. Great alternatives are sunflower seed butter, almond butter, and macadamia nut butter.
3) Many kids have strong food opinions.
Work with your kids. Ask them what they would actually eat. Kids need more sugar than adults since they are growing. They also may have more taste buds, and can be more sensitive to tastes. They might not enjoy the same beet hummus that you just can't get enough of. If you give your kiddos a choice in the matter, they might actually eat the lunch you pack for them, and you might get in enough healthy foods to make you feel happy, if not downright satisfied.
So I asked the experts. My daughter and my nieces love food. I interrupted two of them as they were baking a cake to ask them what kind of school lunches they would actually eat. I said healthy school lunches and left this up to interpretation. I was kind of cheating because I am doing a "Healthy School Lunch" segment on our local morning show this week and I wanted to make stuff that kids would actually eat. No mom wants to spend extra money on Homemade Lara Bars only to walk past the trash can at pick up time and glimpse a Ziplock bag full of Homemade Lara Bars.
Here is a sampling of what I received:
Check this out, girls!
Our kids look at healthy food similar to the way we look at healthy food: fruits, veggies, lean protein, and healthy carbs.
Those are foods that they would actually eat, and would not be embarrassed to eat, and would feel good after eating. Just like us adults.
Here are a few of my favorites:
Turkey + Apples + Cucumbers + Cheese
Eggs + Bacon + Cheese
Carrots + Pretzels + Fruit + Grapes (superfluous, but yummy)
Cocoa Almond Butter + Berries
Grapes + Apples + Carrots + Cheese + Qukumbers
Chicken + Rice + Cheese + gluten free Tortilla
Sunflower seed butter + apples + raisins + turkey + gluten free tortilla
Banana + Nutella + Rice Bread
Rice crackers + BabyBEl cheese + Blueberries + rotisserie chicken chunks
It seems that kids like finger foods. This is no surprise. If you are honest with yourself, you see the appeal.
I love packing these kinds of lunches in little bento boxes. They last the entire school year, clean up easily, and are super cute. While my 12-year-old is getting a little mature for a green plastic bento box, my little ones still think they are great.
Big kids can still eat this way. Just pack each component in an individual baggie and let them mix and match as they see fit. I got nervous using so many plastic ziplock bags last year, after my kids went back to "real school" (their words- when we were homeschooling, we had no need of bento boxes or lunch bags) so I moved to waxed paper bags. They work well, too.
The other nice thing about packing lunches bento-box style is that they adapt well to snack time. Grapes and cheese, anyone? Rice crackers + rotisserie chicken chunks?
And if you get these basics down, you won't feel bad about throwing in a bag of Lay's chips or Oreo cookies.
Happy back to school!