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Lunch Ideas for Picky Eaters

What to Pack in School Lunches


Updated May 27, 2014

Schoolboy (8-10) sitting at desk staring at lunchbox, pulling face.
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My son was one of those picky eaters, so packing a lunch was always a real problem for me. And when I say "picky," I really mean picky! He did not like peanut butter. Or hotdogs. Or lunch meat. Or cheese. Or spaghetti. Or macaroni and cheese. Or eggs.

Part of the problem was the texture of the foods. He did not like the thick, "pasty" consistency of peanut butter (he didn't like pudding either). And he didn't like sauces. When he was quite young, he wouldn't even try eating a hotdog because I couldn't convince him that they weren't hot and weren't made out of dogs. He did eventually come to like a good kosher beef hotdog, but that wasn't something I could pack in a school lunch.

Contrary to what some people think, children do have good reasons to be picky eaters. And while we do want to encourage our children to try new foods and eat what is good for them, we also want to make sure that they eat well at school. Being hungry will not help them concentrate! So what can you do about packing a healthful lunch your child will actually eat?

Basic Guidelines for School Lunches

Figuring out what to pack in your child's lunch requires that you follow just two simple and basic guidelines. These two guidelines seem at first to be contradictory, but once you understand them, you'll see that they really aren't:
  1. Include nutritious foods
    Become familiar with the food groups in either the food pyramid or the new "MyPlate" recommendations. There is no rule that specifies what foods from those food groups you have to send to school with your child. Nor is there a rule that says you have to have something from each group in the lunch. It's not a bad idea to try to represent those groups in your child's lunch, but if it's not possible every day, then you can make up for what is missing either at breakfast or at dinner.

  2. Include foods your child likes
    There is no point sending your child to school with a lunch you know she isn't going to eat. Instead, consider the foods that she does like and then figure out ways to send them to school. You may have to get a little creative sometimes, but with a little thinking, you can find ways to pack them. For example, if your child likes raw carrots, put some carrot sticks or baby carrots in a baggie and put them in the lunch bag.

Suggestions on What to Pack

Getting creative about school lunches means you have to think outside the box -- outside the usual lunch box ideas of the typical sandwiches. For example, my son liked a cucumber salad made with sour cream and vinegar (without the dill) and liked it on white bread, so I would pack the two separately and include a plastic fork and spoon so he could make his own sandwich. He got a vegetable, grain, and dairy that way. I'd also send along either fruit juice or a thermos of milk and a piece of fruit. Here are some other ideas on how to get good food from the food groups in your child's lunch.
  • Whole Wheat Bread
    If your child likes whole wheat bread, make sandwiches with that instead of white bread. Sometimes children don't like the grainy or heavy texture of some whole wheat brands, so try a brand with a lighter texture. Whole wheat bread is often sweeter than white bread, so some kids actually prefer it. Some kids, on the other hand, prefer the heavier texture and even the bits of grain in some whole wheat brands.

  • Crackers and Tortillas
    If you find it hard to pack a sandwich that your child will like, consider packing some crackers. It is an easy way to include grains in your child's lunch if he doesn't particularly like bread or he doesn't like much that you can use to make a sandwich. If your child likes tortillas, pack one or more of those. (They can be fun to turn into "wraps" with the other foods you include.

  • Raw Vegetables
    Some children do not like cooked vegetables, but will eat them raw. Raw vegetables are sometimes sweeter than cooked ones and they have a completely different texture. Pretty much any vegetable can be eaten raw: carrots, green beans, green peppers, cucumbers, broccoli, cauliflower, peas, lettuce, and cherry tomatoes (although tomatoes are technically a fruit).

  • Fruits
    Most kids like fruit, so be sure to pack some -- but pack what your child likes. An apple might be good for him, but if it ends up in the garbage, it won't do him any good. If fresh fruit isn't available, include individual serving packages of applesauce or sliced fruits like peaches or pears. Whole fruit is the best choice, but sometimes you can include a juice box. You can also slice the fruit and include some yummy fruit dip.

  • Dairy Products
    The most obvious choice for a dairy product is a thermos of milk. However, there are other options, as well. Cheese can be an excellent choice, whether you include sliced cheese for a sandwich or chunks of cheese your child can munch on along with some crackers. You can also include yogurt, which you can pack in a small wide-mouth thermos. Cream cheese is also an option.

  • Meats and Proteins
    Cheese can be a good source of both calcium and protein. Deli lunch meats can be great to pack too. If your child doesn't like lunch meats, pack pieces of meat like chicken. I sometimes used to send leftover chicken or roast beef in my son's lunch. If your child likes eggs, you can pack a hard-boiled egg or a fried egg sandwich once in a while. I sometimes made a "jelly sandwich" out of two pieces of french toast.

How to Pack a Lunch

While it may seem to make the most sense to just make a sandwich, but some kids don't like a sandwich after it's been sitting in the lunch box for a couple of hours. Instead, pack the items separately and let him put the sandwich together himself - or eat the items separately. That includes any condiments like mustard, catsup, and mayonnaise.

Get an insulated lunch box to keep the food fresh (and safe). Lunch boxes are a bit more versatile than lunch bags, especially for the younger kids. It's easier for them to see what they have and take any containers out and put them back.

Don't forget to include a napkin and any necessary utensils! It's hard to spread cream cheese on a cracker without a plastic knife!

This ideas can get you started, but with a little creativity you can come up with more ideas of your own!

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