veggie toddler - a young child learning how to walk and eat vegetables, not necessarily a wobbly vegetarian.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Lunchbox Mania

When did a healthy lunch become so trendy and time-consuming? Bento boxes are a great idea for packing kids’ lunches, no doubt. But when the food is smiling back at me or in the shape of a bear, I am pretty sure lunch-making has moved beyond my capabilities as a busy parent. Seeing trendy lunches makes me wonder, is my idea of a cute lunch the same as my kids? Healthy food is fresh and natural, not necessarily cute. And don’t forget, making lunches is something that I do EVERY day. My allotted lunch-making time is about 15 minutes while simultaneously doing six other things. I don’t have the time nor desire to make cute lunches. I just want to make nutritious lunches and move on to my next morning task.

Serving leftovers from dinner is a great idea. But why would I “transform” it into an entirely new dish? The beauty of leftovers is that it is LEFTOVER from last night and ready to go for a second round of mealtime munching WITHOUT making a new meal. Okay maybe I’ll cut up chicken, add some mayonnaise and celery and I have myself a chicken salad. That I get. But cooking up a new concoction with leftover ingredients? That sounds like dinner. Maybe I’m just not a morning person or don’t drink enough coffee, but if I have to start COOKING lunch in the morning, I am doomed.

Let’s take a look at this lunchbox mania for a moment and think about who’s eating the lunch – my kids. There are three key points that I see happening with my kids and their lunchboxes that no one seems to talk about.

1. My kids hate when any one food group gets close to touching another food group. A lot of the lunchbox pretty pictures show food beautifully packed up next to each other in prefect boxes or sectioned-Tupperware. I don’t know how your kid handles his lunchbox, but there’s a reason why they are not made of breakable materials. I see lunchboxes swung, tossed and flopped down without any care to which way the insides might be organized. A lot can happen between the kitchen counter and the lunch table. My kids certainly do not handle their lunchboxes with care. Any meticulously arranged food is no doubt mixed together by the time my kids open the lids.

2. My kids never have time to eat their entire lunch during lunchtime. The uneaten containers of what is technically still lunch, are often consumed sometime AFTER lunch as a snack. I’ve tried using the sectioned kid containers (the ones that suggest a separation but do not actually provide two separately sealed containers) and by the end of the day the food is all jumbled up together. So when my daughter is hungry and wants to finish the uneaten portion of her lunch as a snack later in the day, she opens up her lunchbox to find one big mess. Yuck. But, if I pack individual containers or reusable baggies, then she can save the fruit for later for example, and know that it will still be how I packed it. For example, after preschool my daughter will bring her lunchbox over to me and say, “I want to eat my sunflower seeds now.” I am sure that if she had to look at the crusts of her cheese sandwich, it would immediately ruin her desire to eat the sunflower seeds. I think it’s a good thing to keep it all as individual items. Let the kids choose what to eat when without the pressure of consuming it all together. My son, for example, is not so big on fruit. He typically eats everything except the fruit at lunchtime. Right after school he will complain that he needs a snack. “Open up your lunch and see if there’s any food left,” I will say. He does and finds a container of apple slices which he opens up and eats. Sometimes what a healthy lunch needs to be spread out a little in order to get in all those different food groups.

3. My kids request food that tastes good and is fun to eat for lunches – not necessarily ones that are smiling back at them. At school, kids eat lunch sitting next to their classmates. What everyone else is eating has an effect on them whether we like it or not. I remember as a kid wanting white bread with the crust cut off because that’s what my friends had. I, on the other hand, had peanut butter and jelly on rye. Okay, so just because everyone else had white bread didn’t mean my mother needed to change her healthy habit of buying rye bread just so I could fit in. If my kids came home and said they wanted jelly beans for lunch because so-and-so had them, I would say no. But on the other hand, if my kids make a request, as long as it does not involve an unhealthy option, I listen.

“Mommy,” my 5-year-old said to me earlier this year after I had given her leftover steamed broccoli in her lunchbox, “please don’t put broccoli in my lunchbox anymore.”
“Okay,” I said wondering what it was about broccoli that made it suddenly an unpopular choice? “What about snap peas or edamame?” I asked.
“Sure,” she said, “I love those!”
My daughter continued to eat broccoli for dinner, without complaints, so I knew the “no broccoli in my lunch” rule didn’t have to do with taste. So what was it? Social pressure? Kids care about what they pull out of their lunchbox, even at 5 years of age. Maybe broccoli was simply not cool.

Another day my daughter asked me not to include pickles in her lunchbox. “Do you not like pickles anymore?” I asked.
“Oh no,” she responded. “I love pickles...but my friend A. doesn’t like the way they smell.” And that was that. Pickles remained a popular lunch item, but only at home.

So then, what’s for lunch? For me it’s not a big deal to come up with lunch food. And I don’t’ think there is anything wrong with having routine favorites. All kids have their lunchtime hang-ups – some like sandwiches, some do not. Some kids like cheese, some do not. You have to build on your kids’ likes and dislikes and not experiment too much with the lunchbox. Save trying new foods for when you are sitting right next to your kids and can encourage them to take a bite. Lunch should be comforting, fresh, fun and satisfying.

My lunch basics start with 4 groups from which I mix and match each time.

Sandwich box: healthy bread/ nuttbutter & jelly
Healthy bread / cream cheese & cucumbers
Healthy bread / cold cuts (or tuna or chicken salad) and lettuce
Leftover pasta or rice

Fruit box: strawberries, apple slices, grapes, applesauce, whole apple, whole pear, banana

Munch box: Sunflower seeds, almonds, raisins, crackers, edamame, black beans, peas, sugar snaps, carrot sticks, chips

Dessert: cookie, graham cracker, muffin, granola bar

Good luck with your lunch-making. I find it satisfying to pack a healthy lunch for my kids every day and I am always on the lookout for new lunchbox ideas. However, I choose to skip the ones that spend more time on presentation than simply presenting nutritious food in a way that is conducive to the reality of how my kids eat their lunch.

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