If you live in Mesa County, chances are your kids are back at school. And “back-to-school” for many of us means “back-to-trying-to-come-up-with-healthy-lunches-that-my-kids-willl-actually-eat.”
Lunches that get eaten and lunches that are healthy, however, are not mutually exclusive. Like so many other things, it often comes down to communication, and maybe giving up a little control.
A co-worker once shared a story with me about his own childhood lunches that illustrates this idea. Every day for a whole school year, his mom packed him a peanut butter and lettuce sandwich. He (and I agree) thought this was a disgusting lunch option, and every day on his way to school he stuck his sandwich under a rock so he wouldn’t get in trouble at school for not eating it. At the end of the year, he finally came clean to his mom, who was shocked and disappointed.
His mother didn’t mind that he hadn’t eaten the carefully prepared sandwich, though, only that he hadn’t told her he didn’t like it. She explained, “I made you one every day because I thought you loved them. Those sandwiches were the only things that never came back in your lunchbox half eaten.”
Kids are notoriously fickle eaters. What might be a favorite one day might go untouched a month later. My own child is constantly surprising me with foods she “loves” that I was convinced she absolutely despised.
A friend of mine with three elementary-aged children uses a tactic for school lunches that she says not only hasn’t failed but has also resulted in her kids’ lunches being the ones sought out for trades. Each child packs his or her own lunch every day, with the only rule being that they pick things from the wide variety of “mom-approved” options.
At my house, our middle school daughter usually doesn’t make her own lunch, but I always ask her what she’s in the mood for (again, within reason), and so far she’s always come up with a completely reasonable meal. Today, she asked for a salami sandwich, grapes, garlic green beans and a cookie.
I’ve known other people to use similar approaches, such as listing food choices on index cards, grouping the cards by category (fruit, vegetable, main dish, treat, etc.) and having their child choose one card from each pile. Kids and parents might both have fun with a “fast food restaurant” system, too, in which kids order from a menu of lunch options and the server hands them a to-go bag with their meal.
The key to making this work, of course, is to be a conscientious shopper. Kids are a lot less likely to go for healthy options if the house is full of junk. A little junk now and then can keep lunches on the desirable list; a lot of junk undermines the effort.
Here in Mesa County, we have amazing local agriculture that makes eating healthy easy and a whole lot of fun. Take your kids school shopping at the farmers’ market, let them make lunchbox choices from a roadside stand, go pick apples at a pick-your-own orchard this fall. If you have a garden, let them pluck lunch from the backyard. And if you don’t have a garden, there’s still time to plant late-season crops in a nice little lunch-sized plot.
Ask your kids what they like, let them join in the cooking, have them help put together the shopping list. Keep the kids involved in the process, and everybody might be surprised by how well the healthy stuff goes over.
Sarah Johnson is a mother and coordinator of The Parenting Place.