Tired of spending time and energy putting together creative, healthy lunches only to see the food come home untouched? Handing lunch-making duties over to your kids might be the answer.
When my son was in third grade, he stopped eating the lunches I packed for him. I tried letting him pre-order each week’s meals, so I’d know exactly what he wanted. I tried using bento boxes and nifty cookie cutters to make the food more fun. I tried packing homemade, nutrient-enriched versions of junk food. It all came home, mostly untouched. And then it hit me: maybe if my son packed his own lunch, he’d be more interested in eating it.
I spent a little time planning before I broached the subject with him. First, I made a list of all the lunchbox-friendly foods he liked that I’d feel comfortable with from a nutritional standpoint. Then I separated the list into categories: protein, vegetables, fruit, grains, and snacks, and made a chart for the refrigerator—nothing fancy, but if he hadn’t known how to read, I would’ve included pictures of the various foods, too.
Finally, I pitched my idea to my son. Each night, I explained, he’d choose at least one item from each category, and pack his lunch himself. (We’ve learned from experience that packing lunch in the morning winds up making everybody late.) I’d supervise and suggest combinations if he wanted me to, but otherwise I’d stay pretty hands-off. I’d been teaching him to cook since he was small enough to wield a plastic knife, so he’d be doing most of the prep work himself—I might add a few extra chicken breasts to the grill at dinnertime or cook a pound of pasta for him to use during the week, but the bulk of the responsibility would be his.
Guess what? It actually worked. He didn’t go from practically fasting to devouring everything, but most days he ate some of each item he’d packed. And I found that when he did bring home untouched food, it didn’t bother me as much. By passing the baton to him, he gained a measure of control, and I regained my sanity.
Not all kids will start off with cooking skills, so initially you might do more of the heavy lifting as far as food prep is concerned. (It’s okay if your child is doing more assembling than cooking!) But as your child gets more comfortable in the kitchen, you’ll be able to hand that off, too. The real beauty of this strategy becomes clear when you see how much your kid knows about food already—what flavor combinations appeal to her, or which new foods he wants to try. Ceding that little bit of control can lead to some interesting new discoveries.
Here’s how it’s done:
Salad-loving kids can combine chopped romaine with grilled chicken, grated Parm, croutons, and a little container of Caesar dressing. Add fruit and a snack and they have a complete meal.
This week, try grilling a few boneless, skinless chicken breasts on Sunday night. Make sure your fridge is stocked with plenty of fruits and vegetables, and encourage your child to take a look at the options and come up with combinations they want to eat. For some kids, serving ideas will come easily, but others will need a little more guidance. Do they like cherry tomatoes? Maybe they can make skewers with chicken, cherry tomatoes, and mozzarella balls. Do they prefer to keep all of their foods separate? That’s fine too—they can pack up plain sliced chicken (maybe with a honey-mustard dipping sauce if they’ll go for it) and just pack their vegetables and fruit in a different container.
Here are a few other meal ideas to get them started—add fruit and an optional snack to each one for a complete lunch:
Grilled chicken Caesar salad: Top chopped romaine with chopped grilled chicken, croutons, and shredded Parmesan. Include a little container of Caesar dressing on the side.
Chicken fajitas: Serve grilled chicken strips and sliced red or yellow bell pepper with a flour tortilla and little containers of salsa and sour cream.
Grilled chicken pita pocket: Fill a pita with sliced grilled chicken, hummus, tomatoes, and cucumber slices.
BBQ chicken grain bowl: Top cooked rice or quinoa with sliced grilled chicken, black beans, and shredded cabbage. Drizzle with barbecue sauce.
Chicken teriyaki wrap: Toss sliced grilled chicken with teriyaki sauce and wrap in a flour tortilla along with diced pineapple, baby spinach, and shredded carrot.
Ranch chicken sandwich: Serve a grilled chicken breast on a hamburger bun topped with ranch dressing, crunchy romaine lettuce, sliced tomatoes, and extra pickles.