How Lunchboxes Can Help Picky Eaters (Even When School is At Home)
Picky eating is something nearly every parent deals with at some point or another, and there’s really no end to just how choosy children can be. Even pizza can pose a problem in my household: Kid #1 wants square pizza, kid #2 wants round, kid #3 wants it without the sauce, and kid #4 won’t eat it at all. That’s one reason I’m glad the summer is coming to an end: Back-to-school means back-to-lunchboxes, and lunchboxes are secretly great for picky eaters.
Whether you’re packing it for your kid to take to actual school or to the living room for remote learning, there’s something about a lunchbox that makes the same old foods seem way more appetizing. “The lunchbox can oftentimes be the only source of comfort if they’re having a particularly stressful or hard day,” Dr. Sanam Hafeez, PsyD, a New York City-based neuropsychologist, tells Romper. So you want to make sure your kid's lunchbox is especially appealing to them.
Sometimes it’s just as much about personal gestures (like the lunchbox note) as it is about the actual food that’ll put them at ease; sometimes it's the design of the lunchbox itself. We spoke to experts who shared six reasons why a lunchbox can be a huge help to parents of picky eaters.
1. Lunchboxes Can Give Picky Eaters A Sense Of Ownership & Control.
Making lunchbox prep a “mommy and me” activity doesn’t just take some of the pressure off of you. “If you make it a nightly tradition, and they can pick what they want, they’ll feel more in control and know what to expect," Jessica Hilton, MS, RD, CDN, a mom-of-two and registered dietician practicing in upstate New York, tells Romper. Hilton also suggests allowing them to be involved in the grocery shopping process. “Let them pick one new item each week while you shop that they’ll be excited to try for lunch that week,” she says. Have an open mind about it, too. It’s ok if it’s not always the “healthiest” choice (such as a pudding or Jello cup). The point is to get them excited about the food, and trying different things. “Offering things you know they will eat, combined with one or two options they may eat, is a good way to introduce foods,” she adds. Also, don’t expect it to happen overnight. “Most often, it takes 10-12 introductions to a new food, especially if it’s a vegetable, before a child may say they like it.”
2. Lunchboxes Can Be A Great Way To Slowly Introduce New Foods
Hilton says it’s important for kids to be provided balanced nutrition with all of the basic food groups; however, that doesn’t always have to happen during school hours. “My daughter prefers [foods that are] savory and sweet, and strongly dislikes vegetables. So in her lunchbox, we offer foods we know she will eat such as a lean protein, a fruit, low sodium chips with minimal ingredients and a granola bar. Then, when she gets home, I’ll offer her a fruit or vegetable as her first snack. There, I can encourage her more and she doesn’t feel forced,” she explains. At home, you can also offer more options, like taking carrot sticks and offering ranch, blue cheese or hummus for dipping. If you find something he/she likes, then you can incorporate it into the school lunch. “If your child is a picky eater or is nervous eating around others, having flavors they’re familiar with can make them feel at-home,” explains Dr. Hafeez.
3. Lunchboxes Can Carry Messages About More Than School
Consider this the souped-up lunchbox note: Whether you practice positive affirmations in your daily life, or the concept is foreign to you, an encouraging note could really serve your child well. Short, simple, self-affirming statements can help kids feel more positive about eating and teach them useful life lessons, too, according to Michelle Maidenberg, Ph.D., a psychotherapist practicing in Westchester County, New York. “The messages we convey to our children become their inner voice. Our natural human inclination is to be self-defeating and self-loathing, but these positive messages actually teach our kids to be self-compassionate, acquire self-belief, and practice self-love,” she explains. Great examples are “you inspire me with how hard you work at school,” or “you are a good friend who always shows up with thoughtfulness and care.” If you want to go above and beyond the simple, Sharpie-written sticky note, Dr. Maidenberg suggests googling printable online resources you can utilize.
4. Lunchboxes Can Be A Tool For Self-Expression
In some cases, the lunchbox represents a child’s only form of self-expression. “In cases where a student is required to wear a uniform, the lunchbox represents their only means of expressing themselves to peers and teachers,” says Dr. Hafeez. “Whether it’s their favorite color, superhero, or TV show character, letting your child pick their lunchbox can be an outlet for them to express their identity, and make the overall experience more exciting in general.” Also, what goes in their lunchbox can be more about fitting in, and that's okay. “If all of their friends are eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, that could explain why your child always requests that. Giving them something else may make them feel like an outcast, so it’s important to listen to their wants and needs,” explains Dr. Hafeez.
5. Lunchboxes Keep Different Tastes & Textures In Their Own Compartments
The carrots may ultimately get dipped into the ranch, but don’t you dare let them touch before they’re supposed to. “Picky eaters can often get overwhelmed when they see all the food in there together, especially if the foods are all touching each other” explains Hilton. “If you buy a lunchbox with separate compartments, they can see all their options without feeling stressed out.” Think of kids as creatures of habit. “Kids gravitate to what they know,” says Hilton. “The way you package the food can change the look of the food making it less familiar,” she adds. Fussy kids also typically don’t like their food “messy” so the key is to avoid that. Trendy bento box-style lunchboxes are perfect for compartmentalizing; the Bentgo Kids Print Lunchbox shown above comes in a huge variety of fun prints and colors, and includes "drop-proof, rubber-coated edges" and two easy-to-open, kid-friendly latches (bentgo.com, 29.99).
6. Lunchboxes Give Kids A Sense Of Consistency
Take them shopping to pick out a lunchbox and make it an exciting moment for them. “Letting your child pick out their own lunchbox offers a moment of independence for them,” says Hilton. “Then, use the same one daily for consistency,” she suggests. “If the child is proud of what they choose, they are more likely to be excited about what’s in it,” explains Hilton.
Putting the extra time and attention into your kid's lunchbox could makes lunchtime a highlight of their day and even open their minds to some new foods.
Dr. Sanam Hafeez, PsyD, a New York City-based neuropsychologist
Jessica Hilton, MS, RD, CDN, a mom-of-two and registered dietician
Michelle Maidenberg, Ph.D., a psychotherapist practicing in Westchester County, New York