When my husband and I first discovered I was pregnant with our daughter, I knew parenting wouldn’t always be easy, but I had NO IDEA one of the biggest challenges I would face as a parent would be getting my child to eat healthy foods. Everyone had been so quick to give me advice about what does and doesn’t work for colic, when to start sleeping training, the best way to handle temper tantrums, and a slew of other stuff I had already read about while I was swollen and pregnant and uncomfortable. But not one of my friends warned me I would spend the majority of the toddler years begging and pleading with my child to eat something more nutritious than toaster pancakes and waffles.
Now, my daughter takes picky eating to an entirely new level, and I completely lack the willpower my friends have when it comes to enforcing the “eat what’s on your plate or go hungry” rule at mealtimes, so I’m not really sure their advice would’ve been able to help me anyway. But I do wish I had been more equipped to handle my daughter’s fussy eating habits when they first began. Knowing what to do with a picky eater would’ve saved me a lot of heartache, worry, and tears.
The good news is, even though my daughter is still one of the pickiest eaters I’ve ever met, I’ve learned to just accept it. I still ask her to try new foods, but I don’t harp on the issue, and mealtimes are no longer a stressful event in our household. I’ve also learned a little creativity can go a long way, and despite the fact that my daughter’s self-imposed food restrictions are pretty limiting, I’ve come up with great tips for packing (mostly) healthy school lunches for picky eaters.
And since I know I’m not the only mom out there who worries their little ones aren’t getting the nutrition they need on a daily basis–particularly when they are sitting in the lunch room at school–I decided to share my best picky kid lunch box ideas with all of you.
GET THEM INVOLVED
If your child is coming home with an untouched lunch box every afternoon and/or spends a great deal of time complaining about the lunch foods you pack, get her involved in the grocery shopping and preparation of lunches each week. This will not only empower your fussy eater and make her more likely to eat whatever she takes to school, but it will also give the two of you a fabulous excuse to spend one-on-one time together!
Let your child pull up a chair, grab the cookie cutters and press their sandwich into a fun shape. Allow your child to select a few different snacks to go into their lunch box (this is particularly effective if your picky eater is more of a grazer like my daughter). Have them help you put their lunch foods into sandwich baggies, and pack them carefully into their lunch box or bag. Or, if you’re eating lunch at home, get your child to help set the table, pour the milk or choose between a few options for the meal.
PACK THEIR FAVORITE FOODS
When my daughter first started giving me a hard time about food, I made the mistake of offering only one food she liked and about 5 foods she didn’t like each time we sat down for a meal. I figured she would eventually get hungry enough to eat something other than toaster waffles, but instead, the 2 of us got into a massive power struggle and I soon realized my daughter has more willpower than I will ever have.
I’ve since learned to offer 3 foods she likes and only one food she’s unsure of at each meal, and every once in a while, when she doesn’t think I’m looking, I’ll catch her sneaking a green bean into her mouth. I know it’s tempting to limit the lunch food choices to only “healthy foods.” But honestly, kids often see right through this ploy and the contents of their entire lunchbox go in the garbage. Instead, let them pick from a few foods they prefer. Don’t push the other lunch options if they balk. At least they’re eating something.
PUT YOUR CREATIVITY TO THE TEST
Whenever my dad was in charge of making our lunches and dinners when we were kids, he always cut a piece of sliced cheese into the shape of the first letter of our names. It was such a small gesture, but we absolutely loved it. And while I am not exactly a rockstar in the kitchen, I do find my daughter is more receptive to her meals when I dress them up a bit. It’s amazing what a couple of cookie cutters and pieces of decorative fruit can do!
If you’re looking for ideas on how to dress up your lunches, Pinterest has unlimited options! Cut sandwiches into fun shapes, include chips and crackers to build bite-sized mini sandwiches, or use pretzels as skewers. Even using a Sharpie to draw a face on the peel of an orange or banana is way more fun than plain old fruit. Kids love to play with their food!
GET CRAZY ABOUT BENTO BOXES
Since my daughter doesn’t eat a lot of traditional lunch foods, I used to lay awake at night worrying what I would pack her for lunch when she started school, but when a friend of mine started posting pictures of the bento box creations she prepares for her son each day, I knew everything would be okay. It’s pretty amazing how much you can pack into those little lunch boxes, and with so many different compartments, you can incorporate all kinds of foods your kids love!
Bento boxes are made up of little spaces where you put a few bites of different foods and treats. We’ve tried a ton of them over the years, and my favorite is the YUMBOX as it’s completely leak-proof and much less expensive than PlanetBox.
When packing your child’s bento box, slice a wrap into “sushi” or use cookie cutters to shape sandwiches and fruit. Mini muffin-tins are another great way to create little “bites” to eat on the go. The idea is to offer lots of little morsels in the bento box. This gives kids plenty of variety in their lunch and helps them enjoy a multitude of foods. Customize the bento boxes every way under the sun; there are tons of bento box lunch ideas out there. If you’re looking for lunchtime bento box inspiration, check out these posts with the best bento box ideas for fussy eaters:
- 12 Super Cool Bento Box Kids’ Lunches You Can Actually Make from Martha Stewart
- Top 10 Kid-Friendly Wraps from Super Healthy Kids
- Dinosaur Bento Lunch from Lunchbox Dad (this site has tons of cute bento ideas)
- 15 Muffin Tin Recipes for Kids from I Heart Arts n Crafts
- Think Outside of the Box for Lunches from Four Generations Under One Roof
MIX IT UP
One of the biggest challenges I face with my daughter’s picky eating habits is trying to keep lunch foods new and exciting, so she doesn’t grow tired of eating the same snack and lunches day in and day out. This isn’t always easy given the fact she only eats about 10 foods, but I find the more I mix foods up at mealtimes, the more likely she is to eat a substantial meal.
Even if your child only likes a certain type of sandwich or a single item for breakfast, offer an array of side items to help mix up the routine. Different crunchy veggies with dip, various crackers, popcorn and dried fruit are all nutritious ways to ramp up the flavors in a lunch. So, even if it’s ham and cheese AGAIN, you will rest assured there’s novelty mixed in the lunchbox, somewhere.
ADD A NOTE
My best friend in first grade got a note from his mother in his lunch every single day, and while I used to make fun of him whenever I saw the silly little messages she wrote to him, I was secretly really jealous of him and vowed I would do the same for my daughter. I just think it’s a nice way to let your kids know you’re thinking of them during the day.
You could use a marker to write a special message (or draw a smiley face) on the sandwich bag. You could put a different sticker in their lunch each day or write a silly joke in their lunch to get your kid to smile. You don’t need to include a long heartfelt message every single time. The idea is simply to let your kid know they’re on your mind. On challenging days, a message really means a lot. I really like these Lunchbox Notes as they have a nice message written on them and I can write something personalized on the back.
Every time I find myself worrying my daughter will never eat any meal with proper nutritional value, I remember the days when all I wanted to eat were peanut butter and butter sandwiches (don’t knock it before you try it). My mother probably thought the same of me back in those days, but I eventually become more adventurous with my food options and “picky eater” isn’t a term I would use to describe myself.
So as long as your little ones are getting some nutrition from their diets, and you are doing your best to introduce them to new foods, don’t sweat the small stuff. Most kids will eventually get hungry and eat. It’s hard not to fret about your child when you think of them being hungry during the day, but honestly? Even picky eaters will usually eat something when they’re tummies start to grumble.
In the meantime, use these great lunch ideas for every picky eater. Mix food choices up, create cute lunches, offer variety and let kids help with food. Give them a choice and let them get involved in planning lunch box ideas and packing their foods. They may end up developing a greater interest in food and tasting new items you never expected! Getting kids to eat their lunch doesn’t need to be a struggle!
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