While your child may be the apple of your eye, it’s unlikely your kid feels the same way about broccoli. Or spinach. Or other green foods.
To fuel your kids’ appetite for health and learning, teach them to pack their own lunches. Research shows that this experiential (hands-on) learning boosts fruit and veggie intake, along with nutritional knowledge.
After all, as one study in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity points out: food choices contribute to a long and healthy life and protect against chronic diseases such as diabetes and hypertension.
According to the paper’s authors: “It is important to establish healthy eating behaviors early, as evidence shows that eating habits and patterns track into adulthood. Therefore, childhood is a period where education about healthy eating is essential for establishing healthy eating practices in later years.”
Here are tips for every age and stage, using a “scaffolding” approach — the process of teaching one step at a time, slowly layering learning, until children know how to put it all together on their own.
As a basic foundation, consider fulfilling the “trifecta”
Los Angeles-based, registered dietician nutritionist Sharon Palmer recommends a nutritional balance in every meal, with a protein source, whole grains, veggies, fruit, and healthy fats.
It’s the “trifecta” busy kids need to prevent hunger: protein, healthy fat, and fiber.
“Within that framework, it’s important to include foods that will be consumed, and include your children in the process,” says Palmer, a mom to two now-adult children. “Make it fun and interesting!”
Sure, your baby is too young to pack their own lunch (they’re a footie, not yet a foodie).
But you can take steps now to prep your baby’s palate for future adventures in eating. A mother’s varied diet can influence the flavors of mother’s milk while breastfeeding, which may, in turn, affect your baby’s future acceptance of those foods and flavors during regular mealtimes.
Once your baby is eating solids, offer them a wide range of fruit, meat, vegetables, whole grains, or complex purees.
Tips for the baby stages
Name the foods while eating them to increase familiarity and comfort. Don’t pressure, cajole, or force a baby to eat a food they’re not interested in yet.
Also, don’t assume that just because your 12-month-old turned her nose up at peas once, she’ll do it the fifth time — science says it’ll take more than a few tries.
Your toddler can say “no” (really well) and has begun to feed themselves. They may show strong aversions to some foods and clamor for others, but don’t give up on the picky eaters just yet.
Research also shows that parents may need to offer a new food up to 15 times before it’s accepted.
So, as far as lunch-packing challenges go, it can be difficult to find a variety of foods that are balanced and nutritious yet don’t need to be warmed up (not all daycares offer a microwave).
“Toddlers may not be interested in sandwiches yet,” Palmer reminds us. “Finding nutritious finger foods is key.” These foods are also fun for toddlers to eat and pack.
By the time this stage is over, your toddler will hopefully be familiar with the colorful variety of food available, the names of favorite foods, and how to “help” pack a lunch.
Tips for engaging your toddler
The beauty of finger food is that it’s also very hands-on. Count blueberries or pieces of whole-grain cereal as they go into a container to build eye-hand and brain-stomach coordination.
Getting toddlers involved in the lunch process earlier can also help them get acquainted with what healthy foods look like.
“Toddlers can also help do some cooking, such as stirring the bowl for homemade muffin batter,” Palmer says. “They can load up the lunch bag by transferring small items into storage containers, such as fruits or veggie pieces,” or placing Tupperware inside.
The challenge at this stage is just getting kids to sit still, Palmer says. Take packing to the next level and get them involved in making their finger food.
“Making the meals fun and interactive is good, such as finger foods and dips for veggies,” she recommends. Hummus, homemade ranch, or almond butter, along with cucumber slices, baby carrots, or snap peas are great examples.
And for the more challenging foods — particularly those with bitter, pungent compounds like Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, broccoli? A little patience.
“Pickiness can really get started in toddlers [and go] all the way up through elementary school,” Palmer says. “This can keep them from trying new foods, especially fruits, vegetables, beans, whole grains, and mixed foods.”
“[Have] discussions about what they like to eat and which foods are healthful and delicious,” Palmer says. By the time your kiddo heads off to kindergarten, it’s realistic to expect that they can identify (some) healthy options on their own.
Tips for educating your preschooler further
To involve kids, try reading books about nutrition and healthy food. One Stanford study found that listening to nutrition-focused books helped children eat twice as more vegetables during snack time afterward.
Take your kids to the grocery shop with you for lunch-box items. “They can also start doing a little bit more, such as helping to put together their sandwiches,” Palmer says. Ask them to help assemble a lunch stack, such as peanut butter and jelly, or a wrap with veggies and cheese.
Realistically, by the time your child is in sixth grade, they should be able to pack a lunch on their own. Reaching this parental-chore relief point takes some effort and encouragement, however.
At this stage, just finishing lunch can be a challenge — at least one study found an association between insufficient lunchroom time with significantly decreased veggie, milk, and entrée consumption, compared to kids who had at least 25 minutes to eat.
“Often children can get into food jags where they want to eat the exact same things over and over again,” Palmer says. “It’s OK if kids want a PB& J every day, but you might play with ingredients to increase food exposure — substituting almond butter for peanut butter or adding dried fruit instead of jam or putting it in a wrap instead of bread.”
“Even if they’re eating similar foods — try to make sure the major bases are covered,” Palmer advises. “Introduce your children to new foods, even if they don’t want to try them.”
Get kids involved in general with other meals, she suggests, with increased responsibility along the way. That might include shopping, baking, planning lunch menus, or perhaps even taking cooking classes.
Tips for school-age children
Kids can start making their own sandwiches at this point, Palmer says, or bagging up fruits and vegetables.
“Maybe a special recipe can be made with you, such as soup in a thermos or healthy fruit bars, to include in lunches,” Palmer says.
Of course, it’s also fun to pick out a lunchbox, lunch bag, or bento box at the start of the school year.
School-lunch ideas for kids six and up
- falafel balls, meatballs, or veggie meatballs with a dip such as tahini or yogurt
- vegetable-bean soup with whole-grain crackers and grapes
- nut butter with whole grain bread, finger-food veggies with a dip, a banana or an orange
- apple slices with a dip such as tahini or nut butter, a veggie and pita
- seasonal fruit, along with a wrap with turkey, sprouts, and cheese
By the end of elementary school, your child might turn out much like Palmer’s son — a “full gourmet,” in her words, who craved thick sandwiches with avocado, basil, and arugula.
“It’s one of my pet peeves — parents assume kids won’t like these things, but kids can be ready for that,” she says. “If it’s familiar and they’re trying things, they’ll come around.”
Hopefully, by the time your kids reach the tween and teen years, they’ll recognize and select healthier food choices and try new foods on their own. Teens should be able to pack their lunch.
Respect your child’s intelligence and be hands-off, if possible. Instead of guiding kids through the decisions, let other tools help — such as a nutrition-tracking app for a smartphone.
You can also text your tween tips from the CDC’s “Power Packing“ suggestions or ask them to help you draft a shopping list and stock the house’s pantry.
Let them have a say in diversifying food options, and keep a variety of lunch accoutrements, such as different sizes of containers and soup canteens, on hand.
As kids learn to craft lunches that’ll sustain them through the day, they’ll also gain self-care and self-sufficiency skills.
In the end, hopefully, you’ve built a well-rounded palate and a lifelong love for healthy (and even green!) foods.
Lora Shinn is a Seattle-based writer focused on health, travel, education, and sustainability.