How to pack lunchboxes for fussy eaters
Schools and Kindy’s are starting to go back in the Southern hemisphere after our long summer holidays. That means that lunchboxes are back on the menu too!
I know this causes dread for many parents. The relentlessness of packing them day after day. And this dread is often magnified many times over if you are the parent of a fussy eater.
I’ve been packing them for 15 years now and would love to offer some advice both as a packer and as an expert in picky eating
Much of this is about side-stepping the rules we have created for ourselves too!
Packing lunchboxes for fussy eaters
1. You are packing the lunchbox for your child. The whole point of the lunchbox is to cater to our own child and make sure they are nourished and happy.
We are not packing it to make the teacher happy or to impress other parents.
I know that frequently one of the big challenges around lunchboxes for a picky eater is the discomfort it causes parents. We feel embarrassed or guilty or uncomfortable as we are not sending a perfectly balanced and Pinterest worthy box.
But the core goal is to provide food for our child. If that is different to the food everyone else sends that’s perfect, as they are also different from every other child!
Frequently parents get bored as they are packing the same thing over and over again. I like to reframe this a little and think “wow, how easy not to have to be creative at 6.00am”
2. Eating is the primary goal. Again, we can be our own worst enemy when we worry about sending foods that are not top of the nutritional tree or that we have sent every day for the last six months.
The point of a lunch is to provide enough food so our child is not hungry and has sufficient energy to get them through the afternoon being able to concentrate on activities.
If that means processed foods or ones that are high in sugar then I would always vote for those over not eating. Not eating is never ideal. It affects energy levels, mood, and the ability to concentrate. Hangry children are not fun to be around either.
Not eating anything can also become a habit and so children get used to not eating which becomes self-replicating.
3. Imaginary rules don’t apply. Many of us have been conditioned to think of lunchboxes in a specific way and that can be very powerful.
Sandwich, piece of fruit, muesli bar/chippies/muffin is an image many of us conjure up as a ‘standard’ lunchbox.
If we have a child who doesn’t eat sandwiches that all falls apart though. I know this doesn’t apply to everyone, but I speak to dozens of parents who deep down do think like this.
I never used to send sandwiches because I found dumping leftovers into a thermos way quicker and easier!
Thinking outside of the sandwich box can be valuable. If they are not something our child likes, what are other options that may fill the tummy and offer some energy for the afternoon.
Anything from pizza to muffins to chicken nuggets ticks those boxes. I know a sandwich seems like a healthier option on first glance but if we look at the nutritional value in any of those foods they would fare well against a honey sandwich.
4. Finding the right buttons! What is it that is going to encourage our child to eat? There are so many competing distractions, especially if our child is just not that excited about eating.
Looking for ways to make the lunchbox easy, accessible, and appealing is key:
i) Easy/accessible. Providing boxes and containers that are simple to open is essential. I found that small and portable was also effective. My boys wanted to run off and play and so being able to stuff in the pockets was a nightmare for me, but excellent for them!
ii) Appealing. Playing to strengths is always advisable. Is that a lunchbox with a favourite character on it or a Paw Patrol sticker on a pottle?
We can even draw or put stickers on apples, mandarins, and bananas etc. There are studies which show uptake of fruit increases when favourite character stickers are attached.
Appealing can also mean colour or texture or temperature. Many children who struggle to eat also have sensory sensitivities and so foods that do not fit within their parameters can be off putting.
We can either pick foods that fit with preferences or we can modify them so they do, for example, toasting wraps so they are crunchy rather than soft.
5. Volume. Many parents are desperate for their child to eat enough at lunch and so have a box filled with seventy five different choices.
It makes logical sense. If they are not feeling like the muffin today they can have the muesli bar or the cookie.
Unfortunately, all these choices can also be paralysing. A child opens the lunchbox and sees all the options and freezes. Which should I pick? What do I feel like?
Too many choices for anyone but especially fussy eaters can mean decision making stops. It is also common for picky eaters to want things to be ‘perfect’. When there are too many options it’s harder to pick.
A jam-packed lunchbox can also seem overwhelming. “How am I ever going to eat all this?”. In this case, eating nothing can be less of a fail than attempting to finish the whole box and knowing it will not happen.
I have advised countless parents to reduce what they put in the lunchbox and in many cases it has resulted in more confident eating. It is definitely worth a whirl if you’re finding the box comes back full but you are also sending a LOT of food.
Bite-sized in general is advisable. A whole sandwich can seem unsurmountable, but a tiny square can be “yes, I can manage that”. Many other foods can be cut or sliced or portioned so they are easier to eat too.
Remember, our first goal is to ensure our child eats enough to get them happily through the afternoon. Having this as the core goal can reframe the way we look at packing lunchboxes.
Also, lunches away from home are also not the place to teach someone to eat. Being away from home, having all the distractions in their environment, and eating often not being top of the agenda often make it more difficult than it is when home.
My advice is always to make the lunchbox offerings as easy as possible to eat. Familiarity definitely helps with that, so packing foods that we know will be accepted is ideal.
If we do want to send new foods, I recommend testing these at home first so we can gauge the reaction.
Judith is an AOTA accredited picky eating advisor and internationally certified nutritional therapist. She works with 100+ families every year resolving fussy eating and returning pleasure and joy to the meal table.
She is also mum to two boys and the author of Creating Confident Eaters and Winner Winner I Eat Dinner. Her dream is that every child is able to approach food from a place of safety and joy, not fear.
Learn more about Judith here: https://theconfidenteater.com/about/