Maintaining a healthy diet is an important aspect to include in everyone’s daily routine. For children, this may be a challenge. School, extracurricular activities, and lack of time can often interfere with healthy eating habits.

Since kids spend nearly 40 hours a week at school, it’s no surprise that school is a powerful influencer in their lives. Since kids may find themselves eating breakfast, lunch, and snacks at school, this can serve as a big opportunity for children to expand their eating preferences. This excerpt, adapted from The Picky Eater Project: 6 Weeks to Happier, Healthier Family Mealtimes by Natalie Digate Muth, MD, MPH, RDN, FAAP, and Sally Sampson, Founder, ChopChop Kids, provides healthy eating tips, as well as easy-to-create lunch plans and snack ideas sure to please the busiest (or pickiest!) child.

HEALTHIER SCHOOL LUNCHES
Over the past several years, food offered at schools has generally gotten much healthier, with federal regulation requiring schools to
• Increase fruits and vegetables served and require children to select a fruit, a vegetable, or both as part of school lunch or breakfast.
• Emphasize whole grains at meals.
• Limit calories and sodium in school breakfast, lunch, and snacks.
• Eliminate trans fat, also known as partially hydrogenated oil.
• Offer snacks that have whole grains, a fruit, a vegetable, a dairy product, or protein-rich food as the first ingredient.
While the school lunch is certainly easier—and with the increasingly healthy school lunch offerings, often healthier—sending your kids to school with a lunch at least a couple of times per week gives you an excellent opportunity to help shape their eating habits. Of course, it’s a delicate balance. The decision between what you would like your child to eat versus what you think she will actually consume influences your choices. Should you put in the carrots you know she will reject just so she’s exposed to the vegetables? How about her favorite chocolate chip cookies simply because you know how happy it will make her? Without you there looking over your kids’ shoulders and supervising intake, lunchtime and snack time at school offer kids an opportunity to exert some control over food choices and put into practice what you’ve been teaching them at home. They may choose to trash, barter, or eat your carefully planned meal.

TEACHABLE MOMENTS IN THE KITCHEN
As kids enter the upper elementary school grades, we suggest transitioning the job of preparing lunch to them. Share with them the lunch box requirement of balance and let them decide what goes in. Before transitioning the responsibility, you could give them a quick lesson on the things you consider when making a lunch, such as going for high-fiber whole grain rather than the highly processed white version, leaner meats, and fruits and vegetables of different colors. Initially, you might inspect to make sure lunch doesn’t include just several cookies and a soda (although by now, you probably don’t have these in the house!), but eventually, you might want to slowly transition to trusting their choices and periodically giving a surprise inspection.

Remember, for the most part, kids will have available to them only items they can find in the house. This offers you a good opportunity to double-check whether you’re maximizing access to healthy foods and minimizing access to the more highly processed and less healthy versions. Here are some easy-to-make lunch ideas to help your children expand their food preferences.

  • Peanut butter (no sugar added) and sliced banana sandwich on whole-grain bread cut into quarters. Include a few baby carrots and dried fruit.
  • Turkey sandwich with hummus and tomato on whole-grain bread. Add string cheese, crackers, an apple, and a couple of fig bars.
  • Try last night’s leftovers. Don’t forget to include a plastic fork/spoon/knife (if needed) and an ice pack to keep it cold. Add a few cherry tomatoes, a hard-boiled egg, and some applesauce.
  • California rolls with edamame and red grapes.

Don’t forget to also teach your kids to throw in a couple of ice packs to keep perishable foods cold. One study found that by the time kids actually ate their food, more than 90% of lunches contained items that were above a safe temperature, leaving those kids susceptible to food borne illness.

PACKED LUNCH TIPS AND IDEAS
When helping your child pack a lunch (note: we say helping your child rather than packing your child a lunch because as young as preschool, kids can play a very active role in making lunch), keep the following tips in mind:
Involve your child.
The best way to ensure your kids will actually eat the food you put in their lunch box is to give them some control of what goes in there. Even the pickiest eaters enjoy some healthy foods. Be sure to include at least one healthy item your child loves. And next time you head out to the grocery store, ask for your kids’ input into what healthy food they’d like to have in their lunch boxes. The mere exercise of helping them sort through their favorites will help them learn what types of foods are healthy for their bodies and which ones are less healthy.
Aim for balance.
Try to include something from each of the major food groups—a whole grain; a protein-containing food, such as meat, beans, or legumes; a fruit; a vegetable; and a dairy product or another calcium-containing food—in your child’s lunch box every day. Even if she chooses not to eat it all, your child will start to pick up on what a balanced meal includes.
Increase exposure to healthy foods.
Use lunchtime as an opportunity to expose your children to a small amount of a previously rejected food. Even if they choose not to eat, mere exposure may help increase the chances they’ll appreciate it in the future. It often takes 15 to 20 tries for a child to accept a previously rejected food.
Teach portion control.
Preparing lunch gives you a perfect opportunity to pay attention to portion control. Use plastic bags, attempt to measure out standard portions, and include some inherently portion-controlled items for the lunch box, such as an apple or string cheese.
Make eating healthy fun.
Kids, especially preschool- and elementary-aged children, love foods that are packaged in a fun way. Perhaps your child will be more likely to eat the baby carrots if you package them in a funnily decorated baggie. Or maybe your child will totally reject celery and raisins if offered separately, but when they’re presented as “ants on a log” (celery with peanut butter and raisins), she might gobble it up. Just be careful to avoid marketing tricks in which junk foods are packaged with your child’s favorite characters. This just helps your child love the sugary stuff even more.