Help! My Kid Won’t Eat His Lunch!

by Wendy Copley on August 28, 2014

My older son, Wyatt, has never been a big eater at lunch time, but last spring he almost completely stopped eating his lunches. He’s always been the pickier of my two kids and getting him to eat vegetables is always a big challenge, but I could usually count on him to eat the majority of his lunch if I packed it full of things he liked. But as his 4th grade year wore on, his lunch box came home with less and less food missing from it. Some days I couldn’t tell if he’d eaten anything when I opened his lunch box at the end of the day!

It got so bad that by the end of the year we were butting heads over his lunch nearly every day. I was fed up with the energy it took to find something he would eat and even more so, I was tired of all the wasted food. So I went on a lunch-packing strike. I decided that if he was going to waste a meal anyway he could eat school lunch and I could save a little time in the mornings.

Now that the new school year has started, we both want to start things off with a clean slate. Neither of us was happy with the school lunch solution. My son doesn’t like the meals they serve at school because he doesn’t think they taste good. I don’t want him to eat school lunches because they are overly processed. I’d much rather he had a lunch filled with good foods that fuel his body and give him the nutrition he needs the thrive. At the end of the summer the two of us put our heads together and we came up with a few strategies that have helped make lunch packing more pleasant for both of us.

1. Get Buy-in

The first thing we did was sit down together and go through the lunch box idea list. I handed Wyatt a highlighter and had him mark everything on the list that he would be happy to see in his lunch. Some of the things he highlighted were expected — mini bagels, strawberries and pretty much any kind of meat — but other things were big surprises. Cherry tomatoes? Red bell pepper? I can work with that!

We also pulled out some of my lunch box cook books and he dog-eared some recipes that sounded good to him. Some of these I’ll be making on my own, some we’ll make together.

And finally we’ve agreed that he’ll choose two kinds of fruit and two kinds of vegetables for his lunches when I’m making the weekly grocery list. Taking ownership of of what goes in his lunch box makes him feel more in charge and he’s significantly more likely to eat the items he chooses.

2. Make nutrient rich foods more appealing

Or maybe I should say, “make appealing foods more nutrient rich.” Basically, I’ve identified a few different foods that Wyatt loves and I’ve looked for recipes and techniques that boost their nutritional profile. The first place I started was smoothies. I make these at home with loads of fruit, a little yogurt and soy or coconut milk then spoon them into pouches and freeze them to include in lunches. They’re pretty healthy to begin with but recently I’ve started adding flax meal and spinach to them. Even better! I also add grated veggies to pasta sauce and taco meat and I’ve started messing around with adding carrot puree to apple sauce with pretty good success.

3. Ease up on the treat rules

One of the main reasons Wyatt stopped eating his lunches was that he wanted more “treats” in them. More precisely, he saw what some of his friends were bringing in their lunches and decided his ideal lunch would consist of Doritos, cookies, bacon, and a Capri Sun — with a cupcake for dessert. I’m not opposed to an occasional treat now and then, but I think they should be just that — occasional. This led to a lot of teasing from the kids who brought the junkier stuff and Wyatt would reject his lunch because he was embarrassed or his friends would share their lunches with him which would fill him up enough that he wasn’t starving when he left the lunch room.

After discussing this with him a lot, we’ve made a deal: I’m going to start including a treat in his lunch most days and in return he’s agreed to eat the healthier items in his lunch box. Don’t get me wrong — we’re not suddenly talking donuts and Coke every day. Instead I’m including stuff like whole grain tortilla chips, a couple cookies, popcorn, or boxes of Horizon vanilla milk. Delicious food, but still pretty healthy!

How do you encourage your reluctant eater to finish his lunch?

This conversation is sponsored by Horizon Organic. The opinions and text are all mine.

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