Soggy sandwiches, missing entire food groups, or repetitive meals. There’s a reason why your kids might be trading away their lunch, come home with rumbling tummies or with a half-eaten lunch.
“When we’re packing lunches, it’s at 9 p.m. at night or in the morning, it’s easy to toss things in the bag and assume that kids will eat it,” Krista Leck Merner, a Halifax-based registered dietitian, told Global News.
“I’m shocked at how little time kids are allotted to eat their lunch so if we make it too complicated or they have to heat it up, they lose time. The younger the student, the longer it takes them to sit and unzip their lunch, so make it simpler timewise,” Leck Merner said.
Mistake 1: Letting food get soggy
Sandwiches, salads and wraps don’t hold up well when wet components like tomatoes or sauces make their meals a soupy mess by lunch.
“Kids are sensitive to textures so having a sandwich that’s soggy is going to be a big turnoff. Even if your kids will eat a tomato and lettuce sandwich, sometimes if it’s packed the night before, it can be unappealing by lunchtime,” Leck Merner said.
There are easy Band-Aid solutions, though: toasting the bread or tortilla for a sandwich or wrap and using a salad spinner to get rid of excess water are a good start. Then keep moist ingredients, like veggies or condiments, in a separate container so your kids can assemble these parts of the meal when it’s time to eat.
Mistake 2: Missing entire food groups
Crackers, cheese, and sliced meat with a juice box and a chocolatey treat are what make up a classic Lunchables meal. Is something missing here? A major component – fresh fruits and vegetables.
Parents may be worried about allergies and their kids’ preferences so ensuring they include all food groups could be overlooked.
“The basic rule of thumb is to make sure you’re getting three out of the four food groups in your meals and snacks for your kids,” Leck Merner said.
“Your kids need fibre and protein to feel full and if you’re missing that, they’ll be hungry later,” she warned.
Look for colour: red peppers, green cucumbers, orange baby carrots, sliced chicken breast, and whole grain tortilla – a rainbow of ingredients is a sign that you’ve covered your bases.
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Mistake 3: Too many repeats
Packing the same, routine lunch is a major faux pas.
“There’s a fine line between limited choice making things easy — and boredom. When kids get bored, we’ll see them trade their lunches for something less healthy,” Leck Merner warned.
This is an easy fix: you can keep the basics of a recipe but switch up one of the components. An everyday ham and cheese sandwich can be more exciting when it’s made with a whole-grain waffle instead.
Tacos and wraps are a welcomed break from sandwiches, too.
If you’re sticking to a sandwich, try using a cookie cutter to carve out shapes, Leck Merner said.
Mistake 4: Relying on prepackaged, sugary snacks
Filling out your child’s lunch bag with Dunkaroos or Handi Snacks is taking a shortcut that could leave your kids with a sugar rush and hunger pangs. Most of these snacks have little nutrition.
“Knowing that kids often reach for snacks first, pack foods that are rich in protein, fibre and healthy fats for lasting energy,” Brissette said.
If you’re stuck and don’t know what to pack aside from cookies and cakes, Brissette offers these options:
- Pumpkin seed butter or sunflower seed butter on whole grain crackers
- Hummus with baby carrots, sugar snap peas, celery sticks and cherry tomatoes
- Cheese and apple slices
- Yogurt with berries and nut-free granola
- Homemade snack mix with whole grain, low sugar cereal, crispy roasted chickpeas and dried fruit
- Air-popped popcorn with sunflower seeds or soy nuts
- Whole grain muffins
Mistake 5: Not making healthy food fun and easy to eat
If you’re feeling defeated when your kids come home with the soggy carrots you packed, you need to rethink your delivery.
The same goes for packing an entire orange or apple. Your kids aren’t going to peel an orange during their lunch break and a whole apple won’t entice them.
Make sure you make what may be hard sells like fruits and vegetables as easy to eat as possible. Baby carrots, cherry tomatoes and celery sticks could come sitting in a pot of hummus, slice up an apple and run lemon juice over the wedges so they don’t brown before bagging them, and peel or slice an orange so it’s ready to eat.
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Take a page from Lunchables and make your own version by piling food into a bento box-style Tupperware: nitrate-free turkey slices, cheese, grapes, cherry tomatoes with Greek yogurt or bean dip, with whole grain crackers round out a lunch.
“We eat with our eyes and kids are no exception,” Brissette said.
Mistake 6: Not planning ahead
There’s a reason why some parents pull off well-rounded homemade lunches throughout the week: they plan ahead and make sure they’re well-stocked with healthy fare.
“If you want to meet nutritional needs, you have to plan ahead. Packing is one good thing but planning gets you there.
Leck Merner always has a handful of staples in her pantry and fridge: she has fruits, such as blueberries, grapes and bananas, eggs because they’re versatile, along with batches of homemade whole-grain muffins or snack balls she makes at the start of the week. She also has cheese and crackers at the ready for when her kids get hungry.
On grocery shopping day, Leck Merner surveys her family to ask them what they’re craving. It could help her decide to make tuna sandwiches, chicken fajitas or turkey chili during the week.
Mistake 7: Leaving your kids out of the process
Research suggests that getting kids involved in making lunch will help them eat healthier, according to Brissette.
“That way, they’re more invested in eating their creations and they get to pick what they want for lunch,” she explained.
Both Leck Merner and Brissette rely on cheat sheets to help them build lunches. Leck Merner tapes hers to the inside of her snacks cupboard – there she’ll know her kids like to pair crackers with turkey slices and cheese or mixed berries with yogurt and a granola.
“Create a lunch-making cheat sheet and keep it on the fridge,” Brissette advised. With the help of your kids, fill out a chart with five columns: protein, carbohydrates, veggies, fruit and milk or milk alternatives.
“Let them know that when they’re packing their lunch, it needs to have something from each of the categories,” Brissette said.
Mistake 8: Forgetting food safety and tidiness
Parents forget: kids don’t head to the classroom and stash their lunch in the fridge the same way adults do in an office setting.
“If your child leaves for school at 8 a.m. and doesn’t have lunch until noon, that’s long enough for something like tuna and mayo to grow bacteria that could make your child sick,” Brissette warned.
Leck Merner tries to avoid hot meals whenever possible, especially in the warmer months of May and June.
Be strategic when packing meals: Leck Merner freezes a water bottle in the summer, so that it’s thawed out but still cold by the time it’s recess and lunchtime. For sandwiches, she’ll rely on a clip-on ice pack, and with yogurt parfaits, she’ll use frozen berries to keep the snack cool.
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Don’t forget utensils, too: Have you been guilty of sending kids off with yogurt and no spoon? If you’re a repeat offender, use yogurt tubes or snacks that don’t require a fork or spoon.
Always pack a wet wipe, too.
“Some kids get upset when taco fillings spill out or they have sticky fingers,” Leck Merner said. Wraps, sandwiches or spaghetti – plenty of dishes can leave a mess, so a Ziploc bag with a baby wipe could help kids tidy up their space.