Breaking Down Back-To-School Lunchtime Expectations
The beginning of school for families can be FULL of expectations. I know this from experience and I admit, I'm still guilty of it ... especially when it comes to school lunches. I had the chance to sit with my friend, Nishta, who is a Registered Dietitian, childhood and family nutrition expert and most importantly, she is a mom of two! She gave me a reality check when it came to some of the expectations I had when Harper was going into JK. I thought this was such an important topic that it had to be shared. Here are some of the most common expectations written by Nishta ... hope this helps!
EXPECTATION: I need to pack my child a huge lunch because they'll get so hungry without me. They need a full lunch!
REALITY CHECK: Two small snacks and even 1/2 of their normal lunch would be plenty for most kids.
Generally, lunches aren’t going to be the biggest meal of the day for a kid. This is mainly due to the environmental cues and time constraints. Most schools require 2 snacks (morning and afternoon) to be packed along with a lunch
Kids under 6 years old are usually good with a ¼ cup of any food. Or half-portions of adult foods. Examples would be a few cheese cubes, a mini-pita, 5 to 6 cherry tomatoes or grapes, 1 large tablespoon of any other fruit or veg. A ¼ to ½ cup of any mixed meal, ½ sandwich, 6 piece of sushi etc. If you have an older child, look at the portions they are eating JUST before the school year begins: this is a good indicator of where their appetite lies. I always say, start small and work up, serve small to large. Ask your child how they felt about lunch when you check in; food, and portions and style. Having very large portions facing you, when there are sooo many things to look, laugh and gawk at at lunchtime only adds to the overwhelm!
EXPECTATION: My little will eat all their lunch ... they will be starving!
REALITY CHECK: They didn’t eat it; why aren’t my little ones eating their lunch?
Lunchtime is a zoo … to put it simply!
It’s a very overwhelming scenario at most schools; hundreds of kids together, the bodies, the noise, the cacophony can shut down little nervous systems VERY easily; it’s a fight or flight scenario for little bodies. Some kids have never been in an environment with so many children; its full sensory overload, smell, sight and sound. This is VERY unappetizing. There is often a trek that has to happen from classrooms or playground down to the common lunch area. It’s like herding cats, that often takes up 40% of the actual designated eating time. By the time they are left to eat, many can’t open their containers, and due to staffing shortages, may not have any assistance. Tip: Test the containers you are choosing for your child to see if they can open them! Many kids are left struggling on their own. And they have to eat in about 6 to 10 minutes average. If your child is truly struggling with this scenario, it never hurts to talk to the teacher about any alternative options to help your child cope!
EXPECTATION: My little is not eating and is STARVING AND WILL GET SICK!
REALITY CHECK: Nope! Your little will be fine. They just need to find their "lunch vibe", which takes time.
The short answer is YES, your child will be fine with suddenly not eating a full meal daily for weeks. But how?? It’s been happening for decades (do you remember what YOU had for lunch at school??). Many kids take a couple months even up to a full semester before they get the hang of lunch. So how come they don’t lose weight and falter in growth or development? Because feeding children is the long game; it’s about averages. Many kids will end up eating more calories at various snacks, at dinner, at bedtime or even on weekends to make up the difference. We are watching, but we honestly can’t keep track of this. If you feel concerned over time about illness or malnutrition, you can always check in with your healthcare provider. But the first step should be talking to them to ask them how they are feeling about the foods and the process to work through any barriers. With support, they will eventually find their “lunch rhythm”
EXPECTATION: I need to buy all the fancy packaged lunch snacks or my kid won't eat; they are more convenient, so they must be what works.
REALITY CHECK: Your child will eat whole foods at lunch if you provide them.
Many parents think the way to their child's heart will be through ALL THE BARS ... and BALLS and DIPS and bags of snacks that are marketed to kids as "lunch". Most foods targeted towards children are in fact higher in salt and sugar than the same “adult” version of a food! In fact, the more often your child is offered whole foods, the higher the likelihood these will feel like normal, safe foods that they will consume. Lunches and other meals can quickly nose-dive over time, if all that is offered are quick convenience foods in packages. Its totally normal to offer some foods such as little treats and add-ons in a package. But truly nothing is more convenient that popping a few frozen berries in a container; no extra additives or sugars!
A simple lunch of whole foods such as fruits, veggies, grains etc. will do wonders for your prep and you pocketbook.
Berries, tofu, apples, sunflower seeds, melon, bread, crackers, snap peas, green peas, cucumbers, peppers, pitas, tortillas, cheese, tomatoes, lentils, chickpeas, chicken, and don’t even get me started on leftovers - they are the best!
EXPECTATION: If I buy super-cute containers, it will taste and look great and be eaten!
REALITY CHECK: You don’t need to spend a lot of money on containers; food safety is more important than cuteness!
This is an important one, food safety can be a real issue here, as can straight-up aesthetics! Some of the best containers are the ones you may be using for your lunch, no cartoon-faces in sight. Make sure if you are sending cold foods, they stay cold, or hot foods they stay hot. Some containers come with their own mini-ice packs that can be frozen overnight and popped in in the morning. Use stand-alone ice pack on top of food containers (remember cold travels down, not up!) , or thermos insulated containers for hot foods. Also look for a lunch box with a little insulation it never hurts. Many of the fabric cases have insulation lining sewn in. Make sure you put foods in containers that sit snugly and tightly into the lunch case; this reduces the good old “gross lunch shake-up scenario” which can make even the best attempt at yogurt and berries look revolting! Packaged store-bought snacks will be fine on their own!
Last but not least, let's always focus on a safe and edible lunch versus an instagram-worthy one :)
A big thanks to Nish for sharing her words of wisdom. For more information, you can check out her site at www.simplyvibrantnutrition.com