Tiny versions of typically big foods sometimes are all it takes to sell kids on lunch. (Photo by Matthew Mead)
J.M. Hirsch

But Bobby Gets to Bring Fast Food for Lunch! Why Can’t I?

Settling in to a new school year can be exciting. Wrestling with the same old lunch duty dilemmas isn’t. And there’s the problem with back-to-school season.

Year after year, the drudgery of packing lunches for picky kids can wear down even the most creative and enthusiastic parent.

So to help us all get off to a good start, I asked readers for their biggest lunch packing gripes. And the responses overwhelmingly fell into two groups.

The first didn’t surprise me at all. You go to the trouble of packing a healthy lunch, but your kid whines that he’d rather eat the junk food his buddy brought.

But I wasn’t expecting the second one. And I was pretty stupid about that, because it’s one of the biggest challenges I face with my own son. You pack a great lunch, but your kid complains that lunch period is too short to eat the whole thing.

This week we’ll handle Problem No. 1: Coveting thy buddy’s lunch.

Let’s face it… the chocolate-covered deep-fried white bread hot mess your kid’s friend brought for lunch is way more appealing than the nutritious salad with whole-grain croutons that you packed.

This is the reason I always say, leave the green bean battles for dinner.

It’s hard enough to compete with the other kids’ lunches even when you pack foods your child loves. So don’t stack the deck against yourself by packing foods you know your kid is resistant to eating.

Sure, it would be great if all kids ate salads and steamed fish for lunch. But for most of us serving time as parents, that’s just a dream. Save that for dinner, when you’re there to beg, threaten and (sometimes) model good eating habits.

Which doesn’t mean you need to give in to requests for junk food lunches. In fact, as I said in a previous post, I really don’t think kids should get much say in what they bring for lunch. Parents are too busy as it is. We aren’t short order cooks, too.

But there is a middle ground. We all know which foods our kids enjoy. And we all know which of those foods are on the healthier end of the spectrum. Start there.

While I don’t give Parker much say in his lunches, I do try to pack foods I know he’ll get excited about. That’s a balancing act, of course. He’d be excited about all sorts of junk food. But we’re not going there. Packing foods I know he’ll love (bacon! pulled pork! steak carpaccio! sushi!) makes the other kids’ lunches less attractive.

So when your kids whine about wanting what all the other kids have, it’s time to have a chat. Start out with that line that all kids hate to hear… “Every family makes different choices. Our family doesn’t buy (insert whatever junk they are coveting) because (a gentle version of ‘it will rot your teeth and steal your soul’).”

After you’ve broken the bad news that you aren’t buying them any Despicable Monster Planes 2 Lunchtastics Lunch Kits, ask them what sorts of foods they would like in their lunches. Tell them that as long as it’s a healthy choice, you’ll find a way to work with their ideas. As guidance, consider telling the kids to think about their favorite dinners.

The next step is to find ways to make those foods appealing. This is another one of those tips you could follow out the window and down a path to insanity. I don’t believe in carving vegetables into cartoon characters just to make them appealing. Who has time for that?

But those grocery store lunch kits can teach us a thing or two about easy ways to make food appealing to kids. And you can steal those ideas.

Notice that those kits all feature small food. Fact is, kids love bite-sized foods. So go with it. Cut their sandwiches into quarters or strips or whatever. Get mini vegetables (baby carrots, cherry tomatoes, baby bell peppers, etc.).

Most of those kits also are big on DIY. They package a bunch of different foods and leave it to the kids to assemble at lunch. Crackers with a variety of pizza toppings, for example. Kids love getting hands on with their lunches, so let them.

Making them a ham and cheese sandwich? Substitute crackers for the bread, then pack the components separately and let the kids assemble it at lunch. Even a PB&J can be deconstructed this way (pack whole-grain pretzels with small containers of peanut butter and jam for dipping).

None of us should pretend that these tips will turn our kids into angels (but I’ll pay good money for any tip that does). But it should at least make lunch duty a little less onerous.

Next week, Problem No. 2: Who has time to eat lunch?

J.M. Hirsch is the national food editor for The Associated Press. He blogs about the trials and tribulations of his son’s lunches at LunchBoxBlues.com. His cookbook, Beating the Lunch Box Blues, is the first to be released by Rachael’s new publishing venture, Rachael Ray Books. Hirsch’s previous books include High Flavor, Low Labor: Reinventing Weeknight Cooking and Venturesome Vegan Cooking. He lives in New Hampshire with his son, wife, and too many cats.

Image courtesy of Matthew Mead

5 Responses to “But Bobby Gets to Bring Fast Food for Lunch! Why Can’t I?”

  1. Mary says:

    Wish the “Beating the Lunch Box Blues” give away wasn’t only for those at the show.

  2. Anne says:

    Agreed! We can’t give up on these lunch challenges as parents. Hopefully someday they’ll be making these healthier choices on their own. ps – I will cut any food into an easy heart shape if it makes it more likely to get eaten

  3. mollyhixson says:

    Here is a suggestion for making lunch at school a wonderful thing!There are healthier varieties of chips available now. Look for chips that are roasted, not fried, and that are made from vegetables, bagels or even beans! Mix some of your favorites together and pack them in a zip pouch to work. For more exciting tips check out this blog: http://www.mollymaid.ca/posts/2013/september/in-the-bag-how-to-pack-delicious-lunches.aspx

  4. Penny says:

    My 7 year old son’s school has a policy of no junk but does nothing to police it. We send him in with healthy snacks because we think it is the right thing to do and he then sits surrounded by kids eating Pringles, Cheetos and junk. I decided to stand my ground and keep sending healthy but attractive stuff but was then mortified to find that he had been stealing junk from other kids’ lunch boxes. He understands that stealing is wrong but can’t resist (particularly when some parents send in such huge quantities of junk).

  5. Bill says:

    I had a friend in school whose parents used to force him to take nothing but ‘healthy’ food in his lunch. My mom would send me hotdogs, cheesy dorito’s and a variety of little debby snack cakes and a canned Coca-Cola. I used to pitty him so much I’d bring him extra junk food and soda just to give him some relief from his food fascist parents. Anyway we’re in our thirties now and he’s obese because as soon as he turned 18 and got away from his folks he started to devour en masse all the delicious things he had been denied during his childhood. The solution is not to deny kids the good stuff but to strike a balance and teach them moderation. Letting your kids have that Monster Planes 2 Lunchtastics Lunch Kit once in a while is harmless, just don’t let him eat it all the time. Forcing a child to only eat the healthiest of foods all the time could end up backfiring.

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