Whether we like it or not, packing lunch for our kids is a competition.
Not against each other. Though when you look at some of the over-the-top bento box blogs out there, it’s easy to read a little one-upmanship in it.
It’s a competition against the foods the other kids bring. No matter how much love goes into the Brussels sprouts salad you packed for your kid, it’s a lost cause.
That’s because your kid will inevitably compare it – unfavorably – to the cookies and sugary drinks packed by parents who obviously must love their children more than you.
This is true even if your child eagerly devours Brussels spouts salad at home.
It’s the sad truth about the pack mentality that rules the lunchroom. And even if your kid won’t make the comparison, the other kids will. Loudly.
So what do you do? Pack the junk you didn’t want to pack to begin with? Tell your kid to suck it up?
A lot depends on your kid, of course. Some kids have the confidence to say to peers, “Go suck an egg. I like kale chips.”
But for the rest of us, there is a middle ground. And staying in that zone of compromise has allowed me to pack the sorts of foods I want my son eating.
1. Teach that treats aren’t just sugar
I don’t mean trying to persuade your kid that broccoli really is like candy. I mean set the tone at home that there are all sorts of “treats” – including favorite meals. Does a bowl of chili, a platter of sushi or a favorite sandwich spell ultimate comfort food to your kid? Work with that. The gist is to get your kid excited about what you pack, even if it isn’t junk food.
2. Garnish with bait
Keep in mind that kids are simple creatures who are easily impressed. A bit of chocolate – no matter how miniscule – transforms anything into a treat for my son. So I top his yogurt and fruit parfaits with a sprinkle of mini chocolate chips. Ditto for fruit salad. Nutritionally speaking, the teaspoon of chips is meaningless. But they make me a lunch packing hero to my kid. A dollop of whipped cream on fruit has a similar effect.
3. Imitate the junk
What is your kid coveting? Find it at the store and get a good look at it. Now figure out a way to make it work on your terms. Sugary juice bags? There are plenty of lookalike flavored water bags. DIY pizza lunch kits? Assemble your own, but with better ingredients.
4. Involve the eater
I’m not a big fan of giving my kid tons of choices in what I pack for his lunches. If I did, he’d hem and haw over it all morning. But at the grocer, it’s a different story. This is when you set some ground rules, then send the kids off in search of things they think are cool enough for school.
5. Go whacky
Kids love crazy themes, so embrace them. It’s an easy way to make your kid’s lunch more appealing than his buddy’s. How about an all-round lunch (pack foods that are all round)? Or all blue (think blueberries, blue tortilla chips, baked blue potato, etc.)? Or breakfast-for-lunch (pancakes, yogurt, juice, bacon, etc.)? You get the idea.
Just talk it out. As adults we tend to forget what a pressure cooker the lunchroom can be. Between being pressed for time and harassed by peers, lunch can be stressful for kids. Start by asking what the issue is. Then set your rules and find a compromise somewhere in there.
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.