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 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

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