Feeding a picky eater can be exhausting. Meal after meal, they reject what you offer and miss out on chances to get the nutrients they need to grow and thrive.
Packing a lunch that they will actually eat can be an especially big challenge. There’s limited time to eat, plenty of distractions, and the kid across the table always has something more appealing. You’d like to try some new foods, but you are worried they won’t take a single bite and will be starving for the rest of their school day.
But don’t worry, with a plan, in no time you’ll be packing lunches filled with variety (or as much variety as you can) and exposure that are eaten on the regular!
First, here’s a few things you can do to prepare for success.
- Get input from your child when you pack – It can be helpful to involve your child in deciding what to pack by giving them a small choice. For example, would you like apple or pear today? Peanut butter on bread or a tortilla? This way, they can feel like they’ve had some control, but not so much control that they opt for a lunch of Doritos and String Cheese only!
- Get input from your child when they come home – It’s good to get information from your picky eater on the other end of the process as well. Take a look at what came home and find out what they have to say about it. Maybe the pretzels were stale after being packed the night before in a bento box or the raspberries were crushed and got juice all over other foods. These foods could be favorites, but weren’t eaten due to very specific circumstances. Don’t rule anything out without finding out what happened. Sometimes it’s just a matter of an easy adjustment and they are good to go again!
- Pick a lunch box that suits your picky eaters’ preferences – There are a million lunch boxes for you to pick from; how do you narrow it down to one? Start by looking for one that makes sense for how your child likes to eat. Does the school require everything to be disposable? Maybe pack of brown bags and a fresh box of zip top bags is all you need. Does your child prefer just two to three foods in a sitting? A simple Easy Lunch Box could be perfect for an entrée and two sides. Perhaps, a small bit of many foods is very appealing to your picky eater? The Cinco LunchBot might be the perfect match! (Personally I love all things LunchBots. I’m not sponsored by them, I just actually love them and buy them for my family.)
- Get some tools to make food fun – Let’s keep it real. I am not suggesting that the lunches you pack for your picky eater are the most beautiful and Pinterest worth meals ever. You very likely have many other priorities in life, and it’s OK if this is not one of them. However, with that said, a little bit of fun goes a long way. If you are packing something new or a food that is not so loved, consider giving it a boost of fun. A cutout shape, crinkle cut, food pick or fun presentation might be all it takes to make new food less intimidating.
- Have a plan – Creating a full-blown meal plan for packing lunches is not necessary, even for the pickiest eater. However, a general game plan, or as I like to call it, a lunch “formula” can help you avoid staring at an empty lunch box at a total loss of what to pack! I even recommend taking it one step further and writing down some ideas within the formula to get you started and even help with grocery shopping.
What’s the Picky Kids Lunch Formula?
Having a lunch formula can help you easily create loads of lunch ideas for your picky eater without much thought or effort. The formula has components to meet growing kids’ nutrition needs, and considers what is actually going to be eaten by a picky eater. Additionally, it includes a new food for exposure, but done in a thoughtful way to keep it low stress!
- Fruit OR Vegetable – Pack what’s going to be accepted and eaten when it comes to fruits and veggies. Compared to other fun packaged foods that are common in lunches, kids can easily leave fruits and veggies untouched. Give them the best chance by packing one they like. Both fruit or vegetables provide an opportunity for important nutrients, so you decide what to include, and rotate through as many as possible. If you’ve got a kid that enjoys many fruits and/or veggies, pack more. But at a minimum, include one, even if it just fits into the exposure category (keep reading for more on that).
- Fat AND Protein – Time between eating can get long for kids in school and that means they might be getting spacey and losing focus, when they are supposed to learning. Avoid this hunger by packing sources of fat and protein to keep them fueled and focused.
- Fiber – Does it sometimes feel like your child is a bottomless pit that never fills up and you’re worried they won’t feel satisfied at lunch? Fiber to the rescue! Fiber helps us stay full and satisfied and in school stops tummies from rumbling between eating times.
- Bonus Nutrient – Are you feeling like your picky eater might not eat some of these lunch formula categories? It’s OK. This formula packs a lot of opportunities for good nutrition and feeling satisfied, like bonus nutrients. This includes any small additions that can be easily mixed in or added to other foods. Some examples include: seeds, crushed foods, shredded foods, and more. Basically anything you can sprinkle on or in other foods. Many of these overlap with other categories, making it extra helpful!
- Satisfying Crunch – Packing lunch for a picky eater isn’t all about what they should eat. What they actually will eat and enjoy matters too. Many picky eaters love crunch and it is a really satisfying component of a meal for them. Adding crunch to a picky eater’s lunch, not only helps them feel seen and heard as far as their preferences, but also can act as a gateway for eating their whole lunch. Many picky eaters need a food they really enjoy to feel motivated to start eating, but then once they do, they will move their way through the other foods available. Crunchy foods serve as a great gateway.
- Exposure Food – It might feel scary, but including something small in your picky eaters’ lunch that is new or disliked can play an important role in building comfort with that food. A great way to do this, is to put a tiny portion in its own compartment or container, so it’s not touching other foods. This gives picky eaters the chance to look at it, maybe poke it with a utensil and most importantly learn to accept that it’s OK to just be near it. Basically, it’s not going to jump out of the box and bite them! Even if they have no forward movement in touching or interacting with the exposure food, it is still one small piece of the puzzle to help them expand their accepted foods in the long term. Check out the Mastering Mealtimes course for more help with expansion.
- Fun – Remember at the beginning when I mentioned the importance of fun? Here it is again! Let me by crystal clear, I do not recommend making an entire meal fun and festive. Your best plan of action is to use the fun component to help your child accept a food that’s in their lunch for exposure, or the food they like the least. The fun component can help them start interacting with the food, making them more likely to eat it. There are no guarantees, but using it in this way gets you’re the best bang for your buck.
How do I use the Picky Kids Lunch Formula in real life?
The best way to start doing anything new is to have a plan! Take a piece of paper and fold it so it is divided into six sections. In each section, list the lunch formula components numbered 1 through 6 above. Take a few minutes to put a few ideas in each. This time spent now will pay dividends in the long term, when you can pull components together for a lunch in a few minutes each day without using much brain power.
Here’s a few ideas to get you started:
Fruit OR Vegetables – You know these! List the ones your picky eater will eat.
Fat AND Protein – full fat yogurt or milk, cheese, nut/seed butters, nuts/seeds, salads with mayonnaise (chicken, egg, ham, etc.), leftover meat, tofu cooked with oil, beans/legumes cooked with fat, roasted chickpeas, pea crisps
Fiber – nut/seed butters, nuts/seeds, beans/legumes, fruit, vegetables, whole grain bread/tortilla/bagel/pita/cracker/muffin, brown rice, popcorn, roasted chickpeas, pea crisps
Bonus Nutrients* – chia seeds, hemp hearts, wheat germ, ground flax seeds, ground nuts, sesame seeds, nutritional yeast, shredded cheese, crushed freeze-dried fruit, crushed fortified cereal
*Many of the seeds and crushed items are great inside a sandwich or on top of yogurt, dip and pudding. Cheese is great on vegetables or inside sandwiches.
Satisfying Crunch – pretzels, animal crackers, dry cereal, roasted chickpeas, pea crisps, crackers, chickpea puffs, parmesan crisps, freeze dried fruit, nuts
Exposure – List some foods that you’d like to introduce to your picky eater or ones that you have been offering at other meals, but they still need to grow to like.
As for something fun, we’ve covered how to use that to get the most out of it. Of course, it’s OK for fun to just be a piece of candy, a cookie, something seasonal, sprinkles, or a favorite food! All foods fit and mama sometimes needs to not think at all while packing lunch!
Check out all that overlap in categories. With a handful of foods, you can still meet so many nutrient needs for growing kids, include foods that satisfy and taste good, and work toward expanding to new things!
Once you’ve made your list, hang it on your fridge so it’s handy when lunch packing time comes around (Every. Single. Day.)! For more inspiration using the Picky Kids Lunch Formula, follow Kim on Instagram @kids.food.exposure.dietitian and tag me when you share your efforts!
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Kim Slack is a Registered Dietitian and founder of On Your Table LLC. She coaches parents on feeding strategies and parenting styles that support children to expand the foods they eat. Kim has helped many families have happier, calmer mealtimes and grow competent eaters. Kim also has 2 boys of her own at home. Learn more about her here.