Kids are heading (or have already returned) back to school, so if you’re a parent, you’re probably looking for ways to get organized, inspired and ready to take on those busy weekdays and those pesky school lunches.
Registered dietitian Nishta Saxena answers some of the most frequently asked questions from parents when it comes to packing lunch for their little ones.
What is the appropriate amount of food for your child’s lunch and snacks?
Generally, lunches aren’t going to be the biggest meal of the day for a child, thanks to environmental cues and time constraints. Most schools require two snacks (morning and afternoon) to be packed along with a lunch.
Kids under six 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, five to six cherry tomatoes or grapes, one large tablespoon of any other fruit or veg. A ¼ to ½ cup of any mixed meal, ½ sandwich, six 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.
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.
Why aren’t my little ones eating their lunch? Will they be okay if they don’t eat lunch for weeks?
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.
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 percent of the 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.
Pro 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 six to 10 minutes average.
If they don’t eat their lunch, don’t fret. They’ll be okay. Many kids take a couple months even up to a full semester before they get the hang of lunch, and many kids will end up eating more calories at various snacks, at dinner, at bedtime or even on weekends to make up the difference.
As long as your child is not showing signs of illness or malnutrition, you are good. They will eventually find their “lunch rhythm”.
How can my child prepare for eating in a complex environment of school?
The first and most important place to start is with your child. Having them understand their special needs or requirements, what it means when they are eating with other children who eat different foods, and in a space where cross-contamination is more likely than the home environment, they need to learn how to keep their foods and items safe. They also need to really understand they cannot share or trade foods or experiment with this in the school environment.
There are beautiful whole foods you can use for your child to create small, healthy lunches, and a boatload of allergy-friendly snacks in the marketplace now. Be sure to watch for extra sugars, which are often added to allergy-kid foods.
With so many restrictions, are packaged foods better? How can we ensure good nutrition?
Packaged foods are definitely not better. They contain more salt, sugar and additives than unprocessed food. Of course, they can and should be a part of a healthy diet, but whole foods have to come first.
The best way to ensure good nutrition is to regularly cook and have nutritious whole foods, vegetables, fruits, legumes, fish, grains, meats, in front of your child’s eyes as often as possible. And to eat them yourself! Role-modelling is the largest predictor of what a child will eat.
What time should my child even eat dinner? What is my kid is picky?
Every family’s schedule is so different and depend on many factors. Ideally, young children should be eating one to two hours before bed. That leaves room for digestion and possible bedtime snack or milk depending on the child. This works out to about 6 p.m. for many families. Families should eat together, so as much as possible, make sure you are sitting down with whomever can be present at that time for dinner. Older kids may have activities leading to later mealtimes, so more snacks may be necessary.
Don’t be afraid to get a small cooler for your car so you always have quick healthy options available for those rushed evenings!