Kids coming home with half-eaten lunches? This change made all the difference for us!
Packing lunches may not be your favorite chore. And that might be the understatement of the century.
So when your kids bring their lunch boxes home at the end of a school day and half the food you lovingly packed is untouched, it can feel like insult to injury.
This used to happen to me too.
I had visions of artfully packed, nutrient-dense assortments, representing all food groups, gobbled up gleefully by my child.
Then I’d open his lunch box after school to find remnants of a sandwich, carrot sticks, and strawberries, barely nibbled yet still somehow looking like they’d been through a war.
It was maddening
Why wasn’t my kid–who was (not surprisingly) STARVING after school–not eating his lunch?
I made sure to pack things he liked. I even occasionally cut his sandwich into whimsical shapes.
Then I remembered two things:
- Advice I got when my son was a toddler and went on a dinner strike that about did me in: Dr. Dina Rose, author of It’s Not About The Broccoli, suggested I start serving much smaller portions to him (like two bites of each food) and allow him to ask for more.
- Something I learned as a dietetic intern during a nursing home rotation: Older adults who have smaller appetites can get easily overwhelmed (and even nauseated) by a heaping plate of food. Serve less and they’ll eat more.
So here’s what I did
I started packing less food.
And when I did, my kid actually started eating more.
As in, he started to eat everything.
Sure, some uneaten food still occasionally came home. But for the most part this “less is more” strategy worked wonders for us.
I know it sounds counterintuitive to pack LESS if you want your kids to eat MORE. But stay with me here.
Why this strategy works
Here’s why I think this strategy can work for elementary-aged kids who are barely touching their lunches:
Big lunches can be overwhelming, especially to little people: Most students have very little time to eat lunch—sometimes only 20 minutes, a lot of which is spent talking with friends and figuring out how to open their assorted containers and packages. Large amounts of food may seem insurmountable and get ignored.
They don’t fill up on one food: Downsized amounts encourage them to eat a larger variety of what you pack. For example, I used to get frustrated that my son would finish his crackers but not touch his blueberries. Yet how could I blame him when I knew crackers were a favorite? Packing less of both meant he could eat all of his crackers AND still be hungry for his berries.
A giant veggie pile doesn’t seem doable–but a couple do: My kids both like raw veggies. If I pack a big pile of them, they might go untouched. When I downsized to three carrots or sugar snap peas, they’re more likely to eat them all.
Not convinced? Try these four things
If you’re reluctant to pack less, here are four things to try:
- Ask your kids what they like: Find out what kinds of foods they want in their lunch. They may be ignoring their apple because they’re bored to tears with apples and would prefer a fruit cup instead. They may not be eating their PBJ sandwich because they don’t like the new bread you’re buying.
- Check in about portions: Ask your kids about the portions you pack. Say, “Does this look like too much food, not enough, or just right?”
- Pack fast food: (Not THAT kind of fast food.) If time is a factor for your kids, be sure their lunches are easy to eat quickly. Sliced fruit is quicker to eat than whole, and a sandwich cut into small pieces is much easier to grab and nibble than a thermos of soup.
- Let them pack their own lunches: They know the portion that feels right. If they bring home a lot of uneaten food, talk about why and what to do differently tomorrow. Teaching kids about avoiding food waste is important. (Need help getting your kids to pack themselves? Sign up for my free 5-day email course.)
Always remember this
Remember that lunch box photos you see here and elsewhere are for ideas, not portion sizes.
Each child is unique–and appetites can vary widely from day to day and year to year.
Some kids have small appetites, some have larger appetites.
Some kids are going through growth spurts, others aren’t.
Don’t compare how much your child eats to what other kids eat–including their siblings.
And if you kids are still coming home with half-eaten lunches, an After-School Snack Platter sounds like a perfect workaround to me!