Next up in our Back to School Lunch Guide we’re talking about lunch help for your picky eaters. We know how hard it is to stay inspired when it comes to packing school lunches (what with 200 or so of them to do in a year) let alone when you add in that layer of “I only like peanut butter” or “fruits that turn brown scare me.”
Our own picky eaters among the staff at Cool Mom Eats have challenged us to put our heads together and share these 8 clever school lunch hacks to help you vary up the routine a little, without throwing your kids completely out of their comfort zones at lunch time.
So, if your kids are picky like ours can be, try these 8 picky-eater school lunch hacks that are smart, fairly easy, and help get your kids more variety in their diets so they can get more of the nutrition they need.
If your kids don’t like their food touching…
So many picky eaters complain about foods that have a variety ingredients mixed together. Or you know, touching. There’s just something about keeping food completely separate that feels right to them.
If that’s your kid, Bento-style lunch boxes like Planet Box or LunchBots will be your best friend. In fact, the LunchBots brand even has a smart lunch planning worksheet (PDF) you can have your kids fill out, so you can be sure what you’re packing for school lunch is what they actually want to eat.
Or, at least, if they complain you have evidence that yes, they did like soup a week ago.
If your kids don’t like any vegetables but baby carrots…
Eating plain baby carrots (or celery sticks or pepper slices, or whatever it is your picky eaters do like) every single day can get a little boring. For both of you. Try mixing it up a little by sending some homemade veggie dip.
This Herb and Garlic Dip recipe from For the Love of Cooking is a pretty basic, classic choice — you can just call it “plain dip,” which will make certain kids we know happy. If this isn’t their bag, try ranch dressing or real blue cheese — whatever they like really is fine. Or, try some cheese dip to go with broccoli, or some hummus with red pepper slices, or even some peanut butter or Sunbutter for those carrots, if it’s not already on their sandwich!
Maybe you can even sneak in a crunchy peapod or two, or a couple of tiny, teeny peeled cukes in with those carrots, with the hopes they’ll give them a shot when one of their friends says, “ooh…cucumbers! Lucky!”
If your kids will only eat Lunchables…
We know how much parents of picky kids are grateful for pre-packaged lunch meals you can find in the deli section, because everything is kid-sized and lives in its own place. But…they’re not exactly the healthiest option for every day. Plus, the cost can add up! So, try making your own instead.
We’ve found dozens of inspired ideas at Eazy Peazy Mealz, like her Homemade Lunchables idea. And your absolute best bet is to get your kid helping you out when it comes to packing that lunch, so they don’t get nervous with the change, and have some say in the components.
Just be sure to use something like silicone cupcake liners, or the bento ideas shared above to help make sure those ingredients do not touch in the lunch box.
Then, just add a serving of milk and you can have your kids eating a pretty healthy, balanced lunch right there without much effort on your part at all.
If your kids refuse to eat fruit that’s turned brown…
Okay, so brown fruit is kind of gross. But there are a few picky eater hacks to help you prep those sliced apples and bananas before you pack them, so they’ll stay appetizing until lunch time.
The most clever trick is this one from At Home with Real Food and we love it! Just slice the apple according to Lydia’s tutorial (see photo above) then put the pieces back together with a rubber band. The apple won’t oxidize this way, so it will stay fresh looking — and tasting!
Just be sure use a really sharp knife — not a butter knife — to cut the apple. That will also give it an edge (get it?) on not browning too soon.
Option 2: Try a tiny squirt of lemon juice. Our editor Liz always keep a lemon in her fridge at all times, if only to take a little slice out of it each morning, and spread it on her picky eaters’ apple slices. It does impart a little lemon flavor on an apple (less noticeable with a tart variety like Granny Smiths), but nothing that bothers her kids, and it works pretty well.
Serious Eats put together a wildly comprehensive and scientific look at apples browning if you want to get seriously (ha) geeky about methods. The net: she found that sliced apples and pears soaked in a little solution of salt and cool water for 10 minutes was most effective. Just remember to rinse it in cold water after to get rid of any salt.
Another option is to dip the apples in something called Fruit Fresh Produce Protector. At Easy Lunch Boxes, you can find a comparison of how 7 different methods stopped apples from browning, and that was her winner.
If your kids will only eat peanut butter and your school is nut-free…
Sunflower Nutella recipe via MOMables
Quite a few of our own kids love peanut butter on basically everything, and yes, a PB&J is such an easy meal to pack. But with so many nut-free classrooms or schools that ban peanut butter entirely, you may find that their favorite daycare or preschool lunch is no longer an option when they hit the big time at elementary school.
If your school or classroom has a nut-free policy, we’ve put together a list of favorite nut-free spreads that can be pretty convincing substitutes. Especially when use the same bread, jelly, and cold glass of milk on the side that your kids already like.
As for those kids who won’t eat Sunbutter without Nutella — and we know quite a few of those — we’re thrilled to find this Sunflower Nutella recipe at MOMables (above) that’s a great substitute when the hazelnut-based spread is not allowed. It’s even made with no refined sugar — she uses maple syrup, or you can try agave or honey to sweeten. We might just go ahead and make it in bulk.
Another option is this clever Not Your Mama’s PB&J recipe on the MilkLife site. (A former sponsor.) You can obviously swap out the pb for sunbutter. And the addition of graham crackers instead of bread or crackers may make it go down easier for kids who are still reluctant to make a switch from the peanut butter brand they’re used to.
If your kids don’t eat meat…
Whether your kids are vegetarians, pescatarians, pesca-pescatarians (Silicon Valley reference, anyone?) or just pastatarians, as we lovingly call some of our own kids, there are plenty of protein sources other than meat that your kids can eat, to give them the energy boost they need for the rest of the afternoon at school.
Our Back to School Lunch Guide a few years back featured 10 high-protein school lunch ideas the kids will love, ranging from main dishes to sides (mmmm…spiced edamame) to even sweet treats. Definitely start there.
Greek yogurt can also give them a protein boost (try flavored or plain with a little drizzle of honey or jam), string cheese or a Superfood Smoothie to get a little more protein, vitamins, and fiber into their lunchtime drink or after school snack. Just pack into an insulated container that will keep contents cold for 7+ hours.
Hardboiled eggs are also a great source of protein, as are hummus, nuts, beans, quinoa, tofu or temph, even guava fruit.
But one of our favorite picky eater hacks: You can get a little extra protein into a sandwich just from the bread you choose! Try whole wheat, multigrain or sprouted breads (also called Ezekiel Bread).The popular whole wheat farmhouse bread from Pepperidge Farm contains 5g protein per slice.
If your kids aren’t brown bread eaters, don’t worry one bit; our kids adore Martin’s Potato Bread which actually has 4g protein per slice.
What we’re saying is, don’t sweat the meat issue with your kids. Chances are, they’re able to get protein in their diet from other sources. Like uh…a glass of milk? 8g protein in one 8-ounce glass and our kids never need coaxing to drink milk.
If your kids hate ALL veggies…
For years, parents have debated the merits of hiding veggies in other foods for kids, and if your child is seriously picky this might be the best way to get more vitamins in their diet. Our associate editor Kate’s zucchini bread recipe never lasts longer than one day around her house.
Of course you’ll find plenty more recipes in books like Missy LePine’s original hide-the-veggies cookbooks, The Sneaky Chef and The Sneaky Chef to the Rescue as well as Jessica Seinfeld’s Deceptively Delicious. (We still swear by her recipe for chicken nuggets dipped in and squash puree and panko, which pack nicely as a hot lunch box idea as well.)
Mac & cheese is also a good place to sneak in extra nutritious veggies, like the Cauliflower Mac & Cheese recipe on the MilkLife website.
And there’s always sweet treats! We know people who swear you can’t taste the spinach in recipes like this Fudgy Spinach Brownies recipe on the Food Network website. Hey, why not?
If your won’t eat any pasta with sauce on it…
You know? Just go ahead and send your picky eaters off to school with plain pasta. Just butter and parm? Just butter and salt? Just…salt? It’s all good. You can always use sides, snacks, and a serving of milk to get in more protein and nutrients.
Though if they’ll eat pasta with a little flavor, try this recipe for lunchbox pasta at The Pioneer Woman made from leftovers and just a few spices. Hey, we won’t judge either way.