You may have shelled out $35 for a Bento box and filled it with seven different Instagram-worthy edibles, but will your child eat it?
If you have a picky school-aged child who struggles to get through a Marmite sandwich and a couple of slices of cheese at lunchtime, you have probably experimented with colourful compartmentalised lunch boxes, expensive off-season cherry tomatoes, and gimmicky manufactured snacks claiming to be mostly fruit.
You may have watched other people's children happily dip carrot sticks into little lakes of hummus and wanted to cry.
Never mind — your child doesn't actually need a creative lunch box.
"They don't give a stuff what their lunch box looks like," says Sarah Hanrahan, a dietician with the NZ Nutrition Foundation, who doesn't even mind if you serve your child the same thing five days in a row, so long as it is nutritionally sound and they will eat it.
"It has to be stuff they actually like," Hanrahan says of what should go into a picky eater's lunch box. "It doesn't do any good to have a selection of things if all your kid will eat is a peanut butter sandwich cut into a certain shape."
Lunch can be as simple as a few snackable items: something grainy (wholemeal sandwiches, grainy crackers, pita pockets), some protein (cheese, yoghurt, lean meat) and some fruit or vegetables. "There is usually something from every food group that even the pickiest child will eat."
If children eat a good breakfast and dinner, and a nutritious afternoon tea when they finish school, they will be fine grazing at lunchtime, says Hanrahan.
"All those Bento lunch boxes are absolutely lovely," says the mother of teens. "I'm sure kids eat more when the cheese looks like an elephant — I'm sure there's something to that — but you have to work with what you've got."
Hanrahan suggests involving your children in making their lunches by spreading out three or four items on the kitchen bench that you would be happy to serve them, then letting them choose two or three for the lunch box.
Aucklander Natalie Cutler-Welsh of the parenting blog If Only They'd Told Me, says that while she tries to provide a variety of foods for her three children to eat at school, she doesn't stress over it.
"The kitchen is not my happy place so my husband does most of the lunches, but when I do corn crackers with (Vegemite) or melted cheese are my go-to. Mandarins and carrot-money — a carrot cut into rounds — are as exciting as things get. I aim to mix healthy with a bit of quick and easy.
"I don't believe in guilt or perfection, so that probably helps. Our mantra is "whatever works" meaning there's no "right" way to do things. It's whatever works for you and your family."
Cutler-Welsh's blogging partner, Jacqui Lockington, says her children eat best if she packs colourful lunches.
"My kids basically told me they were bored with sandwiches every day so I really tried to lift my game after that! I do stuff like kebab sticks with chunks of cheese, ham, mini tomatoes and cucumber one day and the next I might do mini bagels with cream cheese and ham and the next I might do quesadillas.
"I try to one 'main' and then I always add a fruit item and a treat item and then one other thing — could be salami sticks, chopped ham, seaweed, squeezy yoghurts, flavoured milk, cheese triangles."
Dr Caryn Zinn of AUT's Human Potential Centre says her best tip is to choose package-free food for the lunch box. "That's your first indicator you have good, nutritious food," she says. "Protein is typically what's missing from the lunch boxes. Pack hard-boiled eggs, egg mayo, little quiches with vegetables, chicken drumsticks."
Dr Zinn says good fats such as avocado, seeds and nut butters are satisfying and healthy. "Kids will always eat something that's good. The onus is on the parents to take that and make it work."
What she does not want to see in lunch boxes is jam spread on white bread. It might fill the gap temporarily but it is virtually nutrient-free and produces a blood-sugar spike and then drop.
"Sometimes I think nothing would be better healthwise longterm than jam and white bread," says Dr Zinn. "I'm not advocating nothing, but if you look at adult diseases like diabetes, that all starts as children."
As for the classic two biscuits for morning tea, rest assured: treats are fine. Just make them treats, and not staples.
"I don't have a problem with biscuits as long as there is other food to eat," says Hanrahan. "The problem is when a desperate parent puts a few biscuits in the lunch box and then after school the child is hungry and grabs biscuits and before dinner has more biscuits and before you know it, it has been a day of biscuits."
LUNCH BOX BASICS FOR PICKY KIDS
- cubes of cheese
- small handful of dried fruit
- cucumber or apple slices
- cherry tomatoes (in season)
- carrot money
- grainy bread or crackers
- pasta leftovers
- chicken drumsticks
- sandwiches cut into shapes and spread with nut butter, Vegemite/Marmite, cheese