How to Encourage Kids to Eat a Healthy School Lunch

School Lunch Packing Strategies

Hear from Melanie Potock, Feeding Specialist

It can be frustrating if your child doesn't eat his or her lunch at school, but it turns out the school cafeteria experience doesn't always encourage kids to sit down, focus and eat. We can't change the cafeteria, but we can change how we pack lunch food! We partnered with Melanie Potock, feeding specialist and author, to help you and your kids discover how fun and easy it can be to pack a lunch they'll eat.

In this video, Melanie discusses techniques that can help you set your kids up for lunchtime success. After finishing the video, make sure to visit https://www.healthy-height.com/schoollunch to find additional resources, including a video guide for packing a healthy lunch and a lunch packing map to use with your kids.

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Video Transcript

One of the biggest frustrations parents have happens at the end of the school day. When you get your kids home from school, they are starving. The first you do is open up their lunch box and find they have barely eaten a thing. 

I’ve been there. 

My name is Melanie Potock. 

I’m an author of four parenting books on how to raise healthy, happy eaters. I’m also a certified speech language pathologist, and I specialize in teaching kids how to bite, chew, and swallow all kinds of food. I’m here with Healthy Height to talk about strategies to encourage your school-aged children to eat a nutritious lunch. 

When I became a pediatric feeding therapist, I began going into school cafeterias and classrooms. What I learned surprised me: I had forgotten what it’s like in a school cafeteria. To be honest, the environment can be challenging for kids to get the nutrition they need in order to listen and learn in the afternoon.

I’m here today to share my professional tips with you and to give all you parents out there some ideas to encourage your school-aged kids to eat more at lunchtime.     

Parents go to a lot of trouble and send their kids to school with a lunch that includes some of their favorite foods. Parents want their kids to eat a good, nutritious lunch. Teachers and lunchroom employees do, too. 

What parents often don’t realize is the school cafeteria experience doesn’t encourage kids to sit down, focus and eat.

The cafeteria can be an overload for our kids’ senses. It's noisy. There are bright fluorescent lights. There are a lot of kids coming in and out, and it can be confusing for a small child.

One of the biggest issues I see in the cafeteria has to do with kids waiting for help opening their food.  Sometimes they have to wait their turn for two or three minutes for a volunteer or teacher to help them. 

That doesn’t seem like a long time, but when you consider the fact that the average American student in elementary school has 22 minutes not to eat — but to enter, eat, and exit the cafeteria —two minutes with their hand up in the air is two minutes wasted when they could be focused on eating.

Plus, I have never heard a little kid say their goal is to have a good, nutritious lunch. What they care about — just like you and me when we go out to lunch together — is visiting with their friends. That's their number one priority when it comes to lunchtime, and they don’t always pay attention to how much they are talking, instead of eating! 

So how can we respect both goals? How can we help our children have a little downtime and be able to visit with their friends while they’re getting nutrition in their bellies?  

We can’t change the school cafeteria, but we can change how we pack lunch foods. 

I encourage parents to make foods that are easier to access and easier to eat. The goal is for your child to be able to open up his lunchbox, grab anything in there, put it in his mouth, and go back for more. And we want him to do this independently — without the help of a lunchroom volunteer or teacher. 

We want to create a lunch that is similar to the way someone eats a bowl of popcorn. Think about it: when you eat popcorn, you can put your hand in the bowl and grab what you want. You don’t have to give it much thought. 

We’re using the same idea, but instead of popcorn, we’re providing kids with nutritious foods they can eat quickly without relying too much on other adults to open or access them.

For as many years as I’ve been going into school cafeterias, one trend I keep seeing is that parents — on average — pack six different individually packaged food items plus one drink. The hope is that if we send a little of this, and a little of that, they will find something they like and eat it. The problem is, they can’t actually find it!

Kids don’t have enough time to pull each individual package out of their lunch box. Instead, they tend to reach into their lunch box, pull out their favorite food and only eat that one item.  

The first thing I want to talk to you about is how to make food easier for your kids to eat while they’re at school, so they aren’t spending so much of their time trying to get into all that great food you’ve packed them.  

If kids only have 22 minutes to enter, eat and exit the cafeteria, they’ve got to be able to open their lunchbox quickly and reach in and start eating. 

One of the best solutions for that is to use a compartmentalized container or a bento box. These plastic containers go inside your child’s lunchbox. 

It’s also important to think about how to pack food within the container so that it’s easier to access.

Now, even though I am not a fan of pre-packaged foods, I understand they are convenient. Sometimes, they need to be used. But pre-packaged foods are all wrapped differently. Again, our kids only have 22 minutes. We don’t want them to spend their time opening up or figuring out how to open up their food. 

What I want you to do is get some post-it tabs. I use these to help kids quickly open food packages. This is a vegetable chocolate muffin. Here’s what I want you to do. When you’re packing lunch, cut the packaging. Then seal it with a post-it tab. It’s much easier for kids to open the packaging by pulling off the tab. They can also easily re-seal the packaging. 

In my container, I’ve packed applesauce. The night before, cut a slit in the foil top, and — again — use a post-it tab to re-seal the applesauce. Give your child a wide straw, too. The next day at lunch, all your child has to do is remove the post-it tab, push the wide straw in the slit. Now he can slurp up his applesauce instead of having to pull off the top and find a spoon to eat it.  

If you have a leak-proof container, the straw can also work for yogurt. I like to give a serving of plain yogurt with a strip of organic fruit spread on top of it. They can use the straw to mix it and slurp it right up. 

I encourage parents to pack pop-up thermoses. You can use these for warm or cold soups. They can be used to pack a smoothie or a protein shake like Healthy Height. 

Sometimes parents like to pack a drink. You can use the thermos for milk instead of having your kids spend time buying and opening tricky milk containers. 

A lot of parents don't think about — even for their older kids — cutting up food into bite size, appetizer pieces and giving them six or seven pieces instead one big serving, like an entire sandwich. 

A whole sandwich can be a disadvantage for kids who are focused on their friends. What they do is pick up their sandwich, take a bite, and then they start talking and forget they’ve got a sandwich in their hand. Instead, they talk away and don’t eat. 

If they reach into their lunchbox and grab a little cube-size piece of sandwich and pop it in their mouth — when their hand is empty, they will go back in for more pieces. And, with smaller pieces, they can grab a bite and chat nonstop! 

It’s like eating popcorn at the theater. 

Cutting food up into smaller pieces is an easy way to make — what I call — grab and gab food. You can put a toothpick in each bite if you like to give your child an easy way to grab each piece, or if the food is slightly damp, like cubes of ham or fruit. 

Packing food on skewers is another way to give them grab and gab food. You can put all sorts of things on a skewer from fruit to cheese to veggies and lunch meat. They’re really fun to make the night before with your kids. Again, they’re easy to grab, and your child engages with her food piece by piece. 

If you have a child who is a picky or hesitant eater, a skewer is a way to expose her to new foods, too. Maybe she doesn’t like tomatoes, but she loves cheese and meat. You can put a single tomato on the skewer in the middle sandwiched between turkey and cheddar. It’s OK if she doesn’t eat the tomato! By putting it on the skewer, she has interacted with it — maybe she has touched it — and this exposure is a big step for her.  

Another one of my favorite grab and gab foods are energy bites. Energy bites are an energy dense snack. In my book Raising a Healthy Happy Eater, my co-author, pediatrician Dr. Fernando and I give parents several energy bite recipes using ingredients that are usually in your pantry or refrigerator. Energy bites are bite-size, and you can make them even smaller if your child needs. 

If you don’t have an energy bite recipe on-hand, you could cut up a Healthy Height protein bar into small pieces, too. 

Once you start thinking about grab and gab foods, you’ll find new ways to offer everyday foods in smaller sizes.  

We’ve shared some ideas to help you get your little one to eat more nutrition in the very limited amount of time they have at lunchtime. 

There is one more strategy you can try that is a game changer: Have your child pack her own lunch. Kids go to school to build independence. They learn to clean out their own desk. They learn to put their coat on and to zip it up on their own. Teachers take the time to allow kids to do as much on their own as possible.

We can do that at home, too. When kids are responsible for packing their own lunch, they're not only thinking about the five food groups and learning about nutrition, but they're also interacting with new foods. 

Thanks for watching our video! If you want to learn more about child nutrition or get tips on healthy eating, subscribe to Healthy Height’s YouTube channel.