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Children's Nutrition

Six Simple Ways to Take the Stress Out of School Lunch

Blog Post By Catherine Callahan, MS, CCC-SLP, CLC

The first week of school is in the books. You spent hours stressing over what to add to your little one’s lunch box to keep him full and energized through the long school day, but your baby arrives home with uneaten meals and a hungry belly. What do you do?

Families across the country struggle to feed their little ones at home, so it’s not surprising that sending them into school to navigate lunchtime on their own brings a lot of stress and anxiety.

I’m here with Healthy Height to help. Making simple changes at home can lead to more lunchtime success at school.

Six simple ways to take the stress out of school lunch:

1. Practice: Heading into the busy school cafeteria with a new lunch box full of unexpected food can be a challenge for even the most adventurous eater. Practicing mealtime at home can help your child become more comfortable and ready to take lunchtime head on. Start this weekend. On Saturday, pack your child’s lunch box as you would on a typical school day, and set up a “practice” lunch. Hand your child the complete lunch box, fully packed, and enjoy your lunch alongside him at home or on a picnic in the community. Let him open the box on his own, take out the food, and work through the box independently. Give words of encouragement and positive feedback along the way.

    2. Prepare: When preparing your child’s lunch for the day, offer small portions of a variety of foods. Consider 5 different foods, one food from each food group, with only a 1-3 tablespoon portion of each. A very large, overfilled lunch box can be overwhelming for little eyes. When your child is able to finish a full serving of food, he’ll feel successful. Plan to work on increasing that volume and building on the success over the course of the year. Include in the box: 2 foods your child loves to eat, 1 foods he sometimes eats, and 1 food that is new. If you stick to only his favorite foods, he’ll never have the opportunity to expand his diet.

    3. Make it visually appealing: Remember that we eat first with our eyes. A messy plate or neutral colors can be less appealing, and less likely to be eaten. Have your child pick out a new lunch box decorated with his favorite characters or decorate an old lunchbox with new dollar-store stickers. Choose colorful foods to fill the box. Use scissors or cookie cutters to cut food into shapes (think hearts, stars, the letters in his name, or favorite animals). Use toothpicks or colorful food picks to make fruit or veggie eating more interesting.

    4. Think outside the box: School lunch doesn’t always have to be a PBJ sandwich and chips. Try a snack-style lunch of cheese, crackers, nuts and fruit, or a breakfast-for-lunch with greek yogurt, fresh fruit, granola and dark chocolate nibs for toppings.

    5. Waste is not waste: Don’t allow yourself to become stressed about the foods that come home uneaten. Remember that ups and downs are okay. There’s always a learning curve. It may take a few weeks before your child is comfortable eating in the noisy cafeteria with all of his peers. He may be busy chatting with friends, overwhelmed by all the sounds and smells, or feeling nervous or anxious about the new routine. He may only eat a few bites in the beginning, but avoid thinking of leftover food in the lunch box a waste. Know that you are providing your child a healthy variety of foods and you’re expanding his diet through exposure. Even if he doesn’t eat it today, he’s looking at it, smelling it, touching it and maybe even tasting it. Offer it again tomorrow and he may be ready to eat more than that one bite.

    6. Have a back-up plan: If all else fails, a healthy, balanced after school snack is the perfect back-up plan. Protein shakes, smoothies, energy balls and nutrient dense muffins make the perfect snack to enjoy on the car ride home from school or in between school and after-school sports practice. Mix up a quick Healthy Height shake {add the powder to whole milk, mix & go} for your little one to drink on the way home; or prepare easy to eat energy bites {like @californiatodder’s vanilla “cake” balls} on the weekend and use them all week long. Having a simple, healthy snack ready to refuel your little one will give you peace of mind that he’s meeting all of his nutritional needs at the end of the day, even if that lunch box returns almost as full as when you sent it.

    Do you have questions about feeding your little one?

    Healthy Height is here with Catherine to provide professional help. Ask a question in the comments below and tune in to @healthyheight on Instagram on Thursday September 6th. Catherine will be taking over @healthyheight Instagram Stories, answering your feeding questions, and sharing professional advice with followers.


    Catherine Callahan, MS, CCC-SLP, CLC 

    ChiKids Speech & Feeding, LLC

    Chikidsfeeding.com

    @chikidsfeeding

    Catherine is a Speech-Language Pathologist, Pediatric Feeding Specialist, Certified Lactation Counselor and mom of three. She resides in Chicago, where she works at a top 10 US Children’s Hospital and owns her own business, ChiKids Speech & Feeding, LLC. Head to her blog chikidsfeeding.com and follow her on Instagram @chikidsfeeding for everyday feeding strategies and mealtime advice.

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