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Help! What do I put in my kids' lunch for back to school?

A dietitian talks picky eaters, the peanut butter workaround and getting kids involved in the lunch prep.
Kids can be involved in making their lunches from two years old and up, says dietician.

Like it or not, the parenting dilemma of the ages will be back in a few short weeks: What to pack in the kids’ lunches for school? 

And when are they old enough to do it for themselves?

Let them make their lunches

Sea to Sky Corridor registered dietitian Jessica Wang says that the earlier children start to be involved with lunch prep, the better. 

“I highly encourage kids to be involved in the kitchen as much as possible at an age as early as possible,” she said. “We find that when you involve your kids in the meal planning, preparing and cooking process, it helps them to become more adventurous with trying new foods. And so you can involve them in different ways at each age and stage.”

Children can wash fruit and veggies when they are as young as two or three. 

“And even be playful with their foods like smelling fresh herbs that you might be using,” she said. 

At three to four years old, they could get involved in measuring ingredients, pouring things or even putting toppings on a pizza or a sandwich. 

Between four and six, they could be cutting up foods with a plastic knife, she said. 

At six to eight years old, they could be using simple kitchen tools such as a grater or can opener after being shown how to use them safely. 

By 11, they can be packing their lunches on their own. 

“Maybe after you showed them how to put it together or even walk them through like a simple recipe,” she said. 

When she was a child, she was involved in the kitchen from a very young age, Wang recalled. 

“What I really remember is that my parents never really labelled any foods as off-limits or said I could not have anything,” she said, adding that her parents supplied nutritious food, and it was up to her to eat it or not. 

“I was a very good eater. So yes, I did finish my lunch. And fortunately, in my school as well, there was enough time during lunch for lunch hour to get it all eaten up. But I think that parents need to remember there’s only so much that they have control over.”

Fuel them up

All of us likely remember that 'hangry' feeling at school when you get to your last class and can’t concentrate or burst through the door at home after school famished. 

To prevent that, Wang says to ensure the lunch box packs enough punch to last the whole day. 

“The tip I share with people is following Canada’s Food Guide or that balanced plant model for your meals, whether you’re an adult or child. So aiming for that half of your meal — or half of your lunch box — filled with colourful fruits or vegetables, a quarter of that lunch box filled with whole grains. And this could be whole grain crackers or bread in the form of a sandwich or some quinoa salad. And then a quarter of that [box] being protein which could be... chicken. And these, these components relate pretty well together to help children be fuelled.”

But what about when kids come home with a lunchbox still full, saying they had no time to eat? 

Wang suggests grab-and-go items such as pinwheel rollups. 

“You can put a little bit of chicken, spinach, bell peppers and roll it up really nicely and cut them bite-sized, kind of like sushi rolls. And they’re pick-up-and-eat and you’ve got all of your basic nutrients in one bite.” 

Wang stresses that there are no bad foods for kids’ lunches or for anyone, for that matter. 

While water is the best thirst quencher for everyone, there’s no harm in juice or milk if that is what your child likes. 

“As a dietitian, my approach is that there’s no food, that’s a bad food, right? All foods fit in a healthy eating lifestyle. So juice is included in that, but in moderation. Everything in moderation.”

Picky eaters

What to pack for a child’s lunch can be even more daunting if you have a picky eater in the family. 

(Said children may say they are selective, not picky, for the record.)

What if they only want noodles and cheese — every day? 

“What I always encourage parents is like if a child likes a certain food, it doesn’t have to be off limits,” Wang said. 

“If their favourite is Parmesan cheese and pasta, maybe introduce a new food to their favourite food, not necessarily taking things away from them. I’m thinking, how can I always add more things rather than thinking and focusing on removing foods.” 

For example, you could add a protein, such as chicken, alongside the pasta.

Wang noted she had a client whose daughter would only eat waffles all day long. They figured out a way to add veggies to the batter. 

“This mom has now become really creative as to what to add to her daughter’s waffles. She’s come as far as broccoli and cauliflower, which is incredible, right? Why not?”

So-called “treats” are fine in a lunch box, too, according to Wang. 

“I find that sometimes when you label certain foods as bad or off limits — and we find this also with adults —the tendency is that your child or yourself even desires them far more when you have that label,” she said. 

Wang notes that things like granola bars in a lunch are fine, but she suggests reading the labels and watching the sugar intake. 

The peanut butter dilemma

For those of previous generations, peanut butter was a mainstay of the lunch menu, but most schools have long since put in a peanut butter ban due to allergies. 

Wang suggests bean dips as a replacement. 

“I like using hummus as a spread,” she said. “There are many different varieties of bean dips out there that make for very healthy high protein, high fibre or even a sandwich spread.”

Lunch on a budget

Food is more expensive than ever, and times are tough for many of us. Wang stressed that packing a nutritious lunch does not have to be costly. 

“Whenever you can, try to choose more plant-based proteins, beans, lentils, legumes, Hamas, those are very budget-savvy proteins. And you can use them in so many different ways like chili, soup, bean salads... bean dips or spread in wraps or sandwiches. So none of it goes to waste, right? Which is the other aspect of budget saving.” 

She also recommends trying to create multiple meals with one ingredient. 

For example, buying a whole chicken and using different parts of that for sandwiches and wraps or even a soup. “You could even use the bones that you have leftover to boil in water and make a nice broth out of that.”

She also suggests, to save money, opt for frozen and canned vegetables and fruits.

“At certain points in the year, they could be a much more economical choice. They are no less nutritious than the fresh option.” 

Finally, she suggests families reach out for help if needed. 

“And I would always encourage anyone who has a picky eater at home or is struggling with feeding their family under a budget to meet with a dietitian,” she said, noting a first visit is free with Loblaws (Hector’s Your Independent Grocer in Squamish.)


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