Home Q&A Wednesday Q&A Wednesday: Snacking and Packing Lunch For Little Ones

Q&A Wednesday: Snacking and Packing Lunch For Little Ones

by Erika Nicole Kendall

Q: Hi Erika, A lot of your healthy eating and lifestyle tips have really changed the way my husband and I view food and the choices that we make.  We’ve started to implement a lot of healthy changes that we are looking to continue for a long time.  My question is how do you apply some of these things to the food that you feed kids.  You’ve shared a lot about your daughter.  I wonder how do you get kids to eat and desire healthy foods when they are surrounded by so much pressure not to eat right.  What are some examples of what you give your daughter for a healthy snack and what you pack her for lunch.  I think back to the things that I used to take for lunch and there’s no way that I’d send my future kids to school with all that processed food but I also don’t see packing a salad for a preschooler to take to school.  I’d really love your insight. Thanks!

A: While Mini-me isn’t quite old enough to be school-aged just yet, I do deal with this when we hit the playground and she buddies up with other kids.

It never fails. There’s always some parent there with some godawful “fruit snacks” – that have not a single iota’s worth of fruit in them – and if you should happen to, I don’t know… blink for a nanosecond too long, some parent is handing your kid a handful of high fructose corn syrup-filled junk. And you just know that parent is armed with the defense from the high fructose corn syrup commercial when you ask them if they know how bad that stuff is for kids. You just know it.

And no matter how much you want to thump your kid – am I the only one that does that? – and tell them to stop taking these strange people’s food, there will always be times when you aren’t looking. There will always be times when you aren’t there, aren’t watching and aren’t able to hover over your kid’s shoulder to make sure they don’t eat this stuff. Even if you find a few parents who share your zest for healthy living and share your definition of it, you’ll still have to pack a lunch that competes with the school lunch system’s crap. That’s just… that’s just how it is.

That being said, you pretty much have to compete. You have to bring better snacks to the playground than everyone else – and you have to bring a lot of ’em – and you have to pack a better lunch than what’s normally found at the school. It’s a lot of damn work, I’ll tell you that much, but if you’re committed to the cause you’ll do what you can and work on the rest.

When I was on NPR, we briefly talked about this – convincing your kid to actually like veggies. Strangely enough, Mini-me doesn’t even approach vegetables in an “I don’t like it, I won’t eat it” fashion. If anything, she may not like it by itself, but she’ll love it when it’s paired with something else or cooked into a dish. She doesn’t like onions, but she loves ’em in her nachos. She hates the taste of salt – yes, I’ll get to this in a minute – but she doesn’t flinch if she sees me put a pinch of it on a pan of stir fry. She doesn’t love olives, but paired in Mommy’s greek salad? She cries if she can’t get any.

With Mini-me, she is always welcome in my kitchen. This has also taught her when it is appropriate for her to walk into my kitchen, so she doesn’t come in when I’m visibly on the stove. If I’m preparing something? She’s more than welcome to stand beside me, because she gets to ask me about everything I’m working with. She asks to sniff my herbs, taste my spices – even the salt – and has even helped me pick out what to put in dinner, before. She’s become pretty adventurous this way.

“Mommom, what’s that?”

“It’s avocado.”

“It looks really green. Can I try some?”

I’ll give her a slice, sure… and then I also take a slice for myself. I teach her how to approach it while, at the same time, making it a “teaching” moment. “Mmm, it feels soft and creamy, doesn’t it?” I always approach new vegetables the same way I approach my favorite chocolate. “Mmmmm, I like avocado! Do you like it?” “Yeah! I like it!”

From there, it’s all about execution. Gotta throw it in a dish that makes it even better for her, and before you know it she’s getting excited when she sees me grabbing an avocado or she’s asking me to pick one up at the farmer’s market.

Getting kids to eat it and love it at home is the first part. Getting kids to prefer your stuff over everything else? Well, that’s a completely different story.

You have to be the super clever parent.

You have to be armed. With cookies. And I know this is a terrible thing to say, but it’s real. Make little spoon-sized cookie bites. The Dad on the other end of the playground with the Go-gurt packages for kids will be no match for you. Get a little cupcake pan – like this, though not this pricey – and make tiny cupcakes – light on sugar, creative on toppings and very filling – for the kids to enjoy.

Don’t get me wrong, here – if you can tell your kid to not eat the food and they can abide by that without a problem, then go for it. If you can pull out apples and all the kids will cheer, then by all means… do it. There are days when that works perfectly. However, with kids, there’s a social element to food. Being able to snack with the other kids at the playground is an opportunity to make friends. If they can’t eat with them, there’s an isolation that can happen. And while sometimes it’s avoidable, sometimes it’s just better to make a better snack offering. You’ve got to be prepared for both sets of situations, if you should choose to engage. You certainly don’t have to. Just know that you will face this sooner or later.

Besides, you’ll have to scope out what kinds of snacks are at the playground because these are the snacks you’ll have to compete against at their lunch tables. You’ll have to get in the habit of making better snacks, anyway… so start now and use whole foods. Use real blueberries in your blueberry muffins. Use unbleached flour (or almond flour, or black bean flour… I’m sayin’. Creative.) Add flavor by using fruits and veggies. Color your kids foods by using fruit, not food coloring. Top your treats with carob chips and raisins and other kinds of dried unsweetened fruit. Sweeten the snacks using fruit instead of granulated sugar. Have fun with it. Because its real food, you don’t have to worry the way you would if you were dealing with processed food.

A lot of kid food, really, is about color and novelty. It’s not really taste – the only taste present in a lot of kids food is SWEET!, nothing more – just novelty. That being said, I’m a huge fan of cookie cutters. Alphabets are cool, but shapes like high heel shoes, coffee mugs, houses, trucks, cats, dogs, birds? Oh, you’re in there like swimwear.

You’ve also got to make use of whatever fruits are on sale. Those strawberries that are on sale 3 for $5? Take advantage. The pumpkin on sale? Grab one. Get creative with it. Pumpkin mini muffins with whipped topping… sneaking in some veggies (zucchini muffins?) and wowwing kids with something nice and pretty can also win. Shaved coconut on sale? Make gingerbread cookies in the shape of birds and put shaved coconut on the wings.

As far as the bulk of her lunch? More often than not, the little one likes her peanut butter. So… peanut butter on one side, honey on the other, cut the way she likes (you can also be fancy and use the cookie cutters on this, as well.) She also likes her little nachos, so I’ll make her a big salsa with black beans and cheese with tortilla chips. I let her help me make fruit spreads, so if I let her help me make some apple butter, she looks forward to her apple butter sandwiches for that week. It’s a win/win for the both of us.

Sometimes, it’s about making something that your kid will want more than everyone else’s stuff, not just making stuff that the other kids will want. You’re sneaking fruits and veggies into your kids diet, but you’re also elevating their palate beyond what’s typically shoved down a child’s throat. A few things are always going to be certain: kids, no matter how old or young, are going to eat anything that caters to that sugary fatty loving thing in the brain. You just have to figure out how to head it off at the pass, and early, before they develop into the full blown “I will not eat a vegetable ever ever ever” syndrome that I see often in adults.

But what happens if none of that works?

If all else fails, you can always rely upon consistency. You teach a child how to eat healthily by exhibiting these behaviors at home, and giving them a foundation on which to understand food. Children develop consciences. They know that they eat one way at home, and another way entirely when they’re skipping and dipping out to their friends homes for the junk food. So even if they do eat junk at a friend’s house, they’re very aware of the fact that it’s junk. You tell ’em – “I can’t control how you eat elsewhere, but in this house, we eat healthily because we want to live healthily.” When they leave the nest, they’ll have that understanding of food that they obtained from living at home to build from, and can change their habits and environments accordingly.

Kids are tough, sometimes, especially if you’re converting them away from processed foods instead of raising them to live without it (the difference, here, being age.) Even though my daughter was converted at around age 2, she still has faint memories of the crap I used to give her and asks why she can’t have it. However, when I tell her she can’t have it because “it’s not healthy,” she understands. It’s a lot of work to get a kid to that level, but if you work at it (and work at it hard), it can be done.

Who else is struggling with keeping their kid away from the crap food? What tips do you have?

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15 comments

Alovelydai April 6, 2011 - 1:04 PM

My son has the best diet in our home (lots of fresh fruit, whole grains, little to no chicken). My daughter is a teen & well let’s just say I almost failed her. She was a huge carnivore (eating steak any chance she got) and loved quick processed snacks (chips, cracker, Little Debbies). Of course at home (since there is no red meat or processed snacks anymore) she eats great foods so I had to make her responsible for what she eats elsewhere. Most of it is really leading by example & I’m proud to say it’s working. She’s ditched the school “breakfast” of muffin, waffles, juice for breakfast at home eating granola w/ almond milk. Juice is now water or iced cranberry apple tea which she brews herself. She’s learned to make hummus & rice pudding. And when she’s craving salt & fat she opts for a few cheddar cubes or nuts. I’m really proud of her…so proud in fact that I may buy her her very own $3 organic dark chocolate bar. LOL!!!!

Lee @ Revelations in Absurdity April 6, 2011 - 1:58 PM

I also have my kids help me in the kitchen (my son feels so-so about it, but my daughter LOVEs it). Their involvement seems to go a long way toward making them interested in eating it. They love going to the farmers market, and they’ll eat almost enything they get to choose themselves. And my daughter loves tasting the ingredients when we’re cooking together, begging to taste raw cauliflower, zuchinni, mushrooms, brussel sprouts, etc.

I pack my son’s lunch for kindergarten every day. Usually I give him a PB & J (on bread I bake at home), apple juice or water in his to-go cup, a piece of fruit, and some sort of snack, which is often another piece of fruit, some baby carrots or broccoli, or dry cereal. If he tries to bring those carrots home uneaten, I make him eat them before dinner.

Doing most of our eating from home makes it all easier. We make/bake our own snacks and treats for when we’re out of the house. It takes time and a lot of energy, but it makes all the difference. We take time to have a bit of oatmeal for breakfast before we head out for our day.

And, at the end of it all, the kids have two choices–eat what we give you, or be hungry. I’m not a short-order cook. Whininess isn’t rewarded with fruit snacks and junk. You can eat this here stir-fry, or you can go to bed with a rumbly tummy.

Erica April 6, 2011 - 2:07 PM

There are actually a lot of times we pack a “salad” for the kids’ lunches… all you do is think of the things like carrots or tomatoes or cucumber slices that normally might go on top of your salad, then take out all the lettuce from underneath. Voila, your child has a salad! 🙂

I’ve made my own “fruit snacks” a few times, using juice and unflavored gelatin in little silicon molds. I won’t pretend they’re all that nutritious but they’re better than the HFCS alternatives as an occasional dessert/snack. Those tend to be my lazy homemade treats when I don’t have time to make granola bars or similar.

I haven’t encountered much of a problem with my kids begging/accepting food from strangers, partly because the few times they tried it I made it clear that OH HELL NO, YOU DO NOT DO THAT.

It seems like every time I go to the park, though, there’s always one kid who comes up asking if they can have my kids food. Y’know, I sympathize if your parent brought unappealing stuff, or nothing at all, but I didn’t bring enough to feed the whole playground.

Heather E April 6, 2011 - 5:54 PM

I am loving your blog! I have been moving down the path towards clean eating ever since my first child was born. I have been doing really good with dinner, but have struggled with breakfast and lunch. Last night, after discussing several posts from your blog, my husband finally agreed to get on board with gutting out HFCS and processed foods from the rest of our diet! He LOVES his white bread and sugar cereal (more than the kids).

I just wanted to thank you for putting so much of what we need to hear into words that just make sense without going overboard on some sort of crusade (except the crusade for health that is!).

Anyway, I do have one quick question on the subject of kids. What do you think about leaving some “bad” stuff in their diet in moderation that doesn’t affect the adults? For example, my boys LOVE ranch dressing. I personally hate the stuff, but it helps them try new vegetables and keeps them asking for more salad!

Thanks again for putting this out there!

Erika Nicole Kendall April 6, 2011 - 5:59 PM

Heather,

A lot of the things we eat are considered problematic simply because when they come from the grocery store, they come full of chemicals and excess sugars/salts/fats and are short on nutrition.

That being said, we can figure out how to make a LOT of these things at home, LIKE ranch dressing: https://blackgirlsguidetoweightloss.com/recipes/make-it-at-home-sexy-ranch-dressing/

So, on some of the things you’re having a hard time letting go, try making them at home!

Heather E April 8, 2011 - 1:19 PM

Thanks, Erika, I am going to try that recipe. I might even try making the mayo homemade as well!

I was thinking more about what you said about bringing snacks for the kids on the playground. My son started K this year and there are many situations that require sending enough snacks for everyone. It seems junk need to be sent in at least once a month for holiday parties, not to mention all the snacks that are sent in for birthdays.

My son’s birthday is coming up and I want to send something, but I am having a very hard time swallowing his school’s policy: “With regard to food, commercially prepackaged items that are clearly labeled with all ingredients are required. This includes birthday treats and classroom party snacks at any school sponsored events.”

I can’t even think of something “clean” off the top of my head that satisfies this requirement! I could probably scour health food stores for something… but I know that is not what other parents are doing. You know how when we were kids someone would always send in Ants on a Log–PB and raisins on celery? Well we don’t have to worry about that anymore! Twinkies and candy bars for everyone!!

Do you know if your schools have any sort of policy like that? What would you do?

Jaci April 11, 2011 - 2:56 PM

Heather-

I have the same problem at my kids’ preschool. For my daughter’s birthday, I brought individually packed natural applesauce. Mott’s has a “healthy harvest” that are made with only fruits, no HFCS or sugar substitutes… Blueberry, peach, strawberry flavors. Throw them in the freezer and you have one heck of a good dessert that resembles ice cream!

Jen September 29, 2012 - 4:19 PM

We had a similar commercially prepared foods policy – I did popsicles that were naturally flavored, no HFCS and had natural food coloring (got it at Walmart). My daughter, who is in Kindergarten, and I also made snack bags with raisins and naturally colored goldfish. We clipped clothespins we painted in the middle to make butterflies (got the idea on pinterest).

Linda April 7, 2011 - 11:34 AM

Slightly off the topic….but the best advice I was ever given about the care and feeding of my children (and we had three in two and a half years!) at mealtimes was from my mom.

She was very much of the old school—the adult’s job is to cook the food. The child’s job is to eat the food.

BUT, she said, it’s also the adult’s job not to turn nasty about it.

For example, if you make a good, well-balanced meal for..say lunch…you set the plate in front of your child *without any comment* (no, “eat, eat the veggies, they’re good for you , you’ll thank me when you’re older kind of stuff”) and let your child eat what he will.

Does he turn up his nose? Eat nothing? Not a problem. Give him twenty minutes to eat (or not eat!), what ever he wants; then let him down, take the plate of largely untouched food and put it in the fridge—saying, “Yeah. Sometimes I’m not hungry, either.”

When he wants to eat two hours later, you take his plate out of the fridge, whip off the saran wrap and say, “Great! I saved your lunch for you!”

If he turns up his nose, say: “Yeah. Sometimes I’m not hungry either,” and put the food back. If he starts whining for “something else to eat!” you reply mildly, “Well, I’m gonna start supper here in another hour or so, if you don’t want to eat lunch, that’s okay too.”

Do NOT offer him an apple, a handful of almonds, a little debby snack cake, because you’re sick of the tantrums. If you do, you’ve just handed him the lunch battle, and made winning the dinner war that much harder!

If you stay mild-tempered and calm about the whole thing, trust me. The kid will be eating at mealtimes inside a week…

Kathryn April 7, 2011 - 1:12 PM

Love this post! I have battled with my husband over healthy eating, not just for us but the kids as well. Mostly because he firmly believes that fruit snacks and fruit rollups are healthy because they have the word fruit in them. And don’t even get me started over the battle of sugar cereals labeled “whole grain”. Our biggest fight to date occurred when he put ketchup, completely unsolicited, on the scrambled eggs that my toddler was happily eating. SMH – it’s a constant struggle and some (most?) days I want to strangle him over it.

That said, I joined a produce co-op that has been a great experience for the kids. There are always new and interesting fruits and vegs for them to try and it’s a great value. This co-op is available in UT, TX, AZ and ID if you are interested in the link. One of my tricks is to take a sweet potato, cut it into thin, square slices, brush with a little olive oil, cinnamon, lemon juice and stick it in the oven until soft. I call them sweet potato “fries”.

Rae @ Rainbows and Dragonflies April 8, 2011 - 9:44 PM

Thank you for this post. My son is young (15 months) and I’m starting him off on a good foot. I know that I’ll need this ammunition as he gets older.

CurlieGirlie May 25, 2011 - 8:24 PM

I’m not a mother, but I do remember how I grew up eating healthy and unprocessed foods in my mom’s house. Because of this, my brothers and I never had a problem with our weight, even now that two of us are in college. And my brothers and I eat A LOT.

All of our meals were home cooked, with REAL ingredients. We had some kind of protein, some kind of whole grain, and fruits and/or vegetables with every single meal. People actually used to call my mom crazy because of the way she cooked breakfast for us every the morning, and they would always tell us “Your mom must really LOVE you…there’s no way I’d make the time to cook breakfast every day. Hell, I don’t even make time to cook dinner every day!” My mom would just say that she didn’t see the sense in sending kids to school either hungry or on some kind of sugar high. Now that I cook for myself, I’m shocked by the fact that people thought a simple breakfast of oatmeal, a boiled egg, and an apple (or a similar breakfast) was “too difficult” to make for their own children.

Also, people used to complain to my mom about how their children refused to eat fruits and vegetables, so they just cooked (or bought) whatever their children would eat. My mom always thought that this was dumb parenting. She never forced us to eat the meals she made for us, but she also made it clear that if we didn’t eat what she made for dinner, then we just weren’t eating dinner. In this way, she was able to determine whether we wouldn’t eat something because we genuinely disliked it (for me, that was always – and will always be – lima beans, lol) or because we were craving something unhealthier. If she saw that their was something that we disliked so much that we were willing to just go to bed hungry (again…lima beans), then she would stop cooking that and cook other foods instead. Most of the time, however, we would eat what she gave us. Given the choice, most kids are going to choose french fries over green beans, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they dislike green beans.

My mom also made fruits seem like dessert for us (this woman is very clever). We were fortunate enough to have access to lots of fresh fruit year round, and my mom took advantage of making seasonal fruits a big deal in our house. Dessert in the summer? Watermelon. Dessert in the late spring? Bowls and bowls of cherries that we picked in one of the local orchards. Whenever pomelos, pomegranates, tangerines, peaches, strawberries, blueberries, or blackberries were in season, you had best believe they were showing up in our dessert bowls after dinner. To this day, I still eat fruit for dessert almost every day.

My mom know that she couldn’t monitor what we ate 24/7, especially when we spent the night at a friends house, but with all of this healthy eating being the norm at our house, the processed crap that our friends ate seemed like fake food to us. I don’t know how many times one of us would spend the night with a friend and come home saying “You know what we had for breakfast??? A Krispy Kreme donut and leftover pizza!!!! How am I supposed to survive off of that?!?!?” and peel ourselves a banana. Not that we didn’t like donuts or pizza, lol…but for breakfast? We weren’t having that. And given the choice of a pizza from a chain, or one made with fresh ingredients by my mom, we chose homemade every time.

At some point, you have to let your kids make their own decisions concerning what they put into their bodies. I just wanted to say that, being a child raised by a clean eater, it was much easier for me to be a clean eater when I moved out. God bless all of you for being so concerned with the health of your children!!! So many moms I’ve met don’t their children’s nutrition a second thought, so shoutout to the ones that do! 🙂

Bernadette May 25, 2011 - 9:22 PM

Erika,

Thanks so much for this post. I don’t have any kids yet, but I plan to eventually and have often thought about how I will handle the food issue. Plus, my should-be-boyfriend has a daughter and I cringe at some of the things he feeds her. If I start talking to him about it, I come off as nagging, but on a couple occasions I’ve sent him something you’ve posted and it seems to at least get him to thinking (though I get called mean names for ruining his nasty food, hehehe).

Anyhow, this was a great question and a great response.

atribitt November 28, 2011 - 10:14 AM

Dried unsweetened fruits and nuts. My 2 yr old prefers it over everything! My hubby and i keep it on us at all times. And that story about blinking and having some other parent offer your child some crap is so true! I swear every parent/non parent has a bag of fruit snacks in their purse/pocket! Then they give you that “it’s ok because it’s fruit snacks” look. ugh!

DevinB September 28, 2013 - 7:24 AM

Hey Erika! This was the post I’ve been looking forward to the most! I have a 15 month old son and he loves his veggies and fruits and grains. The boy honestly will eat anything! Even though he is very young he associates the kitchen with food and always expects to be fed when we are in it but especially when I cook dinner. He used to cry so bad tthat my mom would come in and feed him the 1st sugary snack she could find. She even tried to give him soda once (I calmly went off & intercepted lol). But I started letting him help. I sit him on the counter and wash his hands and let him add ingredients, tells him what they are and taste a few. He loves it. Its helping him to talk more, getting him to establish healthy diet and lets us bond!

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