If you have a child, you have tried to feed a child. And if you have tried to feed a child, you naturally understand the intricacies and pointed aggravation of the task at hand. Even if your child is a “good eater” you have no doubt had moments of profound disappointment when your child’s lunchbox, filled with the best food and intentions, comes right back at you with barely a dent accompanied by a child so famished and emotionally unstable that an IV drip seems to be in order.
OK, I am overstating the scenario, but knowing what and how to pack a lunch is one of those vexing matters that most parents never get close to mastering. Instead, in America at least, we tend to approach the matter with equal parts wishful thinking (steamed soy beans and brown rice) and lowest common denominator pandering to their most base desires (sweet and salty snacks). We all know how this one turns out.
I was struck by a recent NPR story documenting the habits and practices of feeding pre-school aged children at the 270 public day care facilities that populate Paris, France. Now, I won’t revive the tired sentiment that the French eat better, feel better, and live better than we do (all of which is likely true) but I will say that (judging from this article) they have a far better handle on cultivating in their children a positive and inclusive approach to food.
With obesity rates what they are in this country, along with countless other health and nutrition-based troubles that effect children, there is an undeniable crisis at hand that will need to be addressed in the coming decade.
Now, rethinking the lunchbox may not reform the American diet, but it is irrefutably a step in the right direction. We need to try to straddle the line between feeding and indulging and instead find a point of nourishment and engagement for the hungry (I am referring to our children, not the metaphorical “hungry”).
I, for one, don’t have all (or even more than a handful) of the answers, but I am happy to share a few that seem to work and set the foundation for a more informed and engaged approach to eating:
Assemble fun and colorful lunches with fresh foods in a variety of containers and boxes. The rule of the lunchbox is that variety is the spice of life.
When possible, enlist your child to help you assemble their lunch, so they feel a sense of control and mastery over the mystery foods in their box
Stay away from introducing new foods in the lunchbox (instead do that during shared meals when they could ask questions or voice disgust directly to you). Stick with foods that you know they have established some comfort level with, and remember–just because they liked it the night before, doesn’t mean that they will appreciate it just as much as leftovers.
By all means, talk to your child about what they enjoy eating and see if you could come up with a reasonable compromise that will keep them from going hungry and won’t cause you to loose sleep at night.
Eric Steinman is a freelance writer based in Rhinebeck, N.Y. He regularly writes about food, music, art, architecture and culture and is a regular contributor to Bon Appétit among other publications.