School Lunch Deprogrammed

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 Appťtit among other publications.


Allies R.
Allies R.7 years ago

I agree that we need to make school meals healthier to fight childhood obesity. We definitely need more fruits, vegetables, and vegetarian meal options in lunch lines.

Web Design Kent

Abo Ahmed r.
Abo r7 years ago


Alex R.
Alex R8 years ago

Surely there are plenty of reasons kids seem "picky"; perhaps it's partly due to their innate tendency to challenge authority in developing hierarchy, but there is likely more. No cookie-cutter diet or guidelines work every time, as one's biological and metabolic make up is as unique as their personality, requiring certain amounts and combinations of proteins, carbohydrates and healthy fats to perform the individual processes for that developing being.

Claudia Tapia Guerrero

Adults, as us, should also tae care of what we eat for lunch... I ususally take to work something fresh and colorful, and it makes me feel energetic and possitive. My husband is grateful for my special notes on the lunch I send to him every day.

Lucien Beauley
Lucien B8 years ago

We must remember that much of the irradiated foods in this country are sent to our schools, restaurants, nursing homes, etc.

For a few decades now, the U.S. has been advocating and implementing irradiation of some of our foods, mainly ground beef, chicken and as of late, many of our fruits and vegetables. During much of this time period, public reaction has been predominantly against it and many consumer advocates hope to eventually topple our governments efforts.
Should We Irradiate Our Foods?

Ever since the inrush of the American "Industrial Revolution", the nutritional value of the food we eat has been on the decline, even following the addition of vitamins and minerals to fortify our foods to offset the losses using artificial fertilizers.
Our Food is Quickly Loosing Its Nutritional Value

Mark L.
Mark L8 years ago

I asked a child psychologist what to do with a picky child. His response? "Give him only what you want him to eat. After three days, he'd eat a piece of paper, and I promise you it won't have to starve your child before he starts looking at apples, tangerines, bananas, broccoli and spinach as wonderful treats". And don't introduce junk food as a "reward". As parents/guardians, the responsibility for raising healthy children is ours. As is the blame if our children are overweight and start contracting chronic diseases, most of which are tied to diet.

Patti C.
Mary-Kay L8 years ago

Thank you for the tips. When faced with the job of packing a lunch my son will eat, I'm often at a loss. . . sometimes I do it late at night, right before bed when my creativity has been drained by the long day. After reading your article, I'm inspired to make it less of a chore and more of a fun family activity.

Nautica Mysticpools

Schools are packing too many kids in a cafeteria like sardines and not giving them the time to sit and actually eat a meal. There is no recess in High School... Add to that - the schools actually get paid to have coke machines and other non-nutritional foods marketed in the school system... It is no wonder our kids do poorly in school and come home looking exhausted!

Lara Croft
Past Member 8 years ago

I struggled with this all my son's life, now he's a teenager and is still the same picky boy, so thanks for the article.