My sister's son has been in first grade for a couple of weeks, and she's already learned one thing: Packing his lunch every day is "a real pain."
"I think most first-graders are so picky," she laments, "that there's virtually nothing you can feed them -- especially if what they tell you the night before they like, by the next morning they don't. Like crackers. The night before: 'Do you like crackers?' 'I love crackers.' The next day: 'Did you like your crackers?' 'Naw. I threw them away.' Why didn't he bring them home?" But she answers herself: "We're lucky to get the lunch box back.
"He's been taking peanut butter and jelly every day, because it's all he likes," my sister says. "And crackers, because he can't get the potato chip bags open. And squeeze drinks, because for some reason, he's afraid to buy milk. Oh, and I always put in a few sharks."
"You know, gummy sharks."
Parents may well feel there are plenty of sharks in the water when it comes to giving children healthful, appealing lunches. It's not just finding nutritious food they'll eat; there are logistical problems to be overcome as well.
"A big part of eating with children is getting them to focus on the food," says Amy Kovar, R.D., a pediatric nutritionist at Johns Hopkins Hospital's Children's Center. "It's easy when you're at home, but when you're not there to supervise, it's harder."
But there are plenty of ways to pique a child's interest, Ms. Kovar says. "Half the trick . . . is giving them foods that are fun." That doesn't mean pizza and popcorn and sweets: It means healthful choices, perhaps presented in a non-traditional way. Cut sandwiches into shapes -- diamonds, strips, triangles, squares, stars, dinosaurs (use cookie cutters; save the scraps for croutons).
Peanut butter doesn't have to go with jelly. "You can serve peanut butter on a sandwich with banana, or use it to fill in the center of celery sticks, or put peanut butter on crackers," Ms. Kovar says.
Or don't serve a sandwich at all. Instead offer baggies full of chunks of things, such as cheese or lunch meat. Put a different sticker on each bag. Pack up leftovers, such as a piece of chicken from the previous night's meal. Offer containers of yogurt, along with separate containers of dry cereal. (Foods that need to be kept cold should be packed in insulated containers. Freezing a juice pack overnight and including it in the container will help keep food cold.)
Remember children don't necessarily get tired of having the same thing day after day: To them having a familiar food may be a moment of comfort in a stress-filled learning experience.
It's important not to take the easy way out. "Part of the role of parenting is to put the right choices in front of the child," Ms. Kovar says. "Should you give them food that's healthy? Yes, by all means. Should you give them food they'll eat? Yes, but find a compromise. There are ways to serve foods that are healthy and make them fun."
If a meal isn't successful, or you were pressed by time to pack a less-than-ideal lunch, Ms. Kovar says, simply be prepared with an extra-nutritious snack for after school.
Children like to pick what they're going to eat, she says. "Bring the child into the kitchen and let the child choose. Say, 'Would you like me to put turkey or lunch meat or cheese in your lunch today?" That way the child gets to make a choice,but "you're steering the decisions."
One busy parent who makes a habit of giving her children choices is Ami Taubenfeld, vice president of Great Occasions catering. She has three kids, boys 7 and 9 and a girl 2. "I say to my kids, 'What would you like for lunch?' I take them to the store and let them pick out what they want to eat." She says her older son will eat anything, but the 7-year-old is "impossible." He really only likes pizza and macaroni. But she's found that offering choices can broaden a child's outlook.
She lets him choose, for instance, the form it's served in. "He doesn't like turkey that's flat," she says, "because he says it tastes slimy." So he chooses shredded.
And sometimes it's the container and not the food that does the trick, Ms. Taubenfeld says. One child "hates cottage cheese unless it's served in a particular kind of bowl." So she puts the cottage cheese in his favorite cup and writes his name on it. "That way it's really his," she says. She may include fruit -- a banana or strawberries -- for him to eat with the cottage cheese, she says, but she packs it separately. "Kids don't like to mix things."
Fun bags or boxes appeal to children; Ms. Taubenfeld says she may put in something extra to keep a child seated and focused: A hand-written menu, a note from Mom, a simple maze or crossword puzzle.
Having three children with three "totally different eating habits" keeps her hopping. "To me," she says, "planning is 90 percent of the battle."