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Thinking Outside the (Lunch) Box

Few tasks are as tedious and potentially frustrating as making lunches for children to bring to school. We parents start out the school year with good intentions, preparing healthy, delicious foods to put in our kid's lunch box. We cut the crusts off those peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to show how much we care. We include an organic cheese stick and maybe even a non-hydrogenated sandwich cookie as a special treat for eating the hummus and carrots.

After a few weeks, however, we often find ourselves pulling out our hair, trying to find something that our kids will eat. The food they enjoyed just a week before is finding its way to the trashcan or being left in the box to rot. Instead of wasting our time, energy and cash, we may reluctantly give them pizza bagels and Lunchables.

As much as we have to accept the ever-changing preferences of our children, we have more control than we think in influencing what and how our kids eat at school. Let's consider some of the factors affecting lunch...

The Basics: Temperature. Is that cold hummus your kid loves at home lukewarm once they get to the cafeteria? Is your leftover vegetable soup cold? A simple ice pack or good quality thermos just may solve the problem.

Fitting In: As kids get older, keeping up with the Joneses becomes more and more important. Fitting in is a top priority. Don't worry, this is typical in a child's development. So if everyone else has a cool lunchbox or Chinese carry out containers, buy them for your kid too, and file the whole experience under "choose your battles." Today's expensive lunchbox is cheaper than tomorrow's $300.00 pair of jeans.

Cool Food (like Fonzie cool): Your kids may be too young to care if their hard-boiled eggs smell like someone just, well, you know. As they get older, however, the contents of their lunchboxes will need to meet the approval of their peers. What says "cool" more than homemade sushi (not raw fish, but avocado rolls, cooked fish or even cooked chicken rolls with rice and seaweed) or a gross-out food, like a green shake made with mango and kale or edamame dip? These unique foods will certainly get them noticed and will also fuel them with major nutrients.

Being a Part of the Process/Creativity: If kids are involved in making lunch, they will be more likely to eat it. Let them decide what they want, and, depending on their age, let them prepare it.

One idea is for them to bring a slice of cheese, a slice of turkey and two slices of bread, all separated. They can assemble the sandwich once they get to the cafeteria.

Another idea is to let them have breakfast for lunch. Send them to school with a tupperware container of cereal and another of strawberries. They can buy the milk in the cafeteria, pour it on the cereal, add the fruit and eat it all with a spoon.

Overcoming your obstacles to preparing lunch: Are you so stressed about making lunch that you hand out money for hot lunch instead? Why not shift the division of labor and give the task to someone else? This can take a huge weight off of you and allow another family member to feel connected to the kids.

Remember: Kids won't starve if they skip lunch once in a while. What matters is what they eat over the span of a week, not each day.

Alma Schneider is a licensed Clinical Social Worker helping individuals overcome their psychological and practical obstacles to cooking and parenting on her blog and consulting business, Take Back the Kitchen. She is a native New Yorker transplanted to the suburbs with her husband, four children and loving yet stubborn Beagle Shiloh.

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