Whether I’m working with a selective eater who eats only a limited number of foods or the more garden-variety picky eater who just has strong opinions about what she will and will not eat, I teach kids how to pack their own school lunch early in feeding treatment. Buying a “hot lunch” at school is typically a more advanced goal for my clients. Most kids hesitant to try new foods find it challenging to process the wide variety of hot lunches available—we’ll tackle that goal later.
Learning to become an adventurous eater takes confidence, so when kids pack their own lunchbox, it helps build that bravado by giving them control. It can also decrease anxiety. Parents can support this process with some simple household rules. Help those parents set the stage for their child to eventually try some new selections in their lunchbox.
The first step: Use an easy-open bento style lunchbox, such as a Yumbox. Motor planning and fine motor coordination creates an additional challenge for some kids, so a lunchbox easy to open in one quick step is essential. I particularly like Yumbox, because the tray inside the box is interchangeable. For hesitant eaters, I prefer the five-compartment tray, with each section marked as protein, dairy, fruit, vegetable or grain.
The second step: Teach clients what nutrition categories mean. Start with their preferred foods and help them create a packing map with those foods listed under corresponding categories. You need only a piece of colorful poster board, a photo of the lunchbox interior and markers. If a child eats only five foods at school, don’t panic. Help him choose at least two new foods for each category, with the understanding that he can decide if he wants to try it.
My rule for clients is to always include a food from each category in their lunchbox. Parents sometimes wince at this suggestion, because they don’t want to waste food. I remind them that children learn to expand their diets by first being exposed to new foods. Keep those exposures underwhelming—a small sample at most. For example, if the client’s never tried garbanzo beans before, encourage putting three garbanzo beans in the protein section of his lunchbox. Now he’ll at least interact with beans, which is essential before he’ll ever taste beans. Three garbanzo beans thrown in the trash at the end of the day is a small price to pay for a kid who eventually eats beans.
The third step: When the lunchbox comes home, I discourage parents from unpacking it right away or inspecting the box for what was and wasn’t eaten. The transition from school to home already involves a lot of emotion for kids. Give them some time to wind down and adjust. Clean out the remaining food items with little fanfare and allow the child to use his packing map again to pack a lunch for the following day.
Kids need repeated exposure to build familiarity with new foods. Kids who pack their own lunch, using a packing map consisting of five foods from each food group, get repeated exposure to 25 different foods in just the first month of school. As they become more comfortable with the selection of foods, encourage them to add a few new options to the packing map. Recommend balancing smaller samples with larger portions to ensure they get enough to eat. Expose, explore, expand—it’s all possible with a packing map!
More from Melanie Potock on stress-free school lunches:
Melanie Potock, MA, CCC-SLP, treats children birth to teens who experience difficulty eating. She co-authored “Raising a Healthy Happy Eater: A Stage-by-Stage Guide to Setting Your Child on the Path to Adventurous Eating” (2015), “Baby Self-Feeding: Solid Food Solutions to Create Lifelong Healthy Eating Habits” and “Happy Mealtimes with Happy Kids,” and produced the kids’ CD “Dancing in the Kitchen: Songs that Celebrate the Joy of Food!” Potock’s two-day course on pediatric feeding is offered for ASHA CEUs. She is an affiliate of ASHA Special Interest Group 13, Swallowing and Swallowing Disorders (Dysphagia). Melanie@mymunchbug.com.