If you’re having a hard time packing lunches your kids will actually eat, maybe it’s time to let them determine their own menu.
Lulu Cohen-Farnell, co-founder and president of Real Food for Real Kids, a local catering company that supplies meals to Toronto schoolchildren, was accidentally making me feel guilty about the way I’ve managed my son’s eating.
“I hear parents say it all the time to their kids, ‘You are a picky eater,’” she said. We were sitting in the Queen West café El Almacen, drinking mate, an Argentinean concoction made by mixing hot water and the leaves of the yerba mate plant. The result is the approximate consistency of mud. I took a sip of the stuff. It tasted like dust. Maybe I was being picky. What Lulu said affected me because I’d called my son out for the same thing just that morning.
“What do you want for lunch today?” I asked, as he ate his French toast.
“A bagel with peanut butter.”
“Your new school doesn’t allow peanut butter. What about a bagel with cream cheese?”
“I don’t like cream cheese.”
“Hummus? Soy nut butter? Jam? Honey?”
“No, I don’t like that stuff.”
“Bubsey,” I said, using his pet name, “you have to eat something! You can’t be such a picky eater!”
Lulu is a family friend, and I’d called her out of frustration. My son spent the past several years at a Montessori school that was catered by Lulu’s company. Now that he’s attending Grade 1 at a primary school, I’m having a hard time packing lunches he’ll actually eat.
Lulu leaned in and told me about her troubles with her own two kids, aged five and 10. “They use food as a tool, as a form of control,” she said in her Parisian accent. “You can’t let them see that it gets to you. You have to be like, ‘Pfft.’” She waved a hand in the air. Lulu seems to advocate a tough-love approach that she’s adopted from her French upbringing. She believes North American parents like me have to get better at instructing their children about food and eating. “It’s like a kid saying he doesn’t want to learn how to write,” she said. “You just have to do it.”
Kids should get the same food as their parents at breakfast and dinner, Lulu said. Avoid any before-dinner snacks, so the kids are hungry by mealtime. If they don’t eat dinner, tough. “It takes a kid 40 days to starve,” she said. Of course, she’s not suggesting people let their children waste away. Her point? “They’ll eat eventually.”
For lunches, she suggests providing healthy options your kid likes to eat, without worrying too much about nutritional requirements, which can be met at other meals. The lunch she packed for her daughter that morning included two clementines, an apple, cherries, and two soft-boiled eggs.
I also sought advice from Sprout Right’s founder and nutritionist, Lianne Phillipson-Webb, a mother of two girls, aged six and eight, who has battled similar issues.
“Last year was a complete nightmare for us,” she admitted. “I had to say, ‘You need to eat to have energy to get you through the afternoon. You’ll be so much faster when you run during gym class…’ And then we passed the responsibility on to them. They pack their own lunches.”
The morning after I spoke with Lulu and Lianne, I adopted elements of both approaches. On my dining-room chalkboard, I wrote meal options in four categories: mains, fruits, vegetables, and snacks. “You have to select at least one from each category,” I said, and then watched as my son studied the wall. He put chalk checkmarks next to the bagel with cream cheese, apple slices sprinkled with cinnamon, and the granola bar, then paused at the vegetables.
“Can I choose another fruit instead of a vegetable?” my boy bargained.
“Sure,” I said. Another checkmark appeared next to grapes. That afternoon he came home with everything eaten but the bagel. Not perfect, but an improvement. Maybe eating a packed school lunch is a bit like drinking mate—an acquired taste that evolves over time.