Reader's Request: How Do You Get Kids to Eat a Healthy Lunch?


By: , SparkPeople Blogger
  :  51 comments   :  25,218 Views

It's almost parents' favorite time of year: back-to-school.

That's why we're asking for your help. We hear from members all the time how difficult it can be to get kids to eat right--and even more so when they're away from home and tempted by pizza and chocolate milk in the lunch line.

Would you be willing to share your best tips in the comments below?

  • How did you get your kids excited about healthy eating?
  • What are some easy yet fun packed lunch ideas?
  • Do you have any tricks for keeping lunch from getting boring?
  • What are your go-to lunches for kids (and yourself)?

Thanks for your tips--we hope that you and other parents find these to be helpful!

Click here to to redeem your SparkPoints
  You will earn 5 SparkPoints
Got a story idea? Give us a shout!
NEXT ENTRY >   Double DVD Review: Core and Cardio with Amy Dixon


    We try to only serve healthy foods at our table. 6/7 days i prepare home cooked meals. Even breakfast is a healthy ordeal. As a baby we introduced her to fruits and veggies and we've never had a problem. Her snack of choice is sliced pineapples. She has told her teachers that she does not eat a lot of sugar and would only have a tiny slice of cake at class parties. I hope she keeps it up as she gets older. Plus it helps that she sees that her parents are also trying to eat healthy. Actions speak louder than words - 11/21/2017   5:21:00 PM
  • 50
    Good ideas! - 11/21/2017   9:17:18 AM
  • 49
    I forgot to add this!! I've got this tip from the "supernanny" (don't judge me, lol!) I would bargain with her on the table and tell her take four bites of this/that food, and then your're finished. and I would make sure she takes sizeable forkfulls of the food, generally veggies, and that way she at least ate some of it... - 9/19/2016   10:41:43 AM
  • 48
    I've got my daughter to start eating salad by using one of those sprayable salad dressings, I also used dressings as dipping sauces for her veggies and she actually started eating raw carrots and celery that way. I would cook somethings for me, and then offer her a bite, and sometimes she will tell me she likes it. With her the challenge is texture. The only way to get her to eat most fruits is by letting her prepare them as a smoothie. She is more likely to eat food that she helped prepare. It is still a work in progress though... - 9/19/2016   10:37:16 AM
  • 47
    I've never really had a problem getting my children to eat healthy. They were never fed processed baby foods, they were given pureed bits of what we were eating. (I do not add salt to anything as I do not like it and I do not use too many spices as my husband does not like that.) With that being said, I do give them choices. They are asked to take a "no, thank you" bite of any new foods. That is how I have gotten them to eat quite a lot more than the "normal" kid. You just have to find that food, or foods, that your child likes. Try to expand their palate. I understand there are those out there, like my nephew who is autistic, that getting them to eat new items is like pulling teeth from a crocodile. You just have to know your child. Do not push too much. And, make it fun. Happy faces, "build your own" scenes, bentos, wraps, pinwheels. Make little notes for them, the younger crowd likes them but the older ones may balk (a lot!) - 7/28/2014   3:01:09 PM
  • 46
    Thanks I got a lot of useful ideas from here. - 5/14/2014   11:01:20 PM
  • 45
    There's a great book called "It's Not about the Broccoli" that I would recommend to anyone who wants their kids to eat healthy. - 4/14/2014   12:01:47 PM
  • 44
    I used to pack my daughter lunches... but they kept coming back full. She was too busy talking and would forget to eat. I found that filling her bag full of healthy snacks worked better... granola bars, fruit etc. Some things would still come back, but at least some got eaten.

    I still have trouble getting my daughter to eat... anything. She is underweight. I gave up trying to get her to eat more and instead decided if she is going to eat anything, it will at least have some healthy aspect to it. - 4/10/2014   7:56:40 AM
    google is a wealth of knowledge. - 11/13/2013   2:03:58 PM
    I'd like them to take lunch... especially now that I have two in middle school. At our school, the kids can buy school lunch (balanced but not well liked) or chicken sandwiches, fries, brownies, gatorade... too many options for mine who are easily tempted. - 8/7/2012   4:46:38 PM
  • 38
    We have a granddaughter who's been coming over almost every afternoon since she was a newborn (she's starting 3rd grade). Since she often eats dinner with us as well, we provide more than occasional snacks. Wisely choosing which foods to offer her is very important to us.

    It was a lot easier when she was younger - she seemed willing to eat just about everything, and she liked fruits and veggies. However, she's developed into a very picky eater; although that may be fairly typical, it does make it difficult. (She's also highly allergic to all nuts.)

    Besides the usual of having her choose and help prepare the food, I've done two things that have made a difference. First, I try to be the best role model possible in my own choices (usually eating what she eats). Second, I printed out the USDA's Food Plate, and taught her about it.

    As she makes her choices, we use the groupings on the Food Plate to guide what she eats next. For example: "you've already had fruit and enough protein, but you need bread and dairy," results in a bowl of Cheerios and milk. This gives her freedom, but also guides her to healthy choices.

    Oh, one more thing! When she says she's not hungry for any of the food we have - other than ice cream, or to go out to MickeyD's, of course - we tell her, "if you're truly, honestly hungry, you'd be willing to eat what we have here." I think we're doing okay with it - she's very healthy and fit!
    - 8/6/2012   11:48:18 AM
  • 37
    i needed this info with school about to start. thanks - 8/6/2012   9:22:06 AM
  • 36
    I let my kids choose what they wanted from what was available in the fridge or cupboard---and that simply didn't include junk food, pop or chocolate bars. I couldn't afford to give them $ to buy lunch so that wasn't an issue - 8/5/2012   2:37:10 AM
  • 35
    When I was teaching elementary and middle school students, I always did a unit where they had to plan menus for a day (or week for older students). They had to meet the recommended nutrition for the day, whatever that was at the time. They then researched cost of their plan, and learned to prepare at least one item, which they had to demonstrate to the class. We then chose a class meal to prepare and eat. I ALWAYS saw an improvement on choices being made in the cafeteria after the units.

    So, could you apply this to your own kids? Involve them in the menu planning. Sit them down with you at the nutrition tracker and let them choose the items for a meal or a day, and then help you prepare the meal(s). I wish I had had the resources at SparkPeople available to my students when I was teaching my unit. They could have researched the importance of a nutrient, or the best sources, or they could have found 3 good sources of iron that they would eat (or any other nutrient) Or they could find a food to switch to when they don't care for something the family is having that would still accomplish the same goal for their bodies.

    Choice appears to be key in getting us to do something as difficult as making changes to our habits. - 8/4/2012   11:01:30 PM
  • 34
    We make lunch fun by packing it in a bento; a small box and everything in it is bite sized; generally a portion of protein, a portion of brown rice or whole wheat pasta, 2 portions of veg, 1 portion of fruit. We utilize tiny cutters to cut vegetables into cute shapes; the object is to create a beautiful and healthful lunch. My kids rarely eat sandwiches -- they think sandwiches are for vacation! Making it appealing in appearance really helps -- and the more colors, the better! (Google "bento" if you don't know what I'm talking about - or I have some on my SP blogs) - 8/4/2012   10:10:56 PM
  • 33
    We make PB&J "roll ups" which are simply peanut butter and jelly spread on a whole wheat tortilla, rolled up, and cut into pieces. I do what other members are saying, "would you like cut up apples with cinnamon, or applesauce, or oranges?"

    Pack healthy dips for carrot strips, make a home-made trail mix with the kids to get them involved.

    I've told both my kids I prefer them to pack because I don't think the lunches are as healthy at school as they should be - and if they are, I know my kids aren't eating the veggies as the side dish. I don't give them the choice to eat poorly. - 8/4/2012   8:36:20 PM
  • 32
    In Ireland, there are no "school dinners", children bring in packed lunches, they only have 30 mins break time anyway, so tend to wolf down what they can in 5 mins, then out to play! In a lot of schools, there is a "healthy eating" policy in place, which may ban certain foods- crisps, fizzy drinks, that sort of thing, and will give guidelines towards healthier lunches. You can't force this into effect, though, only encourage. In our school, we did a project called "Food Dudes", where there was a daily letter and video clip with these healthy-eating superheros and a small package of chopped raw veg and a piece of fruit for each child, for 2 weeks. Each child who tasted both, got a prize, something small like a pencil, ball, eraser, etc. Thereafter, we have had a poster and sticker chart to keep going, and prizes for reaching 10 stickers, etc. Pure bribery, I know, but we dlo what we can :) - 8/4/2012   2:33:26 PM
  • 31
    Beautiful grand daughters have milk allergy. Not lactose intolerance, but Epi pen, life threatening allergy.) Eating in a school lunchroom is always a risk. They take lunches, but the biggest problem is ridicule by peers who are not familiar with healthy lunches. They did well, Dairy free breads whole grain crackers, hummus, mom made tacos with all the parts, soy or almond milk, veggie sticks and fresh fruits. As they get older, 4th and 6th grades, the best thing has been having them help with cooking, so they "own" the foods. Oldest would just close her lunch pack and not eat, rather than be made fun of, is much better as she becomes a real cook. She is tired of the illness that comes with even a tiny slip. Because every slip, even skin contact is a 1st order emergency to the hospital. It also helps that the whole family and extended family, is dedicated to having no slips. So they girls are educated to what works and what does not. They eat primarily fresh non-processed and do any cooking or combining at home. Family dedication is the key, this is the way we live and it works. That is the message for the children. And yes, likely as they get older, they will slide, That is part of growing up. - 8/4/2012   2:17:14 PM
  • 30
    My sons graduated two year ago from high school. Both took their lunches to school most of the 12 years (14 years for my autistic son) and always had a balanced lunch. Veggies and fruit were always a part of lunch. During high school, we lived just a block from school and my younger son often preferred to come home and heat up leftovers (they didn't have a microwave available due to safety concerns!).

    They have never been picky eaters, always offered a variety of foods, including frequent new recipes. Rule was they had to try at least two bites of a new recipe before deciding if they liked it or not (used to declare they didn't like something before the first bite was even swallowed - never a fair assessment of the food). They learned to eat and enjoy a lot of foods that they wouldn't have tried otherwise. - 8/4/2012   1:32:14 PM
  • 29
    Like others here, I was raised to eat what was put in front of you… as was my husband. BUT, my grandparents (who raised me) and my mother-in-law have changed and will/would fix different foods if what was fixed isn’t what the kids want. DRIVES ME CRAZY!!!

    Anyway… Our oldest (17yo) eats healthy and always has. Our middle son (14yo) and youngest son (10) can be harder to get to eat healthy, though the youngest likes healthy food more. Our kids don’t take lunches to school because it is cheaper for them to eat there. At the house though I let them help pick out healthy foods and snacks. They won’t eat their veggies if they are canned, but they will eat frozen veggies… mixed ones with lima beans and asparagus included. They all like yogurt except the two youngest don’t like actual fruit in theirs. Plus they like to freeze their yogurt which would be good to put into lunches. They also like carrots and celery to snack on.

    Guess what I am trying to say is let the kids help pick healthy lunches. Make a menu they can choose from. Cut out pictures of different items for the menu and you can rotate what can be chosen each week. Then have them choose from the pictures what they want. Doing this you can decide how many items from one food group they will take.

    My kids like to use tortilla shells to make “sandwiches.” They will spread peanut butter and jelly on one and roll it up to eat. Or they may use a couple of pieces of lunch meat and cheese to roll up. Our youngest will spread peanut butter, slice up a banana, and add some raisins. Sometimes I purchase a large bag of the small ones just from them to use like this. This gives them something different than bread all of the time. - 8/4/2012   12:46:01 PM
  • 28
    I was raised without choices in the food I ate. My mother made a meal and we ate arguments were even considered. - 8/4/2012   11:31:32 AM
    My kids were taught at a early age to eat what was served period no babying them. - 8/4/2012   11:13:05 AM
    I do as I've seen others mention: put out healthy choices and have them choose as the first course of the meal. Then after they've eaten that, they can have a serving of chips or cookies. - 8/4/2012   10:09:15 AM
  • 25
    Remember healthy eating starts with the first bite of baby food. My daughters introduced cereal, then one fruit, followed by all the veggies before the other fruits. My 2 year old granddaughter would rather eat veggies than meat and they limit the sweets all the time. Sweets are special treats. So they won't have a problem with school lunches.
    Who says it has to be a sandwich any way? Some children just want meat, carrot sticks, fruit and a drink. - 8/4/2012   9:15:20 AM
  • 24
    my grandson is not a picky eater, thank goodness... he loves veggies, and fruits.
    but he also likes his snacks from time to time.. hes a variety - 8/4/2012   8:48:57 AM
  • 23
    My oldest is only 2 so school lunches aren't an issue yet, but he is a typical toddler. I've found the easiest way to get veggies and variety into him is to disguise it in pizza or pasta. He'll try anything called "pizza" or "noodles." I've taken to having a make-our-own-pizza night once a week (it's a bit cheaper, too). He's eaten chicken fajita pizza with peppers, onions, and tomatoes, sausage pizza with peppers and onions, and Hawaiian pizza with onions and pineapple. You can control how much of the toppings go on so that they get more veggies and less meat and cheese. Leftover pizza could also make for a good packed lunch for school. - 8/4/2012   8:43:43 AM
    While I realise not everyone will be able to do this, it has worked with my very picky daughter: I bake my own bread for her packed lunches. As long as it's home made, it can be without any white flour whatsoever, but with the store bought bread she prefers the whiter stuff. Win! - 8/4/2012   7:17:57 AM
    My grand daughter is a nightmare with her limited picky food choices. I am seriously worried about the food she eats. I blame myself and her parents for giving into her poor dietery demands. - 8/4/2012   4:09:49 AM
  • 20
    Growing up, my mom was always very health conscious. She would pack my lunch for me almost everyday and she let me help pick out what was going into my lunch. It was understood that there would always be a couple of fruits or veggies in my lunch, and it was my decision which fruits or veggies they were. It never occurred to me to swap lunches with someone at school, although they probably wouldn't have wanted what I had. - 8/3/2012   7:59:24 PM
  • 19
    When my son was in elementary school I used to put a surprise in his lunch; sometimes it would be a note, a puzzle, a riddle, a joke; other times it would be a wizzoo or a small plastic toy the kind you find in pinatas or birthday party grab bags. I never used them but I have seen Disney character toast stamps or cookie cutter type things to make Mickey Mouse. cut outs of the bread. It was trhe equivalent of getting the prize in the Cracker Jacks or the cartoon in the Bazooka bubble gum. No matter what I put in his lunch bag there was always something to look forward to each day. Because I lived abroad during his formative years there was never the possibility of junk food in the school cafeteria or unhealthy snacks. He's an adult now and eats healthier than I do. - 8/3/2012   6:11:33 PM
  • 18
    I always put a sign on food in the fridge that said "DON'T TOUCH, MOM'S DIET FOOD." They had to eat it. - 8/3/2012   6:01:19 PM
  • 17
    the school lunches are awful, so my kids don't mind bringng lunch. i encourage them to purchase milk for their drink. i buy lunchmeats with no nitrates/msg. and peanut butter jelly and applesauce with no added sugar. small changes to things they like. each lunch will include fresh fruit.
    marthroid: my kids are like yours. despite my healthy eating, my kids still don't eat many veggies. i keep trying, though!
    - 8/3/2012   5:44:13 PM
  • 16
    I also believe in letting kids make their own choices, but you have to start young. Since she was very little, I always told her, you need to have a vegetable or fruit at every meal, but you get to pick which one. So now she is old enough that it is just habit for her. We always have a variety of fruit and vegetables at home, and my daughter gets to pick. So for instance, today I had cherries, plums and apples at home. I asked her which one she wanted in her lunch. She chose a plum. Basically for the other things, she gets to choose between certain things, such as string cheese or yogurt? Or tuna sandwich vs turkey sandwich? And we have always eaten whole grain bread, so that's how she was brought up. Unfortunately if they aren't used to eating this way by the time they are school-age, I think it's pretty hard to change. I am fortunate I was raised this way also, so it's second nature to me. - 8/3/2012   2:39:07 PM
  • 15
    Wow, I must have done something horribly wrong. I eat a lot of veggies and fruit at home. I hope by example one day they will follow in these footsteps. I don't buy much junk and when I make brownies or cookies or even pancakes, it's amazing what I stuff in them…chick peas, spinach, flax seeds, prunes, apple sauce, grated pears, etc. I homeschool my kids, so I don't have the lunch box issue, however, my kids hate anything that resembles healthy eating, so for the time being, I fake them out pretty good. They are actually aware of what I am doing, and are ok as long as they don't see the piece of fruit or veggie in their food. It may sound ridiculous, but a mom's got to do what a mom's got to do. I admire all you parents…I'm a little jealous too! I will just continue my "stealth cooking". - 8/3/2012   1:39:40 PM
  • 14
    We eat healthy at home as a rule, so they'd rather eat a lunch from home than school. I let them have a say as to what's in their lunch, letting them pick from the basic food groups - which veggie? which fruit? etc.. I get up a little earlier to cut up fresh fruit for their lunches, many times I prep fruit for myself for lunch at the same time. When they were younger in elem school, they liked that with a lunch from home they didn't have to wait in line and could eat and be out on the playground faster. Lunchtime is way too much of a time crunch these days at school. We talk about the importance of eating healthy, white milk vs chocolate, etc.. To me, choc milk should be a dessert. Now that they are older and have access to a microwave at school, they like to take healthy leftovers that they can heat up. I prep them as I am putting away the leftovers from dinner the night before, so it's ready to go in the am. I have reusable small glass pyrex containers that they can heat up the leftovers in. - 8/3/2012   1:31:23 PM
  • 13
    I let me son help plan his school lunches. I just made his choices healthy. Variety is important. - 8/3/2012   12:30:31 PM
  • 12
    I have to agree wholeheartedly in letting the kids choose, packing lunch the night before and getting them involved. Our kids are picky eaters but love fresh fruit and veggies so I guess we're lucky. Hummus and pretzel chips go over big too. Sometimes incorporating leftovers, fresh salad, or sandwiches (unfortunately not including nuts due to so many allergies). They have a lot of real fruit and whole grains to choose from for snacks as well and it works for them to get to have a say. They definitely eat far more by bringing their own than they do if they eat at school and if they eat at school by choice then they come home starving so they hardly ever do that anymore. - 8/3/2012   12:07:41 PM
    The same way I get me to eat healthy...balance. School lunches are nasty, so my kids don't mind packing. They get a protein, (string cheese, hummus, nut butters, nuts, greek yogurt, sometimes a lunch meat sandwich or even chicken nuggets), a fresh fruit and veggie, a drink (water, fruitables, honest kids, and sometimes a chocolate milk or maybe a Hanson's soda) and they always get some sort of treat, ( a couple of joe-joes, or homemade cookies, trail mix with candies, baked chips or sometimes even some cheetoes or a fun size candy bar). If anyone, including kids feel foods are forbidden, then they feel deprived. - 8/3/2012   11:53:16 AM
  • 10
    I like to plan out lunches the night before so that my son gets to choose what he eats. I tell him his options, makes his choices and if he comes home from school and didnt eat something, he has to give me 10 extra minutes of homework or reading and no video games. Works like a charm! Just make sure that you have a variety of fruits/veggies so they dont get bored! - 8/3/2012   11:48:03 AM
  • 9
    Told them i love it I will eat it all because they will not like it . Most of the time they wanted it to. - 8/3/2012   11:41:41 AM
  • 8
    Empower them to make choices young. Just make the choices healthy ones. "Do you want the banana, orange, apple, or raisins?" :-) - 8/3/2012   11:34:37 AM
  • 7
    I don't have kids that age anymore, but I had to comment on the picture. It's brilliant. =) - 8/3/2012   11:32:23 AM
  • 6
    Get them involved in making their lunch. If they have time invested, they're more likely to actually eat it!

    Leftovers for lunch? When my kids were little this was a real treat to them.

    Give the a choice of things to have for lunch if they can't decide. - 8/3/2012   11:24:14 AM
  • 5
    giving them a hearty breakfast, packing a VARIETY of healthy snacks neatly and making it apealing to them - 8/3/2012   11:03:43 AM
  • 4
    My kids love wraps over sandwiches, and I've been blessed with three non-picky eaters who are as happy to have fruits and veggies in their lunches as cookies and candy. - 8/3/2012   10:43:09 AM
    I get my niece involved in cooking her lunch when she has to take it. She usually eats at school and they send us the meal plan. She was raised not consuming a lot of sugary snacks, so when she sees a cookie, she is not one to go for it - 8/3/2012   10:42:59 AM
  • 2
    My kids love taking something hot in their thermos! - 8/3/2012   10:09:29 AM

Please Log In To Leave A Comment:    Log in now ›