Packing school lunches can be a challenge for parents of picky eaters. Trust me, I know. My 4-year-old son spits pasta at my mother-in-law whenever she tries to feed it to him. You can imagine how well that goes over. Only recently has he agreed to eat the crust of pizza.

I know I’m not alone. Kids in my son’s class have a range of issues with their meals, including texture, smell and a reluctance to try anything that’s new. Some children also have food allergies, which make eating a variety of foods even more difficult. I turned to NJ food experts and fellow moms for advice ahead of the upcoming school year. Read on below for their helpful tips, including a few tricks of my own:

1. Buy into bento.
Any parent who visits Pinterest recognizes the bento box, Japan’s contribution to the cafeteria. This plastic or stainless steel box is equipped with compartments that allow you to divide and conquer. Place different items in their own little sections so food never has to touch. It’s also great because kids aren’t overwhelmed if there is one item they don’t love.

School Lunches

2. Lead the way.
To get my son to eat sandwiches, I read him the book “Pete’s Big Lunch” from the Pete the Cat series. If Pete could eat a sandwich with all his friends, maybe my son would too. And he did. Now he’ll bring turkey on wheat sandwiches to school. Beloved characters or fellow classmates can often be more convincing than mom or dad. Thanks, Pete!

3. Take a field trip to the grocery store.
Show your kids healthy options and let them decide what they’d like to pack, says Julie Kaminski, a Hunterdon County resident, mother of three, and coach, counselor and trainer specializing in health and happiness. “The perimeter of the supermarket has the healthiest options–fresh fruits and veggies, proteins, and dairy generally make up the outside walls,” she adds. “Keep your options there as well.”

School Lunches

4. Leave room for experimenting.
Parents of picky eaters often fall into the trap of packing the same lunch every day. Food experts say this is a mistake. “Don’t stop trying,” says Caroline Turben, a mom of two and a food blogger at Extravagant Gardens, based in northern New Jersey.  “Always add something that’s unexpected,” she says. “While 95 percent of the time it will come back untouched, it’s that 5 percent that will transform them from picky eaters to ‘willing to try’.”

5. Get creative.
Sandwiches and a bag of chips are antiquated. Get with the program by adding fruits and veggies in a rainbow of colors, leftovers from last night’s dinner and all sorts of homemade goodies. This is what the experts pack:

  • Add carrot sticks or multi-grain chips along with dip, such as hummus, white bean or guacamole. Include cheese sticks or a fruit kabob on a “fun party stick.” –Kaminski
  • Create your own “sushi rolls” using rolled-up tortilla shells with peanut butter (if your school allows nuts) or turkey with veggies. Pair the roll with fruit and dip “because kids love dip.” –Turben
  • Feature one item you know your child will eat. Turkey wraps or bagels with cream cheese can be adapted to fit your kid’s taste. If fresh fruit is too messy, choose dried fruit or fruit leathers instead. –Allie Hartman, a spokesperson for Nuts.com, which is headquartered in Cranford
  • Make your own fruit roll-ups (with less sugar) by taking unsweetened apple or berry sauce and cooking it for 12 hours in a food hydrator. You can also sneak vegetables into meals. Try making a tuna burger with onion, grated zucchini, grated carrots, eggs and a bit of flour. Or disguise the veggies by making French fries from squash. –Zaida Khaze, a mom of two from Palisades Park and CEO of Wiggletot

School Lunches

6. Put a bow on it.
Bento boxes are a start. But Kaminski also suggests reuseable cupcake molds, frilly toothpick spears and anything that adds pizazz. “A gift in a brown paper bag,” she adds, “doesn’t have the wow factor of the same gift beautifully wrapped in pretty paper and bow.”


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