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The morning rush is crazy enough without having to wonder if your kid will actually eat the school lunch you're packing. But when you open up your kid's lunchbox, ready to load it up again, only to find a turkey sandwich with two bites out of it, a now-wasted yogurt that was never even opened and the same applesauce still sitting there untouched -- like, two weeks later, well, suddenly feeling frazzled escalates to utter frustration.
Many kids and parents complain that the school lunch 'hour' -- which sometimes doesn't even last 30 minutes and can take place when many people are just grabbing breakfast -- is too short and too early. In fact, according to the School Nutrition Association's "State of School Nutrition 2011" report, the average elementary school lunch period is just 25 minutes long.
"A lot of times kids would rather socialize than eat -- they don't realize how hungry they are when they're having fun and talking to their friends," Dr. Jennifer Shu, author of The American Academy of Pediatrics child nutrition book Food Fights, says. "So unless the school staff makes sure the kids eat their lunch, then the kids are starving during their afternoon classes and they can't concentrate or perform as well. We can't expect kids to police themselves, so it's got to be a partnership with the school staff."
Kate McMillan, mom to 9-year-old twins and a 4-year-old and cookbook author of The Lunch Box can relate. "There's nothing more frustrating than coming home, taking the lunch boxes out of the backpacks and finding that they didn't eat anything," she says. "It happens to all of us."
And then, of course, the second they get home from school, they're so famished they tear through the pantry and refrigerator as if they haven't eaten in weeks -- and dinner is pretty much shot.
To help, we spoke to the experts to find out ways to get your kid to eat lunch since you can't be there to force feed herself.
Start good eating habits young: "To get your kid to eat what's in his lunchbox, there is no grander rule than teaching an appreciation for food," McMillan says. "There are going to be things our kids don't like, and that's okay, but the more you give your kids a variety of foods and just keep trying, the more likely they will eat them."
Try stickers: Shu says if your child can tell time and does well with schedules, you could place different stickers on their food, noting times they should eat each item by. "By noon, you should have eaten your sandwich, by 12:15, finish your apple," she says.
Get kids in involved in the lunch prep -- but not the morning of: "Lord knows at 7 a.m. we're just trying to shove a sandwich in a lunchbox and get the kids out the door," McMillan says. Save yourself some stress buy carving out time on the weekend to make lunch-friendly dishes such as banana bread, soup or mini quiches that can be frozen and packed up all week long. "If they feel like they had a hand in making something, it really does get them excited about eating it."
Talk to school staff: If your child is heading to the lunch line at 10:30 a.m., eating may be the last thing on her mind. "How do you force yourself to eat if you're not hungry? If kids are eating that early, they might need an afternoon snack, and you should probably talk to the teacher or the administration about allowing that," Shu says. "They're definitely going to get hungry again that afternoon."
Suggest a system: Shu says her son attended a school that used a red cup/yellow cup/green cup system. For the first 10 minutes of the lunch break, a red cup on the table signaled no talking -- just eating. During the second 10 minutes, the lunch monitor placed a yellow cup on the table, letting the kids know they could talk quietly. For the final 10 minutes, a green cup meant it was okay to talk and that lunch was almost over.
Go over the school lunch menu: Most cafeterias offer two or three entrée options and different side dishes. "Talk to your kids in advance about the choices so they're not making a spur of the moment decision," Shu says. "It's a chance educate kids about nutrition, too."
Creativity counts: Kids, like adults, often eat with their eyes, McMillan says. "If they open up their lunchbox and see something that is new to them, they get excited," she says, adding parents should take advantage of containers with different compartments, especially ones for dips. "But instead of just using the dip area for carrots and hummus, use it for peanut sauce and add leftover pieces of chicken from the night before, or try mini meatballs with marinara sauce."
Cold lunch can still be hot: Ninety percent of the time, McMillan says, her kids will eat lunch if it's packed in a thermos. "People think a thermos will be extra work, but it is so easy because it's always leftovers from the night before," she says. "It might be pasta or chili or warmed up soup -- sometimes I'll open a can of black beans, add some cheddar cheese on top and serve it with tortilla chips on the side. My kids love a warm lunch in their thermos."
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