I’m a Dietitian and My Kid Has Eaten the Same Lunch for 3 Years — Here’s Why That’s OK
When people find out I am a dietitian and the mom of a school age kid, they often assume my son eats colorful, varied, and healthy packed lunches every day. They ask for new ideas. They want to know: what do I pack for my 8-year-old son’s lunches?
That’s when I laugh and shake my head. I wish I could offer a parade of fresh, kid-friendly lunchbox ideas. But the truth is my son has eaten almost the exact same lunch nearly every day since he started kindergarten, three years ago. Attempts have been made to mix things up. Suggestions consistently vetoed. And so, here I am with a third grader who by my calculation has eaten the following meal over 500 times in his young life: a peanut butter and jelly sandwich on whole wheat bread, pretzel crisps, and fruit. (We switch the peanut butter to almond butter or Sunbutter as needed for allergies in his class.)
And you know what? As both a dietitian and a parent, I feel completely fine about it! Here’s why:
Nutrition Is About More Than a Single Meal
Kids’ eating habits and appetites are unpredictable. One morning they’ll eat three helpings of yogurt and two pieces of French toast; the next day they’ll eat one spoonful of yogurt and declare they’re full – also they hate French toast now, so don’t ever make it again. This seemingly erratic eating behavior from meal to meal makes it tough at times to feed them, but it is a normal part of growth and development.
Instead of worrying over individual meals, I think about the quality of my kid’s diet over a week, or even the course of a few months. Has it been a busy week with too much frozen pizza and takeout burritos? Maybe I’ll overcome my Friday burnout and make a veggie-packed stir-fry. Are we overloaded with sweets after the holidays? Maybe we’ll skip Sunday chocolate croissants for a while.
My son’s school lunch is just a small piece of the very large puzzle that is feeding a child well – not just in terms of nutrients, but also in his relationship with food. There is so much anxiety in American parenting culture around food and feeding our children perfectly balanced meals. What if we accepted perfection doesn’t exist?
I Trust My Kid to Expand His Palate When He is Ready
In my son’s toddler days, when it became clear he wasn’t the omnivorous, adventurous eater I had envisioned, I made peace with division of responsibility, a feeding approach developed by registered dietitian Ellyn Satter. In a nutshell, adults are responsible for the what, when, and where of feeding, and children are responsible for the how much and whether of eating. At the center of this method is trust: I trust that his food preferences are real and he trusts that he won’t be forced to finish a plateful of food that makes him gag. (Now that he is older, my husband and I do expect him to at least try every component of dinner, the meal when he is most likely to encounter something unfamiliar or known-but-despised.)
I respect his preference for a lunch that is familiar, filling, and tasty, even if I could never eat the same lunch for a week straight, let alone three years straight. I’m confident in this choice because I have seen how respecting his food preferences over the years – even when they are so different from my own! – have eliminated power struggles at the table and allowed the whole family to celebrate together when he discovers he likes a new food, something that has become more frequent as he has gotten older.
My expectations have also adapted to his age. Last school year, when school lunch was free for all students, it was important to me that he eat school lunches regularly to show support for this policy. Every week he chose at least two days when he would eat the school lunch instead of bringing a packed lunch. Not surprisingly, he typically chose days with familiar meals like hot dogs or nachos, but some weeks challenged him to eat something new. I never thought I’d be so excited to hear about someone liking chicken nuggets.
It Makes Life Easier
To be honest, sometimes I see photos of perfect, colorful lunchbox meals and it makes me feel tired. I wish we allowed parents (especially mothers) to admit without guilt that they made parenting choices because it made their lives easier, instead of viewing those choices as selfish.
It is so much easier to make the same lunch every day than it is to plan a weekly menu of different lunch options. It is so much easier to let my kid eat the same nutritious but boring lunch every day than fight about it. It’s easier to parent a kid who isn’t grouchy and hungry after school. It’s easier to delegate the lunch-making to my husband. It’s easier to grocery shop.
And it makes it easier for my son to pack his own school lunches, which he will start doing this school year. Who knows? Maybe the new task of making his own lunch will inspire him to try something new – or maybe not. Either way, I trust him to know when he is ready for a change.
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