The Full Spectrum: Back-To-School Lunches For The Truly Picky Eater

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The Full Spectrum focuses on the trials and tribulations of raising a child who ranks on the autism spectrum.

For those of us with picky eaters, packing school lunches can be a huge source of anxiety and stress. Not only is my oldest a truly picky eater, he is also on medication for ADHD, which means that he is not really hungry during the day. This takes his pickiness to an all new level.

All year long I look to parenting magazines and food websites for lunchbox solutions but never find anything helpful. Many claim to have ideas for picky eaters but they don’t seem to understand the true meaning of the word picky. If these people think that you can fool a fussy eater by sticking a toothpick in a row of fruit to make it “like a lollipop” or making a happy face out of carrots in hummus, then they are delusional ­– not to mention annoying (can someone please explain why every picky-eating solution seems to involve a toothpick?). Most of the picky-eating suggestions I’ve heard also involve a lot of “prettying” up the food. Adding insult to injury, they’ll tell you to “make it with love – and have lots of fun!”

For the record, picky eating is not solved by making food look cute or by “getting your kids to cook with you.” Both of these suggestions lay a lot of blame on parents when, in reality, kids who are really finicky often have other issues like undiagnosed food allergies or a sensitivity to the taste, texture and smell of certain foods (my oldest has both). In my experience, removing food allergens (with the help of a naturopath) and cooking with your child can help open up their palate slightly, but the struggle of eating – especially packed lunches – still remains.

Here are my tips for parents of the truly picky eaters out there:

  • Don’t obsess about lunch. Try and get in as good a breakfast as you can for your kid and let go of the idea that they have to eat at lunchtime if they aren’t hungry or just too choosy.
  • Lunch doesn’t have to be a complete meal. Calories are calories and sometimes it’s easier to send snacks like whole-grain crackers that don’t have a strong taste or smell and are easy to eat.
  • Be repetitive. Don’t worry about sending the same lunch every day. What’s important is that your child is happy and that he eats something.
  • Ditch the sandwich. My son can’t stand sandwiches so I send salami or turkey in a bag instead. Usually he doesn’t touch it, but I keep trying.
  • Load up on loafs. They’re nutritious and packed with calories. My child likes lemon poppy-seed loafs, and I make them with whole grains. I can sometimes sneak in some banana, too.
  • Get your teachers on board. Ask your school if your child can eat in a quiet place like the school office.  Sometimes it helps a picky eater focus on his lunch and he may be more likely to eat more things.
  • Stick with what your child knows. There are many noises and smells happening at lunchtime and that can freak out a persnickety eater. It’s much easier to try and introduce new things at home.
  • Tune out all the back-to-school hoopla around lunches. The media will tell you that if you just try harder and put in more effort your kid will eat lots of variety for lunch. That’s just plain untrue (I can tell you from a lot of experience).

With childhood obesity rates through the roof, it’s strange that we’re still obsessed with shoving food in our kids’ mouths. I feel the stress of getting my son to eat but this year I am definitely staying away from the all-pervasive back-to-school “picky eating” lists. I’ve got bigger fish to fry (pun intended).

(Photo: George Doyle)