Making school lunches used to be the bane of Jennifer Hicks's existence. One son was fine with lunch-meat sandwiches or leftovers. The other just wasn't.
The Toronto mother solved her woes when her lunch-averse son mused aloud, "I wish I could have breakfast for lunch."
The now-nine-year-old has been taking a container of cereal and a thermos of milk to school every day since.
"It's not worth the battle," Ms. Hicks says. "It makes life so much easier."
You can't blame her. Especially now, during the season when school-lunch dread is seeping back into the consciousness of many parents: What to make?
Your child's tastes may have shifted from last year – from last week, even. Then there's the nut ban. The litter-less lunch policy. And don't forget keeping the whole thing hot. Or cold. Not to mention healthy. Is it Omega-3s that are good this year? Or is it Vitamin D? It's enough to make any parent crumple.
Some parents are getting a head start: Ottawa mother Andrea Girones has started taste tests with her two children. It turns out her son loves celery and cucumbers dipped in strawberry yogurt, tomato sauce or ranch dip. Her daughter will also accept carrots.
Toronto dad Richard Wontorra plans to stick to his one-lunch-for-all approach for his four teenagers, rotating between hot leftovers and favourites such as tuna salad sandwiches.
Other parents vow to enlist their children in the shopping and prepping – even to take orders the night before.
"If you want them to eat it, don't pack the stuff they don't like," says Joanne Saab, a registered dietitian who works in pediatric nutrition at McMaster Children's Hospital in Hamilton. "They will not eat it if you're not there."
Start the discussion about what they'd like to eat with a few rules. There has to be a vegetable and a fruit, say experts, but let them choose. Don't pick the same foods every day.
"If we all just packed what our kids want to eat, we'd be packing Kraft Dinner and Kool-Aid," says Ms. Saab, co-author of the upcoming book Better Food for Kids: Your Essential Guide to Nutrition for All Children from Age 2 to 10.
But don't worry too much about the finer points of nutrition, says food sociologist Dina Rose. In her Hoboken, N.J., practice and on her website, itsnotaboutnutrition.squarespace.com, Dr. Rose tells parents to think about setting up lifelong eating habits.
"How our kids eat has nothing to do with the nutrition, really," she says. "They're not concerned about nutrition. They're concerned about the pleasures of eating. Or about making themselves feel comfortable in some way."
Dr. Rose says ensuring your children eat a variety of foods, tastes and textures, no matter how narrow their palate, is key. Even if your child eats only two things, alternate them. But she says parents often construct a masquerade around what variety means.
There is no appreciable difference in content or texture between pizza with tomato sauce and cheese, pasta with tomato sauce and cheese – and a grilled cheese with ketchup. Likewise, if breakfast is packaged oatmeal, snack is sweetened yogurt and lunch is peanut butter and jam, "It's all highly sweet and it's all gooey. That's not variety."
For her seven-year-old twin girls, Ms. Saab tries to serve sandwich lunches only once or twice a week. Other hits include hummus and pita chip, soups, pastas and leftovers such as chicken and rice pilaf. The fruit component can be unsweetened applesauce or frozen mango that thaws by lunch.
Dr. Rose suggests thinking about tapas-style meals consisting of little piles of meat, veg and cheese. Even this slight variation prepares kids to be introduced to new foods later, she says.
"Every time you're switching it up, you've changed the texture, the taste, the whole experience of eating."
Parents should also resist the urge to immediately interrogate their child about what they did eat for lunch. Often, Dr. Rose says, parents demand an empty lunch box because it's the only way they can ensure a child has eaten the one or two nutritious things they snuck in there. But it's akin to demanding a child take two more bites when they're full.
"The potential damage of the 'two more bites' isn't worth the nutritional pay-off," she says. Better to ask your kids to have a little bit of everything, she says.
In Mr. Wontorra's household, the rule, abetted by the school's keep-your-garbage policy, is that anything not eaten at lunch is the after-school snack.
And Dr. Rose and Ms. Saab suggest that parents relax about unhealthy foods at school. Instead, co-opt some of the worst kids' food trends as a way to reinforce good habits.
For one, pizza day can give you a break – and teach your child that an occasional slice is okay. But more isn't a healthy choice.
"I tell my daughter, 'You're having pizza Friday at school, so we won't have it at home this week," says Dr. Rose. "That's an important lesson to learn."
Kids need to know the reasons behind the rules, she says. And labelling pizza a less-healthy food and limiting it is better than trying to tell yourself that the cheese on the pizza provides, say, calcium. Or congratulating yourself that the whole-wheat dough you use at home makes any difference in the grand scheme of things.
"If you're trying to parse the nutrients, that's a failed exercise. And from the kid's perspective, it's still pizza and you're teaching them to eat pizza."
Another food to limit is salty, crunchy snacks such as Goldfish crackers. Dr. Rose says parents give their children Goldfish because they are "better" than chips. But that doesn't make them healthy, she says. And they're a salty gateway snack that leads to chips anyway. (She also sees juice as a gateway to Coke.)
Because they're a common snack at school, Dr. Rose says, she allows her daughter to have them there but doesn't buy them for home or lunches.
Likewise, Ms. Saab alternates white and diluted chocolate milk in her daughters' lunches. And Dr. Rose's daughter can have chocolate milk one day a week at school.
"What I want to teach her is you don't drink chocolate milk every time you drink milk. But chocolate milk's tasty."
Dr. Rose knew her plan was working this summer when her daughter was at day camp and could have all the chocolate milk her heart desired at lunch. Unprompted, she alternated white and chocolate milk each day. When she told her mom that she started with white milk on Mondays so she'd have white milk three times and chocolate only two, Dr. Rose was thrilled.
"I was so pleased. She had learned the lesson," she says.
As for Ms. Hicks, who blogs at urbanmoms.ca, she is thinking about broadening her son's breakfast-for-lunch horizons a bit this fall: She's trying to figure out if pancakes will keep until midday.