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Trouble with My Teen’s School Lunch

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Last year, my teens started a new high school, and our normal lunch routine changed…dramatically. Frankly, I am having trouble with my teen’s school lunch.

Gone were the cute lunch boxes. The thermos.  Ability to access a microwave. A willingness to eat yogurt, or take a salad. And the kicker? Refusal to take an insulated lunch box.

What they really wanted to do was buy their lunch, just like their friends. So we tried that for a while, but that wasn’t working either. My swimmer was eating a salad with chicken every day, but getting bored and not finishing it. Then she added a gigantic chocolate chip cookie. For someone getting ready for a two-hour swim after school, it’s easy to see why she had a headache, was grumpy and wiped out after practice. Nope, not working. For pre-workout snack ideas, read this.

My volleyball player was in the same boat, but forgetting to get a drink or not having enough time to do so. So we transitioned back to bringing lunch to school, and I honored all the limiting requests.

They wanted a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. I added a fruit, a veggie, whole grain crackers or chips, and a cheese stick or round, of which they mostly didn’t eat, complaining that I had packed too much food for them to eat during the lunch hour. Oh, and after a month of peanut butter and jelly, they complained about that, too.

What was really going on here? Of course, it wasn’t just one thing, but a multitude of factors, including my own frame of mind.

Pressure from Peers

Young teens want to be like their friends—wearing the same clothing styles, hairdo, and yes, eating the same foods for lunch. It’s not until they are older (16 or 17 and up) when they become more interested in being unique, and take pride in doing their own thing. In our case, most of the kids were buying lunch from the cafeteria, and if they were bringing lunch to school, it was in an inconspicuous brown paper bag. My girls didn’t want to stand out from the rest.

Socializing

Lunch is a social time for seeing friends, and being seen. There isn’t a lot of time, or focus, spent on eating. In fact, I know my girls eat during their study break (sandwich) and tend to eat their sides at lunchtime in the cafeteria. They want to eat quickly so they can get down to the business of chatting and socializing.

Growing Up

Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches don’t really work on a regular basis anymore. Yet, extravagant foods in multiple, colorful containers aren’t their thing either (believe me, I wish it were!). We’ve moved to efficiency, taste, eye-appeal and peer-appropriateness as the new lunch packing criteria. Another step along the way to adulthood.

Frugal Hissy-Fit

As a Mid-Westerner and the daughter of an accountant, I am somewhat frugal. Spending $5 to $8 on lunch (for each of them) on an a la carte sandwich and bottle of water is a lot of money for food, which I already have at home.  This didn’t fit with my financial-mindedness.

Development

Like infants, toddlers and kids, teens are always changing and there are different reasons for their wants and desires. Yes, I could continue to do things the way I’ve always done them, but the truth is, they’d probably adopt some undesirable behavior in response, like tossing out the lunch I packed, eating friends’ lunches, buying lunch on the sly, or worse, not eating at all.

New Year, New Approach

This year, we sat down and discussed the criteria for bringing lunch. We are returning to our once a week school lunch purchase policy, and I will be packing lunch the rest of the week.

Here’s what they want: sandwiches with lots of veggies (wraps and “different kinds of bread,”) fruit and water. All in a paper bag.

Here’s my strategy to keep nutritious lunches on board: Variety is the name of the game!

  • I will vary the protein source, including deli meats, nut butters, hummus and other bean spreads, eggs, and cheeses.
  • I will load sandwiches with veggies and send a healthy portion of fruit, that way they can snack on any leftovers throughout the day if they are hungry.
  • I’m investing in some cool water bottles and sending plenty. I will also try to freeze them.
  • I will experiment with different breads: wraps, hoagies, French, rye, baguette, etc.
  • I will also send in an after-school snack because they both go directly to sports practice after school. Some ideas I have are these tasty and “real food” KIND bars (high in protein and carbohydrates); nuts and dried fruit; apples and nut butter pack; or some other protein/carbohydrate combination.

How do you manage your teen’s school lunch?

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  1. Same for boys. I have a 7th grade runner. PBJ comes home untouched. Recently tried ham wrapped around a string cheese with a separate bag of whole grain crackers, fruit. That one worked. Left over baked chicken made with spicy wing sauce, sent it frozen in a Packit bag. He said that was great cold, thawed out for lunch. Oh the things we do for our athletic kids 🙂

  2. By the way, The Fearless Feeding is a wonderfully put together resource not only for parents but also professionals who deal with children and families. Highly recommend it. Thank you.
    Now I want to become a nutritionist:) And seriously, looked into it. I do not have a science background. I do however, run a very successful How To Get Your Picky To try New Foods workshop as an educator and psychologist. Any advice on obtaining a nutritionist, RD degree?

    1. Anna,

      I have never heard nor seen these–but I checked them out and forwarded the link to my girls–fingers crossed! I’ll keep you posted 🙂

  3. Great article Jill!
    Just wanted to share a funny memory/example of my own- my teen boys would NEVER want to be seen eating a banana. It just wasn’t cool.

  4. Would they be willing to use an insulated lunch SACK, like a pack-it or similar? There are lots of styles, it doesn’t have to be cutesy if they don’t want it to be. Because then you could include a small ice pack for foods that need to be cold. Just a thought…I don’t have teenagers YET. 🙂