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Navigating Treats and Snacks in School Lunches: Lessons I Have Learned

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My middle schooler recently said his friends felt sorry for him because his lunch was so healthy. Here’s how I am navigating treats and snacks in school lunches.

navigating snacks and treats: treats in a reusable bag

Navigating Treats and Snacks in School Lunches: Lessons I Have Learned

When my oldest son was in Kindergarten, I met a parent of a middle schooler at the school who was equally passionate about food (and was actually more intense about foods needing to be “healthy” than me). We went on a walk and she talked to me about her frustrations with feeding her middle schooler. She said that for many years, her daughter had happily eaten whatever was in her lunchbox, but that recently she had started to rebel. She spoke of the battles they were having as her daughter felt self-conscious about the lack of snacks and treats in her lunch, while she, as the mother, didn’t want to give in and allow her to start packing chips, cookies, and other packaged foods. As I listened, I haughtily thought, “Poor thing, that must be so stressful to deal with, but I’m sure I’ll never have those issues because my son is such a great eater.”

A Reality Check

Then one afternoon, my middle-school-aged son, suddenly blurted out that he didn’t like his lunches anymore. He told me that all of his friends got treats like triple stuffed Oreos, Doritos, and fruit roll-ups in their lunches every day. He also said that his friends had told him that they felt bad for him because he didn’t get “good” food, only “healthy” stuff.

Immediately the conversation I had with that mom six years earlier came back to me and I realized that this was a decision point for me: either I had to stand my ground and insist that lunches would be as I wanted them to be or I needed to find a compromise that would work for both of us.

I decided that since I believe treats and snacks are important, this was not time for a battle, but instead could be an opportunity for him to become more autonomous when it came to food. So, I told him I heard his concern but that I wasn’t ready to start buying individual bags of chips, so I would think of a solution.

A compromise is reached

The next day I made a proposal: I was not willing to start buying the individually wrapped foods, both for environmental and financial reasons, but I was willing to work with him to find some special foods that he would be excited about including in his lunch. Each morning we would take some of those from a larger bag and put them into a reusable one. He was elated.

The surprise twist

The first treat we tried was spicy cheese puffs (one of his favorites). For the first week or two he was super excited and made sure to pack them along with the rest of his lunch (check out how I get my kids to pack their own school lunches). Within a week or two, though, I noticed that he seemed to lose interest, eventually not even bothering to pack the puffs.

Then the same thing happened with kettle corn, then potato chips, and then cookies. Each time, he’d be excited for a few days and then start to lose interest, until eventually he stopped asking for treats in his lunch at all, opting instead to enjoy them once he got home from school (an option that had always been available to him).

Lessons Learned

For me, I’ve learned a number of lessons in this experience with him, both in terms of how I communicate with my kids about food and also about how I should view food for myself.

fighting over food

Fighting about food is not helpful

Limiting or controlling what our kids eat can have long lasting negative impacts both on their relationships with us and with food. That isn’t to say that we, as parents, shouldn’t set expectations or that we should acquiesce to every demand, but if we can find a middle ground that everyone can be happy with, then we are allowing for healthier and happier relationships with food and better communication within the family.

In this case, I came up with certain expectations (no pre-packaged snack packs and not candy, since that is against school rules) but then allowed him freedom within those parameters to choose what he wanted.

a variety of foods on a plate

Variety, not virtue, should be the name of the game

If we are eating a wide variety of foods, most of which are good for us, then those treats and splurges are a good thing, not a failing. They are part of a larger constellation of healthy and happy eating.

If instead we prohibit or limit, then we set up the opportunity for a feeling of deprivation which can lead to cravings, binges, and even sneaking food—none of which I want for myself or my kids.

kids eating fruits and vegetables

Food is social

My son was feeling left out of the social experience of having a special treat or snack in his lunch—he wanted to feel like part of the group. For him, it was equal parts wanting something special in his lunch and wanting to be a part of the conversation his friends were having when they were comparing lunches.

I believe strongly that food is something that should and does bring us together, but I had to recognize that while what he chooses isn’t always going to be my top choice of food, it still serves a valuable role.

An Update

Two-and-a-half years have passed since I originally wrote this post. Since then, my eldest son started high school and my younger son is now in middle school. Both boys went through the same cycle: they enthusiastically packed special treats in their lunches for a few weeks and then lost interest, putting more of a focus on what they’d most like as their main dish. I do still keep snack foods in the house and occasionally they will throw together a bag to bring in their lunches, but most often they choose to have them as part of their afternoon snack.

Further Inspiration

Want more ideas for feeding your kids? Check out these other resources from The Scramble:

The Formula for a Healthy Lunch

30 Out-of-the-Box Ideas for Healthy School Lunches

How to Make Lunch Packing Easier

Navigating Treats & Snacks in School Lunches

Healthy Lunch Ideas for Teens

To help make lunches and dinners go more smoothly in your house, check out The Scramble’s family-friendly meal plans.

Have you experienced challenges like this with your kids? How did you handle them? I’d love to hear about your successes and your struggles in the comments.

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