My son started full day kindergarten this year, which, in addition to the challenges of getting him to school on time, homework done, and uniform attire clean and proper, it also meant the daunting challenge of getting him to eat his lunch every day.

I am not a fan of the foods provided to our children through the Clark County School District, so I only allow my son to have “hot lunch” on Fridays or very special occasions. My husband and I work full time, so I am realistic to the demands on a family with parents in just as demanding careers. It’s a nice fall back to have, but overall it is a disappointing reality. I am also a health nut, and don’t buy or allow my children to eat many food products that are processed, made with corn syrup or refined (white) sugar. Whole grains and organics are offered in my kitchen. For the most part, my kids are OK with this. They take a genuine interest in their health and nutrition, even at the ages of 6 and 4 years old. They are allowed to have sweets and other foods, but only at grandma’s, where it’s fun to be a kid! I do cave into sweets, being a fanatic myself, I just aim for the healthier options.

With all of this being said, I was finding about mid-year that my son was coming home with a full lunchbox…the same foods I was sending him to school with, he was coming home with. At our school, the kids are given an account, and the parents put money into the account so their children can make purchases for milk and hot lunch. Soon after my discovery, I received a phone message from the school district saying that my sweet, trusting, little kindergartner was overdrawn in his account by $8.50. The sly little guy was going to school with the nutritious lunches I was making him every night, and ordering hot lunch from his account instead! I realized the problem laid in the delivery. I was creating lunches for him based on what I thought to be nutritional; yet, he was not interested in eating them at all. Problem identified. What was the solution?

I was not about to give in to the sad offerings provided by the school cafeteria. After volunteering at my son’s school one day, I was invited to eat lunch with him. He happened to have a hot lunch that day. I was mortified to find that fried chicken nuggets, fried tater tots and a box of raisins were considered nutritionally valuable during the school day. Fortunately, my son and I can have conversations around why mommy doesn’t approve of the school lunches and why it is important to eat things that are good for our bodies and provide us with energy to feed our muscles and our brain. He got it, but he still wasn’t satisfied with the lunches I was providing him. So, I thought I would try a different route. The goal was to get him to not only eat something nutritional so I felt better, but also eat something he enjoyed so he would benefit from eating at all. I decided to take him shopping.

Oliver snacking on a sugar cookie at his VIP party.

Our first stop was to Whole Foods Market. I had been on this kick of offering him a pre-made natural peanut butter and jelly sandwich with whole grains (Sammies) and organic fruit smashers (real fruit, mostly like an applesauce, smashed into a pouch like a Capri-sun ™). We were arguing about something one day, and he slammed his hands down and said, “And, I want a REAL peanut butter and jelly sandwich and a REAL piece of fruit in my lunch from now on.” I’m laughing even as I write this. He is seriously 5 years old. I totally deserved it. So from then on out, he got what he asked for. I just compromised by giving him natural peanut butter (sometimes cashew butter) with real fruit, no sugar added organic jelly on whole wheat bread. At Whole Foods, I let him show me the things he wanted in his lunch, I checked the labels, if it had ingredients less than 2 words long, he could keep it. Whole Foods Market and Trader Joe’s are great places to take your kids shopping. They offer a variety of nutritional and traditional snacks made with an organic or raw sugar twist, and very few processed foods. Even when we can’t make it to those fabulous stores and have to hit up a traditional grocery store, I check labels. If I can’t find organic, OK, but again, the ingredients have to be less than 2 words long, and “corn syrup” or “refined” are not allowed. Oliver picks out his own fruits and other snacks for his lunch, with my guidance. When he picks out something I am not a fan of, we compromise on something similar. This has now become routine for them, and they ask a ton of questions around the who, what, and whys of food and nutrition, which is great for me because it keeps me on my toes. As long as I have a valid answer for them, they are ok with it. They are also ok with knowing they can eat certain foods at our house, and they get to indulge at their grandma’s (and trust me, they do).

We have been trying this out for the last two weeks, and so far, success! Oliver comes home with an empty lunchbox everyday. And I honestly believe that he is eating the food and not throwing it out before I see it. I don’t think he has caught on to that scam yet. He is excited about his lunches, and I ask him every night what he wants versus me putting in what I think is good for him.

Lesson learned is that kids are smart. If you empower them with education and the illusion of choice, it makes you feel better as a parent and they feel like they are gaining their independence. Do not underestimate your children. I swear sometimes I think they are smarter than me