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Are your kids really eating their school lunch?

We’ve all seen the cute bento box articles and the healthy lunchbox ideas, but how much of Mom’s hard work is really eaten? Even if your child’s lunchbox comes home empty, do you really know if they ate what you packed?

We spoke to our undercover elementary school employee about what kids are doing with their lunches.

Packing school lunches each morning might possibly be the chore that moms dislike most. Many children are very particular about what they eat, and finding the perfect contents for the lunchbox becomes a game of 20 questions. Every day, millions of moms pack what they consider to be an acceptable lunch, but do their kids eat it?

No. 1 offender

Surprisingly enough, the most often thrown-out or destroyed item in the elementary school cafeteria may be that lunchbox staple, the sandwich. “I don’t like my sandwich,” says a kindergarten girl who just started extended day and is now eating lunch at school. “The bread tastes weird and kind of cold.” Sandwiches that are made either the night before or even first thing that morning will not taste the same to your child as one made for lunch at home.

Lunchroom employees see students routinely throwing their sandwiches away, even when they are coaxed not to waste food. Students who have an aversion to crust will pull large sections off a sandwich and throw them away, leaving only about half the sandwich. Many kids also take out the meat and throw the bread away.

Cute lunchboxes for the school lunchroom >>

Bento uh-oh

Tips and tricks

  • Consider sending foods that are easy to eat and won’t get soggy before lunchtime.
  • Limit the number of prepackaged snack and dessert items, since your child is likely to eat these first.
  • If you need an ice pack, try to find one that has the thick plastic coating so it will still be frozen at lunchtime. Thin, small ice packs are already room temperature after a few hours.
  • Involve your child in packing his lunch at a young age.

Maybe you tapped into the latest craze and prepare your child an amazing assortment of tiny finger foods artfully crafted into zoo animals or spaceships, nestled in a bento box. Surely they will eat that, won’t they? A few of the carefully arranged items don’t look so appetizing by the time lunch rolls around. “This cheese is gross,” says a second-grade girl whose lunchbox houses an adorable new bento box. “My mom cuts it small but then it gets all gooey.” Her small cheese pieces have melded onto the small ham pieces, and look anything but appetizing at noon. The more complicated the lunch is, the less likely your child will finish the contents.

Ranch dressing or dip for carrot sticks seems like a great bento box thing, but they make a huge mess when kids open them. Yogurt removed from the original container and packed in a bento box rarely tastes right and is often not eaten. Even with ice packs included, the temperature of most lunchbox foods will vary and not be similar to how it tastes at home.

Check out these grown-up bento box ideas >>

And the winner is?

No surprise here — the lunchbox foods most often eaten are the individually packaged snacks like pretzels, fish crackers or cookies. Many elementary students eat these first, then feel too full for the sandwich and other items packed at home. Grapes and bananas were surprisingly popular fruits, possibly because they are easy to eat without getting too messy. Pre-packaged lunches from the grocery store (like Lunchables or LunchMakers) are popular and seem to generate less food waste overall, since portions are smaller and tend to not be messy.

More about kids and nutrition

Teaching kids healthy portion sizes and nutrition
Enhance children’s activity and nutrition
How eating organic improves your child’s health

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