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Food neophobia (fear of new or unfamiliar foods) is common in younger kids and it's been suggested it may actually be a protective evolutionary mechanism to make us more wary of eating potentially poisonous foods - which is possibly why it tends to begin around the stage when little ones start becoming more mobile, independent and are out exploring the world a little more.
Kids’ food preferences and appetites can vary widely, so don’t stop offering a food purely because it’s refused once: they may actually accept a rejected food on another occasion, just as they may also sometimes refuse a food they normally eat. It can also take a few attempts for new foods to be accepted (research suggests the average is around 10-15 exposures), so don’t give up! Learning to eat new foods is a skill that takes a little time and repetition to develop, so just be prepared to offer a food several times before your little one learns to love it. Continuing to offer a wide variety and frequent exposures to new foods will increase the likelihood of them eventually being accepted. If you’re concerned about the food waste while your little one is building up their exposures to new foods, try just offering small amounts in the beginning.
You could try introducing new foods at home first so your little one becomes more familiar with the food in a more comfortable environment before you include the food in their lunchbox, or only include one new food at a time. Offering new foods alongside more familiar and preferred foods means they’ll become more comfortable with the new food and more likely to try it. Experimenting with serving a new food in different ways may also help: you could try different ways of cooking, preparing or cutting the food, altering the texture, or using familiar herbs or spices when cooking it.
Large portions can sometimes be overwhelming for kids, which could be a reason for them bypassing a particular food altogether. Just like adults, their appetites can change so much from one day to the next: they may eat very little at some meals, and at others you might be surprised at how much they’re able to fit in! Small kids have small tummies - so they've got a limited capacity for food, but at the same time they have high nutrient requirements to support their growth and development. So it’s important to include plenty of nutrient-dense foods, rather than foods that will just fill them up but not provide much nutritional value. An easy way to add boost nutrient content is to add in extra veggies (eg. grated carrot or zucchini, or some spinach) to smoothies, porridge, bars, muffins or mini meatballs.
Make sure you portion foods so that little ones can easily grab smaller amounts and decide themselves how much to eat. If you're unsure about how much to provide you could check with older kids for feedback, or with little ones perhaps a teacher or daycare worker may be able to give some insight regarding their daytime eating habits.
Kids tend to be more in tune with their biological hunger and satiety signals, so normally eat only when they're hungry and stop once they're full (we've unfortunately often learn to override these by the time we've become adults!). Try to trust their natural appetite regulation and avoid pressuring little ones to eat if they've indicated they're not interested. Consider how much they're eating in context of the rest of the day or week: if they've eaten a lot at breakfast, this could affect appetite at lunchtime, and overall intake will usually balance out over the day or week. Developmental stage or growth periods might mean they've been eating more or less than usual, or if they're playing sport or more active on certain days this will also affect appetite. If you're still concerned however about how much your little one is eating over a longer period, then you could discuss this with your doctor or a dietitian.
Life is busy, especially when you’re a parent - so it's understandable to look for ways to streamline daily tasks to make things quicker and simpler, which might mean having lunchbox items on repeat for each day of the week. Or if you're experiencing neophobia challenges with your little one it can be tempting to include only the foods you know will get eaten. These tactics may work in the beginning, however after a while kids can get bored eating the same foods repetitively. Not to mention that a varied diet is so important to ensure they're covering all the food groups and essential nutrients that they need!
You don't need to include different foods every single day, but introducing new options regularly, or rotating through a range of alternatives over a couple of weeks can help to keep things interesting. Also, the more different foods you offer early on in life, the more likely kids are to eat a variety of foods once they’re older. If you find it difficult to come up with new ideas all the time, try changing the way you serve a food. Make it fun by using cookie cutters or a spiraliser, or give foods fun names like dinosaur trees (broccoli), x-ray vision carrots, or monster smoothie (green smoothie) – get creative!
Try involving your little one in packing, preparing or choosing some items for their lunchbox - this can help increase their interest around trying different foods, as they're more likely to eat something they've helped prepare or have chosen themselves. If appropriate, perhaps they could also help with grocery shopping or even growing some of their food if you have a garden. Letting your little one choose their lunchbox items doesn't mean they get free range to pick anything they want though: as the parent you get to decide what foods they eat by presenting them with a range of appropriate options, and letting them choose from those. This way you're ensuring they're getting nutritious food, but they still get to play an active role in deciding what and how much they eat from the choices you've provided.
If the foods you've included in your little one's lunchbox are tricky to eat, this may be another reason they're coming home uneaten. Making sure that the lunchbox (and any other packaging) is easy to access and open is a great start, as well as ensuring that the food inside is easy for your little one to eat so they don't have to wait for help from an adult.
Adapt lunch items to suit the age and developmental stage of your little one, and also consider whether there are foods that they easily eat at home, but perhaps don't work so well as a lunchbox item. For younger kids you might need to steam or cook certain fruit or vegetables to make them easier to eat. To make foods easier for small hands to grip, cut them into age-appropriate sizes. Finally, if you're including foods that require utensils (such as yoghurt), make sure you remember to include these as well! Some lunchboxes have these built in, otherwise small kids' cutlery or a teaspoon will normally fit inside most lunchboxes.
The food you’ve spent so much time preparing may look delicious and appealing when it leaves home, but you also need to make sure it arrives at its destination looking just as good. The saying goes that we “eat with our eyes”, which also applies to kids – if food doesn’t look appealing, then it’s less likely to be eaten. Think about what foods will best survive the trip and conditions, and pack appropriately. Will it survive being flipped upside down, jiggled around in a backpack or sitting in a warm place until lunchtime? Food needs to be able to withstand the journey and the wait until lunchtime so that it not only looks tasty, but is safe to eat as well. Use portioned containers or ziploc bags to make sure food arrives intact, and to ensure any liquid items stay put, or leave out any foods you don't think will survive the journey. For older kids, bread for sandwiches could be packed separately from “soggy” fillings (such as vegetables) to be assembled just before eating.
Consider what facilities are available for keeping lunches cool at your little one’s school, kindy or daycare, as well as how you’ll keep everything cool on the way there - especially during the warmer months, or if you live in a particularly warm climate. Using a chilly bag and small chilly brick can help keep food cool, or you could freeze some foods as well: freezing a small plain yoghurt or milk popper will not only keep these foods cool, but can help chill other items as well. Other foods like homemade muffins or muesli bars also freeze well and will thaw by lunchtime. Another handy tip is to half fill a water bottle and freeze overnight, then fill the remainder with water in the morning – an instant chilling element plus nice cool water!
When it comes to putting together a healthy lunchbox, aim for these core items:
If your little one is particularly active you can add an extra snack.
Try to include a variety of foods from all the food groups – eat the rainbow! 🌈
There are a few items to try and limit though, as they’re less appropriate for lunchboxes:
Foods that could be a safety risk if you're not able to keep them cool, such as meat, eggs, dairy, rice or any other risky foods if you’re not able to keep these adequately chilled during transport and until lunchtime. See above for some tips on keeping lunches cool.
Ultra-processed foods (discretionary or “sometimes” foods), as these tend to be high in saturated and trans fats, added sugars and salt, and don’t provide the nutrients that kids need for good health and for a day of learning and concentration. When time is short, you may sometimes find packaged foods handy, so if you are including these check the nutrition information panel and ingredients list for salt, fat and sugar content to help you choose healthier alternatives (you can find a good guide on label reading on the Eat For Health website).
Sugary drinks. Water should be the main thirst drink for kids, and ideally there will be somewhere where they can refill their drink bottle with water throughout the day. Try to limit fruit juices as well: although they usually contain just natural rather than added sugars, this can still impact health (and dental health) if consumed in large amounts. Kids should preferably be eating whole fruit to benefit from the fibre, which is removed during juicing.
If lunch items are still occasionally returning home at the end of the day, you could offer these again at as an afterschool snack or at a later meal - if your little one wasn't hungry or just didn't feel like a certain food at lunchtime, then they may happily eat it later on. Otherwise, if you're still concerned about how much your little one is eating and whether they're getting the nutrients they need over a longer period, you could discuss this with your doctor, paediatrician, or a dietitian or registered nutritionist specialising in children's nutrition - they'll be able to check that everything is on track or give you appropriate advice and support if there is an issue.