Health, Food & Nutrition

PB & J Again?

Ideas for diversifying your children’s lunches, even if all they want is PB&J.

Fill your ADHD child's lunchbox with healthy food he actually likes and will eat
Fill your ADHD child's lunchbox with healthy food he actually likes and will eat

Eleven-year-old Stephen takes long-acting meds for his ADHD and still eats anything and everything put in front of him. His 9-year-old brother, Nick, is a different story. He responded to the same type of medication by losing his appetite altogether around lunchtime.

What’s more, Nick’s medication worsened the selective eating that his mother, Lisa, had been coping with for years. Eventually, however, his pediatrician switched Nick to a different time-released medication and he became more interested in eating lunch at home and at school.

Even so, he’s insisted on bringing the same lunch to school every day for months. Does this sound like your child? If so, Lisa says: Don’t worry about it. Eventually he’ll get bored and his preferences will change. For now, she suggests that you let your child have whatever he likes and be glad he’s eating. The key is to balance the meal with different “go-withs” that you know he likes. If he insists on peanut butter and jelly on white bread every day, so be it. Send along some baby carrots and a mozzarella stick one day, apple slices and a thermos of chocolate milk the next, flavored yogurt and pineapple chunks the day after that.

[Free Guide: What to Eat (And Avoid) for Improved ADHD Symptoms]

Variations on a Theme

Another way to diversify your child’s mid-day meal is to present his favorite foods in combination with other foods. Start with the key ingredient that you know he likes, and change the presentation. Here’s an example: You know that he likes peanut butter sandwiches. Introduce new foods (say, apples and bananas) at home first and, as your child begins to accept them, add them to his repertoire of lunch options. The next day, try spreading a little peanut butter on a slice of apple or banana and packing it in his lunch box.

Here are some simple ideas for serving typical lunchbox fare in slightly different ways. If you can get your child to try variations on a familiar food, you’ll open his mind to trying new and healthier foods in the future.

Instead of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich…

  • PB&J on cocoa-flavored rice cakes (sandwiched together)
  • PB&J on a cinnamon-raisin bagel
  • PB&J and sliced apple sandwich
  • Peanut butter served as a dip for baby carrots, apple slices, or other fruits and vegetables

Instead of a ham or turkey sandwich…

  • Ham or turkey (thinly sliced) wrapped around a breadstick or pretzel stick
  • Ham or turkey (thinly sliced)wrapped around cantaloupe slices
  • Ham or turkey cubes in a pasta salad
  • Ham or turkey cubes in potato salad

[9 Nutrition Tricks for Picky Eaters]

Instead of a cheese sandwich…

  • Cheese cubes in a pasta salad
  • Cheese and sun-dried tomatoes served on plain bread
  • Cheese spread on rice cakes or popcorn cakes
  • String-cheese sticks with pita chips

Instead of chicken nuggets…

  • Chicken nuggets stuffed into mini pita pockets
  • Chicken nuggets cut up into pasta or potato salad
  • Chicken nugget and cheese spread sandwiches
  • Chicken nuggets in a “taco salad” with baked tortilla chips, salsa, and cheese cubes

Fill in the Gaps

For a full year, without her knowing, Nick threw away the cheese sandwiches his mother packed for lunch. When Lisa found out, she learned an important lesson: Let your child’s teachers know if you’re concerned about his appetite. They can keep an eye on him during lunch period and tell you whether he’s eating.

“Develop relationships with your child’s teachers. They can watch for erratic behavior and tell you if he’s throwing away or giving away his food,” Lisa advises. Then, it’s up to you to devise a way to deal with it at home.

[11 Meals to Fuel the ADHD Brain]

Lisa asks her sons to bring home any leftover lunch food, assuring them they won’t get in trouble for not eating it. When she looks in their lunch bags at the end of the day, she not only knows how much food they’ve had to eat, she’s able to see what was missing from their diet that day and to plan dinner to make up for any nutritional deficits.

Appoint Him Sous Chef

You can also help ensure that your child eats all or most of his lunch at school by involving him in making it and packing it. Let him pick out and prepare his containers, napkins, and utensils, as well as the food itself. If he accepts and enjoys the responsibility, he may surprise you and become more open-minded about new foods and more creative about planning his meals, all in his own time.

Keep Mealtimes Flexible

In spite of your best efforts, you may hit a wall when it comes to getting your child to eat lunch while he’s taking long-acting medication. Unless you want to switch to short-term meds that wear off around noon, the best thing to do is to make sure he eats a hearty breakfast and to have some of his favorite foods readily available when he gets out of school or later in the evening — whenever he starts to feel hungry again. Some parents give their children two breakfasts, one when they first wake up and another to eat on the way to school, just before the medication kicks in for the day. Others view after-school snack time as a late lunch period, and feed their kids sandwiches, fruit, and other lunch foods at that point.