In Defense of Cute: Why Lunch Should Be Fun for Kids
There is a strong segment of the breeding population that believes children should always be given the same food as adults. They say putting food designed or altered specifically for small people in a kid’s lunchbox—think sandwiches cut into cars, rice balls with panda faces made from nori, heart-shaped cucumber slices, or selections from the now-extensive catalog of “healthy” prepackaged snacks, no matter how nutritious—is a travesty. They say food should be respected in its real form with its real name.
As long as it’s made from actual food, I love kid food. And I love it specifically because I think it can help less adventuresome kids learn to love food better than we can teach them ourselves.
Put yourself in a picky kid’s shoes. For most children, every meal at home involves some degree of nutritional browbeating. “Please eat two more bites of your chicken.” “You need to try a bite of that broccoli before you leave the table.” “Scrape the sauce off and eat it, then.” We dangle dessert. We brandish bedtimes. Dinner often becomes a battleground we force our kids to enter with raised hackles, even if they like the “grow food” we’ve presented. Every night, we jam nutritional mantras down little throats in an effort to raise flexible, health-conscious eaters, but in doing so, we strip eating of the fun and enjoyment it offers so naturally. Once they reach grade school, lunch becomes the only meal kids can eat without parental pecking.
Because we do have rules at our dinner table about what has to be tasted, I make an effort to make lunch feel like a parent-free zone for our six-year-old son. I try to make it fun. Graham is a decent eater, but more by volume than variety. He’ll eat most of what one might define as “kid food,” but beyond outliers like sushi and sardines, he’s . . . well, he’s pretty picky. Like both his mom and dad (and generations before) once were.
Shoving something creative or silly or, yes, sometimes cute food inside his lunch box is a way I can both show him a more enjoyable side to eating and introduce him to new foods without making him feel like he’s under such a stern watch. I’ll make a rainbow using chopped fruits and vegetables he might not always like, or cut a cold quesadilla (with! chicken! inside!) into thin strips like light sabers, or carve a “G” into the skin of a clementine so he might be inspired to peel it himself without whining. I put lots of food on sticks. Sometimes he eats my creations, and sometimes he doesn’t. (The rice ball panda went over like a bag of rocks.) But either way, he’s making his own choices and often trying new things without my influence.
To be clear, I’m not creating an edible tableau (like the ones you see here) each day. I’m adding a small daily surprise that I hope will make him smile (and eat). But as other parents in our community do the same thing, I’ve noticed that kids’ gustatory flexibility becomes catching; cute lunches also give kids the opportunity to bring their own food ideas home. When Graham hopped in the car recently hollering about Luca’s green lollipop leaves, which he looooved so much, I texted Luca’s parents immediately. Was their child sharing some new-fangled fruit snack with mine? Was there scary green dye involved? Or were they putting salad on sticks? I resolved to embrace his joy for a new food, no matter what it turned out to be.
Luca’s parents had no idea what I was talking about. For weeks, we laughed; Graham asked repeatedly for the hallowed green lollipop leaves, but the adults couldn’t figure out what they were. We even asked the teachers, to no avail. Finally, it dawned on someone: Luca was sharing his plain baby spinach leaves with Graham, which they likened to lollipops. Together, a food neither of them could actually name became a delicious game. Both boys treasured them, and to this day, Graham will only eat spinach when Luca is around.
Personally, I think that’s fine. Our son will eventually learn that “green lollipop leaves” is not a real food’s name. But for now, teaching him to connect spinach with pleasure and happiness and even friendship at an early age is just as important as helping him identify it as something that makes him grow.