Beth Schatz Kaylor
 
 
    
 
The eye-pleasing aesthetics of the Planet Box encourage 8-year-old Elijah to finish his lunch. (Casey Davis Goodhouse)
 
 

 
Whether toting lunchboxes, bento boxes or eating one of the cafeteria's many meal options, today's children have more school lunch choices than ever. (Beth Schatz Kaylor)
 
 

 
Every day, Bismarck Public Schools presents 9,000 children with lunch choices that include fresh fruit, vegetables, whole grain, dairy and protein. It's up to the child to choose to eat it. (Submitted)
 
 

"Don't cry. Don't cry. Don't cry."

That's all I could think as I walked my only child to his first day of kindergarten, Batman backpack strapped on, Transformers lunch box in hand.

As he excitedly walked a few steps ahead of me, my mind flooded with memories of him as a baby and toddler: his first laugh, his first steps, the days he clung to me at preschool drop-off, tinged with an overwhelming sense of relief that we've made it to this next chapter in the education of this happy, healthy, curious little boy.

Yes, I cried.

As we arrived at the first day of kindergarten, I knew we had his academic education covered. Thanks to the comprehensive support of Bismarck Public Schools and dedicated teaching staff, we had a plan in place to give him extra help with his speech and learning development. But as a foodie with not-so-great memories of my own school lunches 20 years ago (okay, 25 years ago), my kid's taste education at school was a big question mark.

Fortunately, the school lunch scene has made big strides, for both children fueling up with hot lunches at school and the lunchbox-toting kids.

Starting my school lunch research online, I discovered the bento box phenomenon. Originating in Japan, bento boxes are replacing the traditional lunchbox in U.S. classrooms -- with plenty of mommie bloggers and Instagrammers such as @weelicious and @lilyslunches showing off their child's aesthetically pleasing, nutritionally balanced, sometimes zealously intricate noontime meals, often packed in a stainless steel Planet Box (planetbox.com).

The appeal of the modern lunch box isn't limited to pretty pictures, however. Casey Davis Goodhouse finds that the bento box-style of lunch encourages her son Elijah, age 8, to eat more healthful foods.

"Elijah loves it and eats a more well-rounded diet because it looks more appetizing to him," says Goodhouse. "He typically eats like a bird, but the first day I packed lunch in the Planet Box, he ate the entire thing!"

For Goodhouse, the structure of the lunch box compartments nudges her to pack more healthful options, as the boxes are built to hold fresh food options.

"It's easier for me to see what kind of portions I'm putting together for him when it's all laid out in a tray, rather than multiple sandwich baggies thrown in together," she explains, adding that her aim is to fill most compartments with fruits or vegetables.

From the school perspective, as a licensed registered dietitian, it's Joan Knoll's job to ensure lunch packs a big punch of nutrition for the more than 9,000 children attending Bismarck Public Schools.

"There have been a lot of changes in school lunch over the past five years, a lot more options for kids," says Knoll.

Bismarck Public School menu options are now more varied than a few years ago, with more items rotated into the school menu. Every grain item served, from bread to rice, is now at least 50 percent whole grain. Also, 2015-16 marks the first school year that every Bismarck elementary school offers a salad bar, loaded with fresh vegetables and fruits and available with every school lunch.

"Most families don't serve a full meal at home with all five food groups," says Knoll. "We don't know what's happening at breakfast or dinner, but we know we can provide a nutritious lunch."

At a modest $2 for elementary school children, school lunch is still the best deal in town for a nutritionally balanced meal. To help educate parents about school lunch, Knoll started taking lunch pictures, creating a photo gallery online (bismarckschools.org/district/lunch). Parents are also welcome to join their kids to experience school lunch themselves.

"Eating lunch at school is the best way for parents to really understand lunch," says Knoll. "Lunchtime is much more than the food -- you see the dynamics of the full lunch experience. It's social time for kids, and many don't eat their entire lunch." To join your child for lunch, Knoll advises parents to call the school secretary by 8:30 a.m. to be added to the school's lunch count for the day.

Knoll advises parents to encourage children to select options from the school salad bar and to try new things. "Without exposure to fresh fruits and vegetables, children won't develop a taste for them," she says.

When it comes to food and feeding our children, there are many loud voices in the crowd with strong opinions on what is best and how things should be done. However, today's schools offer more nutritious meal options than ever before, giving all children access to at least one balanced meal each day, regardless of income level. Often it's the children themselves who choose not to eat their vegetables or finish their kiwi, but with a little encouragement, that could change.

With continually increasing numbers of applications from low-income families for free and reduced price lunches right here in our community, I hope to teach my kindergartener that regardless of what is on his lunch tray, a spoonful of gratitude with every meal helps nourish body and soul.



 
Beth Schatz Kaylor is a communications professional and freelance writer. She blogs about her North Dakota kitchen at rhubarbandvenison.com.