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How to get kids to eat a healthy lunch? Give them some control.

Back-to-school lunches that get the kids involved, including a dip, a salad and a squeezable sauce. (Tom McCorkle for The Washington Post/Food styling by Gina Nistico for The Washington Post)

Marketing food to kids is usually seen in a negative light, a way to get them to pester their parents for what is usually ultra-processed, nutritionally lacking food. But apply those same sales principles to wholesome, homemade meals, and they become a force for good, flipping the arrow toward healthful choices. Marketers know what motivates kids — they spend billions annually trying to figure it out — so why not borrow a few of their tactics? That’s exactly what these action-packed lunchboxes do.

One of the most effective ways to reach kids is to tap their desire for control. Putting them in the driver’s seat around food (with appropriate guidance, of course) gives them a sense of autonomy and investment, making them more likely to want and enjoy what they are eating. Gardening and cooking with kids are well known ways to foster such agency, but the possibilities don’t stop there. Every step of the meal process is an opportunity for engagement — the more hands-on the better.

These lunchbox ideas are designed to maximize that involvement, putting power into the child’s hands by making the meal itself a playful, action-oriented experience. Each is based on an activity for them to do right before or while eating, but there are a multitude of ways to involve them well before that point. Each primes the kids for when they open their lunchboxes and the real fun and deliciousness begin.

Squeeze: Here, a savory sunflower butter sauce (think peanut sauce but nut-free) is packed in a small bottle for squeezing as much (or as little) as you like onto the noodles and vegetables packed in the separate containers. The sauce is so good, you might be tempted to squeeze it directly into your mouth! An empty honey bear or small ketchup bottle works perfectly, or you can buy a small condiment container — just make sure it has a sealable lid. The sauce is easy to make, so it’s ideal for prepping with children. And they can personalize their lunch by choosing any type of noodle or vegetable they like.

Make the recipe: Vegetables and Noodles With Sunflower Butter Sauce

Roll: Roll-up sandwiches are always a win, but they somehow taste better when you get to roll them yourself in the moment, with ingredients you choose. Let your child help decide which elements to include. You’ll need some kind of wrapper — one large tortilla or two small ones, or a couple of slices of whole-grain bread flattened with a rolling pin. (Be sure to pack the wrapper in a zip-top bag so it stays pliable.) In another container, pack the filling elements — all thinly sliced or shredded for easier layering and rolling — such as slices of turkey or ham, cheese, shredded vegetables such as carrot, and cabbage and lettuce leaves with the ribs removed for easy rolling. Add a small container or packet of whatever sandwich condiment your child prefers, along with a utensil to spread it. Also include a paper plate or large square of foil where your child can layer and roll up their creation.

Dip: One of the best things about dip is that the dipper becomes the utensil, so you get to eat with your hands. This lunchbox centers on a creamy chili-lime-seasoned black bean dip, which can be made as mild or as spicy as you like. The dip itself is fun to make with kids — it’s especially eye-opening for them to see how it comes together in the food processor. You can use another type of bean, such as pinto or kidney, to make this dip, or you could substitute store-bought hummus. As for the dippers, the sky’s the limit. Let your child choose whatever array of vegetables they prefer, plus crunchy, whole-grain chips or crackers.

Make the recipe: Chili Black Bean Dip

Stack: Create a homemade Lunchables-style box with a variety of foods all cut around the same size so they are easily stackable. (You can use a small cookie-cutter or glass to cut many of the items to about the size of the cracker.) Some ingredients to include: whole-grain crackers, slices of cucumber, cheese, hard-cooked eggs, turkey, ham, roast beef, marinated tofu, green apples, strawberries and so on. Pile each into individual muffin liners in the lunchbox so they are ready to be mixed and matched at lunchtime.

Shake: This lunch is a salad layered into a clear container, so it looks like a work of art. Encourage your child to make their own colorful creation, choosing whatever vegetables and proteins inspire them. The Italian dressing here is a sure win, but that is easily exchangeable, too. When your child opens their lunchbox at school, they can pour the dressing over the salad, reseal it (tightly!) and shake, shake, shake to combine, then eat it right out of the container.

Make the recipe: Layered Salad With Italian Dressing

Along with these ideas, as you get into the rhythm of the school year, keep in mind that another effective tool marketers use to reach kids is the influence of role models. You might not feel like you can compete with the cartoon characters and professional athletes in commercials, but the example you set has a more profound impact than you may realize. With that, as you pack your child’s lunch, consider packing yourself one, too and, whenever possible, sit down and enjoy lunch together.

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