Monday, August 29, 2011

Mix-and-Match: A How-To for Perfect Picnics for Picky Eaters with Montessori Overtones

“Summertime and the living is easy…”  Isn’t that the way the classic tune goes? 

Obviously, the lyricist never tried to pack the umpteenth picnic of the season for a family of picky eaters.  Because, let me tell you, coming up with palatable, portable meals several times a week can become more of a chore than a pleasure for a discerning mom.

Trust me, I speak from experience. 

You see, our schedule has us eating outside on at least five occasions weekly, and as a budget-and-nutritious conscious mama who is trying to appease picky palettes in a casein (milk-protein) free family, grabbing a pizza or fast food to go just isn’t an option.  That means picnics – and just how many nutritious, casein-free, choosy-kid-pleasing picnic menus can one mom come up with in a week?

If you’re me lately, none.  I’m done with trying to appease the finicky appetites of my kids with pre-planned picnic menus this summer.  Instead, I am giving them both independence and choice – but only choices that fall into our new Mix-and-Match concept of picnicking.

Packing a Mix and Match Picnic

Just what is Mix and Match Picnicking?  It’s a smorgasbord of healthy foods that offer picky eaters choice while pleasing discriminating parents.

To put yours together, make a list of four categories of food that your kids will already eat or that you would like them to:

  •  proteins
  • fruits and vegetables
  • carbs
  • treats

For the sake of ease, try to stick with things that don’t take a lot or prep and can be eaten with few, if any,  utensils.

Then, look in your cupboards or fridge and pack three or more foods from the first three categories and one or two from the last into your picnic bag, cooler or basket.  (We use recycled Gerber baby food and hummus containers for many of our smaller items because they pack so easily.) 

As your packing, be sure to include at least one whole food liked by each picky eater and at least one “new” food.  (By “new” food, I mean a food that you are trying to broaden your child’s palette with.  Nutritionists and eating specialists say that truly picky eaters sometimes must be exposed to a food up to 20 times before they will tolerate it.  And, by “exposed”, they don’t mean necessarily eating or even taking a “polite bite”.  They mean, simply seeing the food or, better yet, seeing someone they like enjoy it.  So, including a food that you like, but your kids don’t, in your picnic on a fairly regular basis makes sense.)

Finally, consider repackaging favorite processed foods – such as crackers, breads and chips – into smaller containers.  (Experience has proven in my family that if you don’t want an entire bag of chips or box of graham sticks eaten, don’t bring it.  Mindlessly munch on carbs until they are gone is just too easy and, like many children, mine will often choose to fill up on salty or sweet processed foods over healthier, whole foods.) 

Oh, and don’t forget drinks.  (We usually just go with half-frozen, half-fresh water in thermoses in the cooler.  They double as ice to keep other food cool and you don’t have to worry about drinks adding extra sugar to anyone’s diet.)

And, as you do all of this, if you want your children to grow in independence and Care of self (Montessori-style), have them do much of the choosing and packing, lessening how much you do and  increasing how much they do each time a picnic is packed.  I have found that my kids are getting very good at picnic preparation and tend to be more excited to eat for having helped pack!

Serving A Mix-and-Match Picnic

Once you’ve laid your picnic blanket down, unpack your fruits and veggies first – because eager, hungry children are often more willing to eat them when other temptations remain hidden.  Likewise, take out your drinks last – because the same hungry children will just as often fill up on drinks and then refuse other sustenance as they become eager to play.  (I don’t know about you, but I find it a lot easier to catch my young ones on a buzz-by to take a sip than a bite.)

Once all your foods are laid out, encourage your children to eat at least one food from each of the prime categories.  One way we do this with our little ones is by talking about the foods as we put them out, placing foods food from each category together as we lay them out:

  •  Ooo.  Look at these colors.  Different colors mean different vitamins.  I wonder which ones you’ll choose to keep your body healthy?  Who thinks they can eat a few different colors of the rainbow?
  • Oh, and here are the proteins.  Who remembers what proteins do?  That’s right, they build muscles.  Who can a muscle? Wow!  You’re strong.  I wonder which of these you’ll choose to get even stronger.
  • Wow! You sure have used a lot of energy today?  What are you going to eat to give your body more? 
With older children, just asking them to choose three or more different colored foods, or at least one food from each category can do the trick.

Our Mix-and-Match Lists

Our grab-and-go picnic list will be different from others’, because, as I mentioned before, we are a casein-free family.  Also, I prefer whole foods or leftover cooked foods to other choices, and our kids tend to prefer finger foods that they can dip, spread something on or build mini-bite towers with than more traditional mealtime fare. Plus, we choose meats with no nitrates or additives, fruits and vegetables that are organic (unless they are part of the Clean Fifteen) and organic breads and chips, or at least ones with no additives, preservatives nor high fructose corn syrup. 

With all those limitations, plus those of my children’s palettes and my husband and my preferred “new” foods, our current Mix-and-Match picnic choices are:

  • Proteins:  boiled eggs, hummus, bean dip, tuna, cashews, pistachios, almond butter, peanut butter, garbanzo beans, sliced no nitrate hot dogs or diced leftover meats
  • Fruits and Veggies: sliced pears, sliced apples, diced plums, grapes, strawberries, cubed watermelon, raspberries, blackberries, blueberries, soy beans, guacamole, diced kiwi, bananas, snap peas, leftover cooked vegetables (diced), grape tomatoes, sliced red peppers, baby spinach
  • Carbohydrates/Treats: corn chips, bread, wraps, leftover pasta, muffins, whole wheat crackers, taco shells, no-salt pretzels, graham sticks, homemade cookies or cakes

Montessori Overtones

Though not classic Montessori, Mix-and-Match Picnics are Montessori-inspired in that:

  • Practical Life is involved in the sense of Care of Self, Transferring Skills, Opening and Closing Lids, etc.
  • Mathematical Skills are included with Sorting and Categorizing, which are inherently involved in the packing and the eating.
  • Grace and Courtesy reinforcement occurs in the social experience of picnicking together. 

Indeed, picnicking becomes just another way to intertwine Montessori into everyday experiences.

 How do you let your child's growing independence manifest itself while still guiding them to make better eating choices?  Do you do any mix-and-match meals?  What are your picnic parameters?  How do you help your children gain independence as they satiate their hunger, appease their limited appetites and care of their bodies?  Do share in a comment.

Montessori Monday

This post is being shared as part of  We Are THAT family's Works for Me Wednesday and at One Hooke Wonder and Living Montessori Now's Montessori Monday.


Kylie said...

Love this something I do regularly too.

With the 'treats' I don't put them out at the same time. I allow a good few minutes of eating to give everyone an opportunity to make healty choices first.

Great post :-)

Olivia said...

Great post! I love learning what other moms are feeding their kiddos!

Deb Chitwood said...

Lots of great ideas, Martianne! I love that you give your kids some choice while encouraging healthy habits at the same time. Thanks for linking up with Montessori Monday! I featured your post at the Living Montessori Now Facebook page at

Ewa said...

Hi, I jumped here from One Hook Wonder and wanted to say hi ;-)
I'm glad that I found your blog which is full of great educational ideas ;-)
I love the way you instill in you children a healthy eating habits while at the same time leaving them some choice.

Your new follower from

Have a beautiful day

Martianne said...

Thx for the comments, ladies. Kylie, right on with waiting on the treats. Olivia and Ewa, I will be visiting and deb, I always love reading your site! :)


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