With school now back in full swing, you might have considered on more than one occasion what to put in your child’s lunchbox, or really whether to make a lunch at all and instead opt for hot lunch. While a hot lunch is certainly easier, sending your child to school with a lunch at least a couple of times per week gives you an excellent opportunity to help shape his or her eating habits. (By the way, that goes for you, too. Bring your own lunch to work instead of eating out and you’re likely to have a much more balanced, lower-calorie, less-expensive meal.) Of course, it’s a delicate balance. The decision between what you would like your child to eat versus what you think he or she will actually put down influences your choices. Should you put in the carrots you know Johnny will reject just so he’s exposed to the vegetables? How about his favorite chocolate chip cookies simply because you know how happy it will make him? Without you there looking over your kids’ shoulders and supervising intake, the school-time lunch really is their opportunity to exert some control over food choices. (They can choose to trash, barter, or eat your carefully planned meal). And now might just be your chance to further solidify your efforts to raise healthy eaters, free of food battles and junk food binges.
Some Basic Tips
Aim for balance.
Try to include something from each of the major food groups (a whole grain; a protein-containing food like meat, beans, or legumes; a fruit; a vegetable; and a dairy product or other calcium-containing food) in your child’s lunchbox every day. Even if he or she chooses not to eat it all, your child will start to pick up on what a balanced meal includes. Consider allowing one portion-controlled sugary or “junk food” item to be included, depending on your feeding philosophies and child’s preferences.
Increase exposure to healthy foods.
A prepared lunch gives you a perfect opportunity to continue to expose your child to a variety of healthy foods. As stated by Cook in a 2007 review article advocating that children be repeatedly exposed to a variety of healthy foods, "children like what they know and they eat what they like." One of the best ways that parents can help their children to develop healthy eating habits is to repeatedly expose them to a wide variety of foods. While children may not accept the novel food on the first try, with repeated attemps and familiarity with the food, they will become more likely to develop a preference for it. Use lunchtime as an opportunity to expose your children to a small amount of a previously rejected food. Even if they choose not to eat, mere exposure may help to increase the chances they'll appreciate it in the future. It usually takes up to 15 tries for a child to accept a previously rejected food.
Teach portion control.
A 2003 study of pre-school age children conducted by Orlet Fisher et al. found that when portion size was doubled, the children ate 25% to 29% more than the age-appropriate portions of the foods, even though they consumed only two-thirds of smaller portions of the meal. Preparing a lunch gives you a perfect opportunity to pay attention to portion control. Use baggies, attempt to measure out what a standard portion of the food actually is, and try to pick up some inherently portion-controlled items for the lunchbox like applesauce and string cheese.
Involve your child.
The best way to ensure that your children will actually eat the food that you put in their lunchbox is to give them some control of what goes in there. Even the pickiest eaters enjoy some healthy foods. Be sure to include at least one healthy item that your child loves in his lunchbox every day. And next time you head out to the grocery store ask for your kids’ input into what healthy food they’d like to have in their lunchboxes. The mere exercise of helping them to sort through their favorites (many of which are likely sugar-ridden) will help them to learn what types of foods are healthy for their bodies and which ones are less healthy. But don’t make the sugary favorites completely off limits as this will encourage going for the stuff when you’re not looking. Just remember portion control and moderation. Also when you ask your children how their days went, also consider asking about lunch. What did they eat and what did they throw out? You might be surprised by what they share.
If you have older kids, work on transitioning the job of preparing lunch to being one of their own responsibilities. Share with them the lunchbox requirement of balance (see above) and let them decide what goes in. Before transitioning the responsibility you could give them a quick lesson on the things that you consider when making a lunch – such as going for high-fiber whole grain rather than the highly processed white version, leaner meats, fruits and vegetables of different colors, etc. Initially you might inspect to make sure lunch doesn’t just include several Twinkies and a soda, but eventually you might want to slowly transition to trusting their choices and periodically giving a surprise inspection. Remember, for the most part, kids will only have available to them items that they can find in the house. This offers you a good opportunity to double check on the whole whether you are maximizing access to healthy foods versus the more highly processed and less healthy versions.
Make eating healthy fun
Kids, especially pre-school and elementary-aged children, love foods that are packaged in a fun way. Perhaps your child will be more likely to eat the baby carrots if you package them in a funnily decorated baggy. Or maybe your child will totally reject celery and raisins if offered separately, but when presented as “ants on a log” (celery with peanut butter and raisins) he or she might eat up the food. Just be careful to avoid marketing tricks in which junk foods are packaged with your child’s favorite characters (like Sponge Bob fruit snacks). This just helps your child to love the sugary stuff even more. These foods are acceptable, but might be better offered in their own boring, clear plastic baggy.
Some Sample Lunches
Out of lunch ideas? Check out our kid-friendly healthy recipes. In addition, here are a couple of easy-to-make lunch ideas that follow the suggestions above and could help your children to expand their food preferences:
Peanut butter and banana with natural peanut butter, sliced banana, and whole grain bread cut into fun-sized heart shapes to show your child a little extra love. Include a few baby carrots and a(n) (optional) package of fruit snacks. Throw in 50 cents to buy milk.
Turkey sandwich with hummus and tomato on whole-grain bread. Add a string cheese, some crackers, an apple, and a couple of fig bars. Include a child-sized water bottle with a squirt of lemon.
Try last night’s leftovers. Don’t forget to include a plastic fork/spoon/knife (if needed). Add a few cherry tomatoes, a hard-boiled egg, and some applesauce. Consider a low-sugar pudding cup.
How about a little adventure with a couple of California rolls and edamame nuts along with red grapes, a cup of Jell-O , and some milk money?
These are just a few ideas to help you get started. But don’t feel limited – consider the tips above as well as other food priorities that are important to you and be creative and you and your child might just uncover a few fun new creations that get you even closer to your goal to raise healthy eaters.
Natalie Digate MuthContributor
Natalie Digate Muth, MD, MPH, RD, FAAP is the Senior Advisor for Healthcare Solutions for the American Council on Exercise, a board-certified pediatrician and Fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics, a Diplomat of the American Board of Obesity Medicine, registered dietitian and board-certified specialist in sports dietetics, and ACE Certified Health Coach. She is the author of "Eat Your Vegetables and Other Mistakes Parents Make: Redefining How to Raise Healthy Eaters" and the textbook "Sports Nutrition for Health Professionals." She has been ACE certified since 1998.
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