My friend, Cindy, has two precious young boys who adore her, but don’t always love the healthy lunches she packs for school. Feeling frustrated by their ever-changing attitudes, she reached out for a little help with “packing a week of healthy lunches the kids will actually eat.”
At first, it sounded like she was asking for a list of foods, and maybe some recipes, but after a few emails back and forth, it became clear that Cindy’s lunchbox challenge was not about the food at all. It was about something much bigger.
The conversation turned to psychology. We talked about how, just like adults, kids can have complicated relationships with food. Their beliefs, preferences, and actions are colored by every experience they have ever had with food….from nursing, to first foods, to yesterday’s snack. It’s essential to keep this in mind, as we teach our kids about nutrition. What we send for lunch, is not as important as how our kids feel about the experience before, during and after their lunch break.
So, keeping this in mind, here are some ways that we can help our kids embrace their healthy lunchbox:
1. Set boundaries, for yourself and for your kids. Talk about them often, and stand your ground. As much as they may protest, kick and scream, the one thing kids want most from their parents is boundaries. They need to know that you are in charge. Because, how scary would it be, to be a kid and be in charge? Unlike your kids, you have the experience, knowledge, and tools necessary for leading your family in healthy habits. So, be the leader your kids want you to be…explain what is acceptable and what is not, and enforce the rules with compassion, love and grace.
2. Let it be their idea. Clean out your cabinets of foods you don’t want your kids to eat, and take them shopping for better choices. Stick to the produce and health food aisles, and ask them to pick what they would like for snack, lunch, etc. Fill the cart with brightly colored fruits and veggies first. Ask which whole foods they like best. Which new foods would they like to try? Teach kids how to read labels. And give them opportunities to demonstrate what they have learned, by asking questions about what they chose and why. Encourage them to be leaders at the lunch table, by talking about what your family values about food. Most of all, have fun, be inquisitive, and enjoy the journey.
3. Let kids plan the meals. Would your kids be more likely to eat meals that they chose themselves? Ask them to help you make a lunchbox plan for the week. Remind them of the boundaries (75% fruits and vegetables, more color than white foods, or whatever your rules might be), and see what they come up with. It’s okay if their plan isn’t exactly what you hoped for the first week…pack it anyway. This is a process, and it takes time! The following week, challenge them to increase the nutrient density of their meal plan by adding more fresh foods, colorful foods, etc. Do it again the following week, and every week after, until you are both satisfied. It won’t be long before you both feel better.
4. Get creative in the kitchen. There are a lot of simple, yummy, healthy foods your kids can create on their own. Set out bags of nuts, dried fruit, and seeds, and ask if they’d like to make a trail mix for tomorrow’s lunch. Set out bowls of chopped fruit, and invite them to make a fruit salad to pack. Or maybe they would like to make cinnamon spiced apples with you? Or healthy no-bake cookies, made from oats, cinnamon, raisins and honey? The options for simple recipes are endless, and preparing food together is a great way to connect with kids.
5. Practice non-attachment. Does it bother you when your kids don’t eat their lunch? Do you get rattled when they say they like humus one day, but not the next? From our perspective, as parents, these are really frustrating experiences, especially when we are trying our best to instill good habits (and we don’t want food to go to waste). However, from a kid’s perspective, this is just part of the learning process. They are figuring things out, and it takes time. This is why it’s important to take a deep breath and try something different, when things don’t go as expected. And remember, it’s not just about the food with kids, it’s also about your relationship with them. The less attached you are to outcome, the less of a power struggle it will be, and the more the conversation can be about the right thing to do, instead of what Mom wants him or her to do.
So…if like Cindy, packing healthy lunches feels like one big struggle, loosen the reigns a little. Remember that teaching kids good habits is not a linear process. It’s complicated, but with a little intention, and a lot of love, we can inspire our kids to become the healthy eaters we always hoped they would be.