I'm going to suggest something radical: Don't worry about packing a healthy school lunch.
I'm not suggesting you send your kids off to school with Devil Dogs and Twinkies. But sending children to school with a healthy lunch often (unintentionally) teaches kids the wrong habits.
Healthy lunches teach kids to "Seek and Destroy."
Of course the goal of sending in a healthy lunch is to fill kids up with healthy nutrients. But let's be honest: What would happen if you sent your children off to school with a lunch like this? Would they really eat it?
Unless you have extraordinary eaters, your children would probably devour the banana bread, attack the cheese and crackers, nibble a few blueberries and ... if you're lucky...you might get a bite or two of broccoli out of them.
The Internet is bursting with healthy lunch ideas—This one came from Parents.com—and most of them look delicious to me. The question is: Do they look delicious to your kids? It's worth finding out.
Regularly send food to school that your children won't eat and they'll begin lunch by automatically looking for the items they're going to discard. In other words, they learn to "seek and destroy." (That's a habit to skip!)
Avoid teaching your kids the "Seek and Destroy" mentality by packing foods you know your children will eat.
The best way to do this is to make sure your kids agree on everything that goes into their lunchboxes.
It's scary, I know. You probably think that if your kids have any say, their lunches will consist of PB&J, chips, and cookies. Every Day! It doesn't have to be so.
Giving up on healthy lunches doesn't mean you have to throw in the towel...er..the chips.
You can use school lunch to teach your children healthy eating habits, you just have to be strategic.
1) Make sure that every lunch includes at least one extremely small serving of fruit and one extremely small serving of vegetable.
- You'll get better buy-in for fruits and vegetables (and your kids won't "seek and destroy") if the "challenge" seems "doable," so make the serving size small. Don't send 1/2 cup of broccoli if your children will eat 3 bites.
- Make fruits and vegetables a daily practice. The more you expose your kids to fruits and vegetables, the more familiar these foods will be and the more willingly your kids will eat them. (It's circular logic, but it's true.)
2) Pay attention to portion size.
- Your children will be more likely to eat their fruit and vegetable if the sandwich or other lunch items are on the smaller side.
- Learning to eat right means learning about appropriate portion sizes.
3) Never pack the same lunch two days in a row.
- Variety makes nutritional sense.
- Variety sets a foundation for new food acceptance. Kids who get used to the idea that they eat different foods on different days become more open to trying new foods. Even if your children only like 2 different lunches, make a point to alternate between them. Eventually you'll be able to add in other stuff. Read House Building 101.
4) Be sure to make lunch different than other meals served during the day.
- Consciously varying what your children eat will keep them out of food ruts. If your children have peanut butter on their morning toast, forget about serving PB&J for lunch and if your children are eating pizza for lunch, skip it at dinner.
- Varying foods across the day will increase your children's palates by exposing them to different tastes and textures. If your children eat sweetened cereal in the morning (even if they're eating oatmeal) limit the sweet flavors at lunch (even if they're eating yogurt). Read The Variety Masquerade.
5) Skip the chips—or chip substitutes such as Goldfish Crackers, pretzels or veggie chips—on a daily basis...
...unless you want your children to develop a daily lifetime chip habit.
6) Limit lunch items to 3 or 4 items.
- Give your children too many choices and you can forget about the vegetables. Most children will eat their preferred foods when given the choice.
- Contrary to parental expectations, reluctant eaters won't eat more food if they're given more choices. Reluctant eaters typically consume more food when given less of it. Read When Less is More.
- On the other hand, researchers show that overeaters eat more food when they are given more choices.
It's important to shape how your children eat before you worry about what they eat.
Children with good habits automatically eat nutritiously whereas kids with poor habits still eat dreadfully—even when they are surrounded by healthy food. Teach your kids how to eat, and it won't be long before they know what to eat.
~Changing the conversation from nutrition to habits.~