After teaching Kindergarten PE classes at my boys’ school, I would often walk past the Kinder lunch tables on my way out. I’ll never forget that first day, peeking over the shoulders of each child to see the contents of their lunchbox. With it being my first year as a parent with school-age children, I wanted to see where I measured up with what the other parents were packing.
As a health and fitness blogger and someone who “walks the walk”, I know that my expectation of what constitutes a healthy diet is above average. But even still, seeing these children’s lunches made me feel like some kind of health-nut alien from an alternate universe. I stood horrified as I took in all the sugary, processed, and “food-like” products in front of them: dessert puddings void of any real nutrients, granola bars jam-packed with refined sugars, “fruit” gummies chalk-full of chemical colorings (but no real fruit), and juice boxes made with more High Fructose Corn Syrup than a bottle of soda. And despite the school district’s supposed “no-candy” rule, there were even a few chocolate bars!
As a small boy tapped me on the arm, I snapped out of my horrified deer-in-the-headlights state to find the proverbial icing on the cake -- he was asking me to open his Pixy Stix! I mean, an honest-to-goodness paper straw full of nothing but straight-up chemically-flavored sugar! I thought for sure I was about to get PUNK’D but sadly, Ashton did not appear, and what I discovered week after week was that this was just another day at the school yard lunch tables.
How can a health-conscious parent compete with sugar-filled dessert lunches? How do we send our kids with healthy and nutritious food that will help them grow, think, develop and thrive when their peers are scarfing down candy in between classes?
Well, I have good news and bad news. The good news is: yes, it is possible! Our family is proof of that. Better yet, the payoff of healthy kids goes far beyond a normal body weight, regulated blood sugar, better mood, and fewer emotional outbursts (although those are great benefits!).
The bad news is: getting your kids to adopt healthier eating habits takes more than just changing your shopping list. It’s a process that takes time and is most successful when adopted by the whole family.
But if you’re willing to put in the effort, your child can experience a stronger immune system, laser-like focus, healthy bones, and a proper understanding of nutrition that will serve them long after you stop making their school lunches. Our family made the transition from junk food to whole food -- and so can you -- starting with these tips!
Here are the 7 steps:
1. Educate Yourself
You won’t become a health-expert overnight but if you start making one small change at a time, you’ll find that come next school year, the eating habits of your family will have drastically changed.
You might start with:
- Reading product labels and researching the ingredients
- Shopping the perimeter of the grocery store (deli, produce, dairy, meat, etc) instead of the center aisles where most processed food is sold
2. Educate Your Child
When teaching your kids about health, get creative and think like a child. Don’t just say “eat this, it’s good for you”. Instead, tell your active little boy or girl “You’ll want to try this! Spiderman is a HUGE fan of this because it makes your muscles grow.”
Or next time they’re eating an orange, tell them, “oranges are really good for us! They have a lot of Vitamin C and that helps us fight the bad germs that try and make us sick!”
Don’t underestimate your ability as a parent to shape and mold your impressionable child.
3. Plan Ahead
In our fast-paced lives, it can be difficult to throw together a healthy lunch when you’re first adopting better habits. Making a weekly plan will put you one step ahead of the game and prevent those stressed-out weeknights where you just want to order pizza and throw a Lunchable into your kids school bag.
Tips on planning for success:
- Plan a week’s worth of meals and bring a list to the store.
- Wash and cut your veggies as soon as you get home. Keep them stored in baggies or containers in the fridge so they’re always ready to eat.
- Search Pinterest or the internet to get ideas for “healthy lunches”.
- Buy reusable divided containers (like Ziploc’s Divided Rectangle) and pack a few day’s worth of lunches so they’re ready to grab from the fridge in the midst of the morning chaos.
4. Make it Fun!
Let’s get one thing straight - I am NOT the mother who sends a happy-face-shaped watermelon with googly berry eyes in my kids’ lunch!
As much as I envy those domesticated women who can make a cucumber look like SpongeBob SquarePants, that is not me! But I do try to make lunches fun by using a few of the following simple tricks:
Foods with dips
- veggies + Greek yogurt dressing
- whole wheat pita + hummus
- fresh fruit + yogurt
- apple slices + almond butter
- stackables: whole grain crackers + cheese slices + nitrite-free deli meat
- lettuce leaves + tuna salad
- veggie taco: mini tortilla + lettuce + tomato + shredded cheese
Thinking outside of PB&J
- rice cake + natural peanut butter + raisins
- Greek yogurt + low-sugar granola
- rolled up whole wheat tortilla with cream cheese + nitrite-free deli meat
- raw nuts trail mix + raisins + popcorn
5. Involve Your Kids
More than just educating them on the benefits of certain foods, involve them in the food preparation process too! This gets easier as they get older (ie. toddlers shouldn't be chopping veggies with a sharp knife) but instilling those habits of taking time to prepare healthy snacks that are easy to grab and take on-the-go will set them up well for the future when they're making all of these decisions on their own.
Whether they just help you stir, portion out things into baggies or tupperware, etc it's a great way to expose them to this lifestyle PLUS it's quality time together.
6. Keep it Real
With our Monday to Thursday lunches being health-tastic, Friday became “Special Lunch Day”.
One day a week where the boys could pick an out-of-the-ordinary lunch. Having a weekly treat helps keep all of us from feeling deprived and makes our regular healthy lunches even more enjoyable!
7. Be Patient & Cut Yourself Some Slack
Finally, remember that good things take time. We are human! The positive outcomes of improving your family’s eating habits will serve you well into the future so don’t expect them to happen overnight or feel guilty that they don't.
Make one small change at a time and when that becomes comfortable, move on to the next thing.
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The one thing that comes to my mind is child diabetes. I mean think about it, kids aren't getting this disease eating nutritious foods each day. Diabetes comes from eating foods that have too much sugar and chemicals, and essentially the kids aren't getting enough exercise. I believe it starts at home. Parents need to encourage their kids to limit sweets and eat more foods like Greek yogurt, fruits and vegetables. They need to be the example they set for their children and it sounds like you're setting a great one sending your child with a healthy lunch. The other parents have to follow your lead.
When I was a child, I ate very well. I can't ever remember eating very many sweets and I never remember refusing to eat vegetables or being the least bit picky. All of my older children are open to trying anything, maybe because I introduced to them to healthy foods when they were first learning to eat and we've never had many complaints. However, my youngest son is low on the autism spectrum and he also has what his doctor calls "Selective Eating Disorder". This child has me at my wits end because he doesn't want to eat anything but carbs. Crackers, bagels, muffins, breads, and rolls, very limited cheeses and no meat whatsoever. He eats plenty of fruits but no vegetables and won't eat any pasta or rice.
I make sure to pack as nutritious of a lunch for him as possible and I always try to include something he's a little on the fence about eating (like pears, he loves the taste but not so crazy about the texture but sometimes he can tolerate it). I worry about how he'll eat as he grows older and I'm praying he'll eventually begin to tolerate more foods. It really scares me when I see some of the garbage his peers are eating. People sometimes comment that if he was their child he would eat what was placed in front of him or go hungry. I only wish it were that simple...