It’s getting kids to eat what parents serve that causes so many problems.

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DINA ROSE, PhD is a sociologist, parent educator and feeding expert empowering parents to raise kids who eat right.

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Entries in School Food (12)


One Way to Improve School Lunches

Talk to your children about variety!

  • I'm not talking about sending broccoli today because you sent peas in yesterday and then asking your kids to eat the broccoli. That's secret variety.
  • I'm also not talking about telling your kids that they can't have chicken nuggets today because you know they ate nuggest yesterday. That's also secret variety.

State variety as a family-eating rule or guideline: "We don't eat the same food two days in a row."

I call this The Rotation Rule.

Your kids can't get on the variety "train" if they don't know the goal. (And hoping they'll figure it out themselves is kind of crazy.)

I know three year olds who put variety into practice on their own. But it took repeating the lesson a lot (just like it does when you're teaching manners). 

Think you can't implement variety when your children eat at school?  

If so, you're not alone. In response to my post last week, Tina wrote that her son has chosen the same sides at school— pickles, black olives and cucumbers—for three consecutive days. 

First, I want to say...

  1. Aren't you impressed that this school offers side dishes like this?
  2. Are you impressed that this young child chooses pickles, olives and cucumbers?
  3. I am!

Now, I know that Tina has variety covered at home, and, that she hasn't asked for my input. However, here are some ideas for how she could bring her child onboard with more variety at school.

How to talk to your kids about variety at school...

  • Parent: I'd like you to choose different food from day-to-day. Remember, we've talked about The Rotation Rule.
  • Child: But these are the sides that I like the most.
  • Parent: Well, we can't always eat the foods we like the most. I like chocolate cake a lot but I don't eat it every day. Are there other foods you like? 
  • Well, they do have tomatoes.
  • Why not switch between tomatoes and pickles? If you want, you can keep eating the olives and the cucumbers every day. (Note to parents: eventually you could put these foods into the rotation too.)

Here's another sample dialogue...

  • Parent: I'd like you to choose different food from day-to-day. Remember, we've talked about The Rotation Rule.
  • Child: All the other sides are disgusting.
  • Parent: Oh, that's awful. What if you have pickles and cucumbers today and then cucumbers and olives tomorrow?

You can use this strategy for coping with chocolate milk, pizza, nuggets and other "dailies" your kids are apt to choose.

The point is NOT to have an absolutely perfect rotation.

The point is to...

  1. Have variety become a habit using foods your children already happily eat. Remember, variety means different not new.
  2. Teach your children to implement variety themselves. This requires teaching and negotiation.

Negotiation isn't bad. In fact, it empowers your children by making them feel valued and part of the solution.

It also builds trust in your relationship. (Unless, of course, your children are chronic negotiators. Read Raising Lawyers.)

Reach an agreement about variety that your children agree to live with.

The key ingredient: Make sure your children know they will not, under any circumstances, get into trouble if they violate the variety rule.

This is crucial. You want your children to be honest.

If they don't implement the variety rule at school, find out why. Then problem-solve together.

By the way, I know that it's tempting to think that variety doesn't matter when the food being selected is healthy (or relatively healthy). 

But it does.

Variety doesn't just ensure that your kids get the range of nutrients they need. It also lays the foundation for new food acceptance because it keeps flavors and textures rotating. Plus, new foods stand out less in a rotating system than in a stagnant one.

Variety is a state of mind.

It is also one of the three principles of healthy eating. Proportion and moderation are the other two. Together, these habits are the only eating behaviors your kids need to learn to be healthy eaters.

 ~Changing the conversation from nutrition to habits.~ 


Packing the Perfect School Lunch--or Not: Continuing the Conversation

In my last post I said that you definitely do not have to worry about:

  • The quality of school snacks and lunches.
  • Producing the perfect lunchbox. 

I heard from a lot of people who do not agree with me. (That's OK. Anything that promotes dialogue is a good thing!) But I think there were some misunderstandings.

First, let me clarify what I'm not saying.

I'm not saying that you shouldn't send a healthy lunch, or that you ought to send a junk-filled lunch. I'm also not saying that you shouldn't advocate for an upgrade in the quality of food that schools serve.

I'm saying something much more subtle. And it's a mindshift.

1) The pressure many parents feel to pack über-healthy school lunches is counterproductive.

Especially if their children won't eat it, or it messes up the famiy dynamic, or it's way too stressful. Who needs more stress?

2) The habits that translate nutrition into behavior—proportion, variety, and moderation—are important to think about.

And, these habits are more important to think about than the quality of any one meal. (Even if that one meal happens every day.)

Also, you can teach your kids these habits without resorting to quinoa or lentil sprouts. You can even teach them using food (and I use that term lightly) from the bottom of the barrel (Pop Tarts: I'm talking to you.)

3) Good nutrition follows (eventually) when you focus on teaching proportion, variety, and moderation.

This is not a "throw your hands up in the air and give up approach." It's a teaching approach that focuses parents' attention on shaping behavior, not on fixing food.

And, it's the only way to move kids who aren't stellar eaters towards healthy eating habits. For more on how to do this read Preschool and Pop Tarts.

So, send in any kind of lunch that you like. But, make sure you... 

  • Vary what you send from day-to-day. This teaches variety and lays the foundation for new food acceptance.
  • Talk to your children about how sub-par foods fit into their day. This includes teaching them how to make choices about what they eat. This teaches proportion.
  • Work with your children to get portion size right so they don't get in the habit of either undereating or overeating. This teaches moderation.

~Changing the conversation from nutrition to habits.~


Don't Worry about Packing the Perfect Back-to-School Lunch

I'm looking forward to Back-to-School time, but here's something I'm not looking forward to: school lunches.

I send my daughter to school every day with lunch.

And, quite frankly, I find this to be one task I don’t relish. Actually, I kind of hate it.

And you know what adds to the stress?

Photos that well-meaning parents post of their kids’ perfect lunchboxes. 

  • Quinoa crusted pizzettes
  • Kale salad with lentil sprouts
  • Whole wheat brownies 

These photos irritate me—and my child quite happily eats quinoa and kale. In fact, her lunchbox sometimes looks exactly like those photos (minus the whole wheat brownies...not every bite has to be healthy.)

But I know a lot of parents who struggle to get their kids to eat anything. Quinoa? Kale? To them, these photos seems completely unrealistic. (I bet they also seem a little like bragging.)

Here's some good news...

Back-to-School can be a busy time. Two two things you definitely do not have to worry about include:

  • The quality of school snacks and lunches.
  • Producing the perfect lunchbox. 

Don't worry. You won't kill your kids. You might just teach them to eat right!

I know my advice goes against everything you've ever heard, but consider this:

  • The amount of food your kids eat at school is only a fraction of what they consume during the day (probably one-third or less).
  • Even if your children's school or daycare center is feeding real crap (Pop Tarts, etc.) everyone can eat this stuff (even daily) as long as it doesn't dominate their diets.
  • Your children are going to encounter the real world one day; you might as well use this as an opportunity to teach them how to cope.

And, it's not like most kids are eating the healthiest diets at home. In fact, most children enter school with bad eating habits already in place. Read Blaming Schools for Bad Lunches. (So advocate for changing school lunches if you like, but you'll get more bang for your buck if you change things at home first.)

I'm not saying you shouldn't try to send healthy lunches to school.

I am saying that you don't need to stress about it too much. Focus on three principles that translate nutrition into behavior:

  • Variety: Send different lunches from day-to-day. Different lays the foundation for new foods.
  • Proportion: Make sure that the entire day tips towards healthier foods. That might mean not serving brownies for dessert at dinner if your child has had a junky day.
  • Moderation: Don't send more food than your children can reasonably be expected to eat, even if you're worried that he won't eat what you've sent.

Kids who know these three principles learn to be healthy eaters. You have to think long-term.

The biggest mistake I see parents make is that they don't talk to their children about lunch.

 1) Explain the concepts of variety, proportion and moderation. 

  • "We eat different foods from day to day."
  • "We eat the really healthy foods more frequently than junky foods."
  • "We eat when we're hungry and stop when we're full."

2) Talk to your children about what you are going to pack. Feel free to set some guidelines:

  • "We eat different things from day-to-day." Read about The Rotation Rule.
  • "You must pick a fruit or a vegetable."

3) Talk to your children about how much you are going to pack.

  • Your kids know (or need to learn) how much they're likely to eat.
  • Teach your kids that it's important to eat some of everything. It's not important to eat all of anything. Read about a technique I call One-One.

 If your children are eating school lunch...

1) Talk to them about choosing different items from day-to-day.

2) Agree on the number of sweetened milks they can drink each week.

3) Explain that junky eating in school means they'll have to eat healthier food the rest of the day.

If you don't think you can trust your children to live by these three rules you have a trust problem not a food problem. Work on building trust.

You can talk to your children no matter their age.

In fact, the sooner you start talking and teaching the sooner your kids will learn the habits they need for a lifetime of healthy eating (Quinoa pizzalettes, kale salad included.)

~Changing the conversation from nutrition to habits.~