Even if you spend time at home stressing the importance of healthy eating, it can be hard to be sure kids follow your lead once they walk out the door and head to school. So what can you do as a parent to make it more likely that your child will make good food choices when they’re on their own?
Let Kids Have a Say
Like adults, kids want to be in control of what they eat. If your child eats school lunches, look over the menu together and discuss what they do or don’t like. Talk about healthy choices and plan to pack lunch on days they don’t like what’s offered so they still eat a well-rounded meal. For packed lunches, give kids a few healthy options and let them decide what makes the final cut.
Pack Lunch Carefully
Sending your child to school with lunch from home can give you more control over what your child eats, but pay attention to what you pack. One study found packed lunches had more calories, fat and sugar and less protein, fiber and calcium than school lunches. The takeaway: avoid packing too many snacks and skip the sugary drinks. “Packing a variety of foods within each food group (protein, fruits, veggies, dairy, grains) can help ensure your child is getting a balance of nutrients to fuel their brain for the school day,” says pediatric nutritionist Eva Delaney, RDN.
Switch Up School Snacks
Instead of sending pretzels, cookies or even healthy-sounding cereal bars for snack time, pack snacks that have some staying power. Include lean protein, healthy fat and complex carbs, such as low-fat cheese with fruit, hummus and carrots or turkey rolled up in whole wheat tortillas.
“Sending a variety of snacks during the week can help keep your child from getting bored of eating the same things day to day,” says Delaney.
Need some help planning healthier meals for your family?
Schedule an appointment at the UVA Nutrition Counseling Center.
Model Healthy Eating at Home
If your child is used to making good food choices at home, they’re more likely to do the same when they’re on their own. Don’t lecture kids on the importance of eating healthy. Instead, get them involved in making good food choices and trying new foods so healthy eating becomes second nature to them. “Parents and caregivers are the best models for behaviors — eating behaviors included — and children are always watching even if they don’t seem to be,” says Delaney. “Modeling the eating patterns you wish to see in your child is an excellent way to encourage similar behaviors in your children.”
One word of caution: be careful not to associate eating certain foods with negativity, shame or guilt, says Delaney. “Aim to foster mindfulness, balance and variety to support a positive relationship with food,” she says. “But take care not to categorize foods as ‘good’ and ‘bad’ or ‘healthy and unhealthy’. Pizza and ice-cream parties should still be a fun and enjoyed part of life.”