I’m with everyone on how bad school lunches are. 

School lunches aren’t just comprised of nutritionally inferior fare they taste pretty bad too.  (Check out Marion Nestle’s list of resources if you’re interested in improving the quality of lunch at your kids’ schools.)

But blaming schools for our kids’ bad eating habits is misplaced.  Schools don’t produce our kids’ bad eating habits. Kids come to school with bad eating habits and schools reinforce them.

Studies show that kids develop bad eating habits well before they go to school.

Some of the upset over the quality of school lunches presupposes that kids are eating healthy (if not stellar) diets at home.  Most are not.

Research shows that 2-3 year olds typically consume a diet high in saturated fat and sodium and low in fiber.

In addition, on any given day:

  • 25% of 2-3 year olds don’t eat a single serving of fruit.
  • 30% of 2-3 year olds don’t eat a single serving of vegetables.  When kids do eat vegetables, they’re more likely to eat white potatoes (usually French fries) than any other type of vegetable.

These aren’t encouraging statistics. But here’s the most shocking fact:

On any given day, more preschoolers will consume sweetened beverages, desserts and snack foods than will eat fruits or vegetables. 

No wonder 2 out of 10 children aged 2 to 5 are now obese.

I’m not trying to let schools off the hook, but these early eating habits are important because they shape everything.

It’s hard to change how kids eat.  In fact, research shows that if you want to know what children will like when they’re 8, look at what foods they eat when they’re 4.  It doesn’t change that much.

It’s unrealistic to expect schools to undo all this damage.

I’m not trying to blame parents either.

It’s hard to teach kids to eat right, especially when there is so much pressure to get the right nutrients into kids. Indeed, I think that all the noise about nutrition makes parents choose feeding strategies that end up biting them in the butt. Read Training Tiny Taste BudsManufacturing Magic and The (Chocolate) Milk Mistake for examples of how chasing nutrients can go awry.

Nonetheless, there is a lot parents can do to increase the quality of their children’s eating, even in the face of nutritiously inferior foods at school.

You can neutralize the impact of school lunch on your kids’ diets at the same time that you are teaching your kids good lifelong eating habits.

Here are 5 strategies:

1) Increase the quality of the food you serve at home – and vary the kinds of foods you serve more consciously – to accommodate school lunches.

It’s sad news, but you may have to cut out the cookies or the crackers or the pizza at home to balance the amount (and frequency) of these items that your kids are eating at school.

Also, make sure you add a small serving of fruits and vegetables to every meal and snack that you serve.  The more frequently you serve fruits and vegetables the more accustomed to them your kids will be and the more readily they’ll eat them.

And, if you want some recipes that kids are guaranteed to enjoy, read Chef Bobo’s Good Food Cookbook.   I use this book myself, and I’ve never met a kid who didn’t like the cauliflower soup. I’m not kidding.

2) Tone down the emphasis on nutrition. Instead, talk to your children about the behaviors that translate nutrition into healthy eating.

  • Proportion: Eat foods in relation to their healthy benefits.  In other words, eat the healthiest foods the most, the marginal and junky foods the least.
  • Variety: Eat a wide range of foods.
  • Moderation: Eat when you’re hungry and stopping when you’re full.

Teach your children these 3 styles of eating and they’ll automatically eat more nutritiously.  And remember, you can introduce these principles no matter how old—or how picky—your children are. Read House Building 101.

3) Practice transparent parenting.

Talk to your children about how you make decisions.  Specifically relate your food decisions back to the principles of proportion, variety, and moderation so your children know why they can’t have ice cream, or why you’re serving vegetables… yet again.

4) Guide your children, but let them make the choices.

Most school lunches have pitifully few choices, but look for choices and you’ll see they’re there.  For instance, most schools offer kids a choice between flavored or plain milk, or between milk and juice.  Consider letting your children choose flavored milk 2 days per week.

5) Recognize small changes in your children’s eating habits.

Small improvements add up.  They really do.

Of course, I would still love to see schools improve their game.

But even if they do, it probably won’t amount to a hill of beans unless parents do the same.

~Changing the conversation from nutrition to habits.~

For more on this topic read When School Nutrition Stinks

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Sources:

Fox, M. K., E. Condon, R. R. Briefel, K. Reidy, and D. M. Deming. 2010. “Food Consumption Patterns of Young Preschoolers: Are They Starting Off on the Right Path?” Journal of the American Dietetic Association 110: S52-S59.

Skinner, J. D., B. R. Carruth, W. Bounds, and P. Ziegler. 2002. “Children’s Food Preferences: a Logitudinal Analysis.” Journal of the American Dietetic Association 102(11): 1638-47.