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.~