There’s a lot of pressure at this time of year to write a back-to-school healthy lunch post.

But I want to make an argument for packing an unhealthy lunch.  Not one filled with Coke, Fritos and Ring Dings, but not the vegetable-kabob, salad lunch of nutritionists’ (and bloggers’) dreams.

I’m talking about a lunch that might not have fruits or vegetables in it (yet).

Packing an unhealthy lunch can be better than packing a healthy lunch if…

 1) Your children routinely throw out/ignore the carrot sticks or apple slices you pack.

I know a lot of parents who insist on packing fruits and vegetables (or yogurt, cheese…) knowing full well that their children will never, in a million years, eat these items. I get the rationale (you want to send the message that fruits and veggies are important, and you hope that today will be THE day) but it teaches the unintended lesson I call “Seek and Destroy.” For more on “Seek and Destroy” read The Bad News About Healthy Lunches.

2) You routinely send “healthy” versions of “unhealthy” foods. Think of this is as The (Chocolate) Milk Mistake argument on steroids. Eating pizza produces a pizza eating habit, even if the pizza is healthy. “Healthifying” food also distorts what kids think of as healthy, and this affects their habits too. Read Cookies and The Cycle of Guilty Eating to see how healthy cookies make it harder to teach your kids to eat vegetables.

3) You send the same healthy lunch everyday because you know your kids will eat it. This strategy limits your children’s palates, reinforces their ideas about what they should eat and teaches your children to expect the same food every day. Try introducing new foods after that.

You can use unhealthy lunches to teach your children healthy eating habits.

These lessons may not seem like much but these three principles translate everything your kids need to know about nutrition into behavior and, in doing so, they lay the foundation for better eating down the road.

  • Proportion: Eat foods in different amounts and frequencies according to how healthy they are.

I know this sounds like an impossible lesson to teach using unhealthy foods but it’s not. Help your children learn this concept with whatever group of foods they eat. Even if what you’re distinguishing between are not-so-healthy and really-unhealthy foods, you can still teach the lesson that “we eat this more frequently than that because it has better things for your body.”

  • Variety: Eat different foods from day to day.

Most parents think variety means new.  It doesn’t. Variety means different. Send a different, less-than-healthy lunch from day-to-day and explicitly telli your children why you’re doing this.  (Be upfront: this is the foundation for new foods.)  I call this The Rotation Rule and it changes minds and taste buds.

If you think your children will only eat PB&J for lunch, think big. There are breakfast and dinner foods, and plenty of snack combinations that could fill a lunch box (raisins, crackers, yogurt and a granola bar for instance).

If your child must eat the same sandwich every day, at least put it on different bread or cut the sandwich into different shapes.  Do anything you can to make the sandwich different from day to day.

  • Moderation: Eat when you’re hungry and stop when you’re full. 

Don’t ask your children to finish their food. Rather, teach them to eat a little of everything in their lunchbox before they finish any one item.  The rationale? Kids don’t know when they’re going to be full and so they devour the foods they favor and leave the rest as leftovers.  (This doesn’t seem like an important rule now, but it will stand your kids in good stead when they start eating better.) Read My Child Asks for Seconds of Pasta Before She’s Even Touched Her Peas.

It’s tempting to throw in the towel when your kids don’t eat well. 

Focus on teaching your kids how to eat, however, and you will still set your kids up for a lifetime of healthy eating.

~Changing the conversation from nutrition to habits.~