If you “listen” to the Internet, you’ve got to pack super-cute lunches in super-cute lunch boxes.

I’ve ranted before about how I hate all those fabulous photos of things like quinoa crusted pizzettes and kale salad with lentil sprouts. Too much perfection (and my daugther eats happily eats all those foods). Read Don’t Worry About Packing the Perfect Back-to-School Lunch.

Unless your children are already good eaters, those picture-perfect lunchboxes are going to bomb.

It’s time to switch tactics to the Habits Approach. In my last post I said:

The recipe for success: Combine equal parts CONVERSATION and STRUCTURE. Mix and Serve!

Research shows that parents need to strike the right balance between compassion/warmth and structure. In the next two posts I’m going to give you

  • 4 rules that set the Structure that leads to good eating habits
  • 4 rules that set the Conversation that shares control and produces the right amount of compassion/warmth

The Conversation: Authoritative Parenting in Action

Learning to eat right is a process—like learning to walk—that takes time. And just like your kids had to learn the mechanics of walking, they have to learn the mechanics of eating habits, so hang in there.

Here are the rules:

1. Always talk to your children about what you pack in their lunch boxes.

It’s easy to forget to talk to kids about what we’re packing. Getting pre-approval, though, cuts down on the amount of uneaten (i.e. wasted) food that comes back in the bag.

More importantly, including your kids in the decision-making process, no matter how old they are, is a way of sharing control. Control is what most kids crave.

Set the parameters, then give your kids some input.

  • Tomorrow I can send you with leftover mac ‘n’ cheese in the thermos or I can send you with a turkey sandwich. Which would you prefer?
  • Will you eat these apple slices if I pack them in your lunch? Or would you prefer grapes?

It’s OK to send surprises now and then. Just make sure that any surprise is a welcome surprise—I think you know what I mean.

2. Never pack food that you know your children won’t eat, even if that food is healthy.

This is really rule 1A.

Sending food that you know your kids won’t eat is one way parents don’t listen. It send the message: Your food preferences don’t matter. It also means the only way your kids can participate in the decision-making is by not eating.

If your kids won’t eat carrots then sending carrot sticks every day is counterproductive.

And let’s be honest, no kid ever saw carrot sticks in his lunch for the 25th time and thought, “Hmmm, today I think I’ll give those carrots a nibble!” (Those carrot sticks are there because they make us feel better.)

Repeatedly sending unwanted items gets kids get into the practice of looking for, and setting aside, the food they know they won’t eat. I call this practice Seek and Destroy.

It’s better to send a slightly junkier lunch that gets eaten than a super healthy lunch that doesn’t. (Follow the structure rules that I will give you in the next post, though, and the quality of lunch will change too.)

3. Always talk to your children about how much food you pack in their lunch boxes.

Send too little food and your kids will get hungry well before the end of the school day. Send too much food, though, and your kids will eat the good stuff (ie the pretzels and the Goldfish) but not the good stuff (the sandwich and the fruit).

Figuring out how much food to send is tricky, but your kids are better at judging this than you are. After all, it’s their tummies you’re trying to fill. Plus, talking to your kids about how much food they need at lunch is one of the ways they’ll master the problem of portion size.

Worried your kids will get it wrong?

  1. Remind yourself that getting it wrong is the way kids learn to get it right, and that we’re only talking about temporary hunger here.
  2. Pack one emergency ration, such as an apple or a nut bar. Tell your kids that this is just a backup if they are still hungry after they’ve finished the rest of their food.

The solution to a super-short lunch time is to send less food, so eating is manageable. Then, “beef up” snacks. This might seem scary, but sending more food than a child can eat in the alloted time (even if that seems like the right amount of food) produces pressure. It also wastes food.

4. At the end of the day, check in with your children about how things went.

Think of this as your feedback loop, the time when you get to find out why your kids ate the way they did!

  • Did you like the noodles I sent? Would you like them again sometime?
  • I see that you didn’t eat your grapes. Why not?
  • Did you have enough (or too much) food?

Use the information you collect to tweak what and how much you send. Doing this won’t only help you pack a lunch that gets eaten, it will help you teach your kids the principles of healthy eating: proportion, variety, moderation.

~Changing the conversation from nutrition to habits.~