I’m experiencing a love/hate reaction to Parenting.com’s new Healthy Lunch Maker.  Have you seen this calculator?

You drag a sandwich, snack and a drink into a lunch box, press calculate and the program spits out the nutrition profile of whatever is in the box.

“All the nutrition facts you need to pack tasty, healthy lunches for your child. Count calories, fat, sodium and more.”

Test out Parenting.com’s Healthy Lunch Maker

I love the calculator because it’s so much fun. 

No matter how much I think nutrition information leads parents astray—Read Why Nobody Needs Nutrition Labels— I can’t resist nutrition gadgets.  I describe my problem, and how much fun I had shopping this summer with the Fooducate App, in Why I Feed My Daugther Inferior Food.

Plug a PB&J sandwich on wheat, an apple and a small carton of low-fat milk into the Healthy Lunch Maker, push calculate:

  • Total calories = 466
  • Fat=12g
  • Sodium=450 mg
  • Protein=19g

Fantastic! I spent an hour one day trying out different lunchtime combos.  That is the love part. Now to the hate part…

I hate the calculator because it’s impossible to know what the information means. 

Is 466 calories a lot or a little? What about 12 grams of fat?

And even if you look at the % daily value based on your child’s age, which the program conveniently lets you punch in, the information that 12 grams of fat is 22% of your 3 year old’s daily fat needs will only take you so far.

Unless you’re going to calculate every meal and every snack (something I don’t think anybody would ever do) knowing that lunch is going to deliver 45% of your toddler’s sodium intake is meaningless.  Sure, 45% seems high, but what if the rest of the day turns out to be basically sodium-free? That puts 45% into a healthier perspective.

Now, let’s imagine that you could put together a magic meal, one that made the grade on all the key ingredients.

What would you do?

  • Would you serve this perfect meal to your child over and over? That would narrow, rather than expand, your toddler’s palate.
  • Would you shy away from foods that don’t make the grade? Or feel guilty when your tot eats anything short of the gold standard? That would make the “bad” but desirable foods even more desirable?

So again, I ask, what would you do?

As far as I can tell, the only useful thing you can do with any nutrition calculator is bust some myths.

  • A PB&J sandwich, apple and carton of low-fat milk delivers 19 grams of protein or 172% of your 3 year old’s daily protein needs.
  • The PB&J alone delivers 11 grams of protein or 100% of your 3 year old’s protein needs.

Who knew?

What I take away from this is that most people worry more than they need to about protein intake. Indeed, if your 3 year old pounds down one small carton of milk, he’ll take in 8 grams of protein, 72% of his daily needs.

There are other problems with using this, or any other, calculator.

  • It sticks to traditional lunch items (for obvious reasons) but doesn’t let you put soup or salad into the box!
  • You don’t know how much of any one ingredient is calculated in the sandwhich. You might be heavier on the peanut butter or lighter on the jelly and then your numbers would all be off.
  • You’ll need another calculator to estimate what your toddler actually takes in: Do three bites constitute half a sandwich, a quarter, less?
  • The % daily values are estimates based on a range of needs (with a point picked for mathematical reasons). On any given day your child might need more or less food based on activity level and growth patterns.

Instead of thinking primarily about nutrition, start focusing on your child’s eating habits instead.

Read 10 Habits MORE Important Than Vegetable Eating.  Then, teach your tot to:

The nutrition part of the picture will fall into place—perfectly. I promise.

~Changing the conversation from nutrition to habits.~