Candy. Chocolate chip cookies. Pancakes with smiley faces.
With the start of the new school year, parents can get answers like these when they ask their kids, “What do you want to eat for lunch?”
Most every parent knows that getting a child to eat healthfully can be difficult. Many children have tunnel vision when it comes to food, making it difficult for them to try new options — let alone healthier ones — in their lunchboxes.
“Fruits and vegetables can appear scary to kids, and to them it may not taste as good compared to saltier or sweeter alternatives,” said Jessica Buschmann, clinical dietitian at the sports medicine department at Nationwide Children’s Hospital. “But it’s important to expose healthy foods to kids early so they can form healthy, lifelong habits.”
Healthful eating has been shown to enhance academic performance in children. Kids who eat their fruits and vegetables have improved attention spans, energy levels and cognitive function, according to a study by the CDC.
The biggest mistake parents can make is to settle on convenience and pack refrigerated, pre-packaged meals for lunch, said Alexis Tindall, a dietitian specializing in childhood obesity at Nationwide Children’s Hospital.
“These typically contain high-caloric foods that contain little nutrition. They also usually come with a sweetened beverage, which just adds more calories,” she said. “By actually making the food themselves, parents get more control in what their kid is eating.”
School lunches should include at least three of the five food groups of all different varieties, Tindall added. If you’re not sure if you’re packing a good mix, check the colors: Well-rounded meals should include different hues, such as deep greens, reds and browns.
Sweet treats and saltier foods, such as chips, should only be eaten on special occasions and should not make regular appearances in the lunchbox, she said. Sugary and carbonated drinks should be avoided at all costs. If your child can’t stand the taste of plain water, opt for sugar-free brands.
If you’re dealing with a picky eater, first try involving them in the conversation. Cook alongside your child in the kitchen, and even let them have input when grocery shopping.
“Not only will kids have more exposure to what they’re eating, but they’ll also develop cooking skills when making foods they like,” Buschmann said. “It’s also very empowering for a child to say that they made their own meal.”
Show your child that healthy food can be fun and flavorful. Try a homemade yogurt with granola and fruit, celery with peanut butter, or turkey and cheese pinwheels.
No matter what, keep size in mind — even with new, healthful recipes.
“Parents may get nervous and overpack. But the more food, the more calories,” Tindall said. “And in today’s society, everything is big. Portion food.”