The ABCs of Back-to-School Nutrition

As our children head back to school, the most common request I get is for healthy packed lunch ideas. What should my kids eat? How much? What should I avoid packing? How do I get him to EAT what I pack? There is a need to balance the quest for perfect nutrition with the limits of time and our kids’ preferences (yes, I am increasingly convinced that my kids have minds and taste buds of their own!). Later this week, I’ll share some fun food ideas. First, though- let’s tackle this yearly challenge with the ABCs of back-to-school nutrition…

A: A Plan

It is “a” plan, because my plan will be different from your plan, just as the uniqueness of your child prevented you from receiving that wished-for perfect parenting manual when she was born. However, there are questions that will always matter: 

  • Does your child have special dietary needs or practices?
  • Which foods does your child enjoy or dislike, and which has he never tried?
  • Does your school lunch provide choices that meet his dietary restrictions and preferences?
  • What is your daily schedule like? How much time do you have at home before and after school and on weekends?

Your plan should be tailored to work for you. That may mean your child buys school lunches, packs his lunch, or does each sometimes. Those may include only fresh foods, or perhaps some convenience foods. They may include dessert or not. You may pack a lunch while he eats breakfast or engage him in packing it the night before. The important thing is to make themeal work for her health, as well as your resources and schedule.

 B: Bold Creativity

Sending our kids off to school requires letting go in so many ways. They may not eat what you pack. They may trade it away or worse, throw it away. They may be hungry when they get home because they didn’t eat much lunch. Rather than simply cater to those wants, we want to both work with them, and nudge them.

First, make time for a calm breakfast. Trying new things isn’t so easy when time is limited and your head is still groggy from sleep. Breakfast doesn’t have to be new or perfect. It does help to include protein with the carbs and healthy fats,and to include 2 to 3 food groups.

Plan for lunch together, even though you won’t eat together. Look at the school menu and talk about healthy, tasty choices. Or, pack the lunch together the night before. Include something known and something new. There are endless variations on tastes and textures, and one of them may be the way your child loves kale or kumquats. Go slowly. Add one new ingredient to a sandwich. Include hummus instead of Ranch dip for the veggies. Just remember that school lunch rooms are noisy places with many distractions and limited time, so strike the balance between meeting wants and nudging towards healthier choices.

Importantly, do not force, plead with, or bribe your child to eat what’s in her lunch bag or on the table. Remember, your example of trying new things and being respectful and truthful about what you like and don’t like will help your child to develop a healthy relationship with food.

C: Common Sense

No assumptions here. We all know we need common sense. We just forget sometimes when we are trying to do the right thing for our families. Each meal is an opportunity to teach about good nutrition and respectful behavior. Prepare meals and snacks together. Eat together. Work together. Play together. Modeling those healthy behaviors is the key to helping your child create healthy habits for a lifetime. 

Remember to come back in a few days for some Boldly Creative ideas for school lunches and after-school activities!


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