Lunch Box Envy

Written by: Emily Russo, MS, RD, CDN

with more emphasis today on healthy eating, how do we address food requests, especially when they want what their friends are having?

The school cafeteria is a chance for kids to eat independently, observe what other kids are eating, and to make their own choices about what and how much to eat. But with more emphasis today on healthy eating, how do we address food requests, especially when they want what their friends are having?

But first, trivia!
What year was the National School Lunch Program established? (Scroll down for the answer!)

🏈 And a quick throwback…
I liked school lunch. It was the first time I had seen things like chicken & waffles and the Turkey Hill lemonade/iced tea mix! But I also liked sitting next to my friends whose parents packed them lunch every day. Mostly because there was excitement in opening the brown paper bag and seeing what they got – we always hoped for those gummy shark bites!

Ann also has fond memories of her school lunch days, including some lunch box envy! She remembers her friend Christine always had the most delicious-looking chicken salad sandwich and often a congo bar. (Years later, her mom shared the recipe!).

But these days, there’s far more emphasis on ensuring kids make healthy choices (that reminds me, what happened to shark bites?). Because of this, caregivers may be curious or even pass judgment about what others are packing, or what they allow their kids to eat in the cafeteria.

So now, instead of jockeying for who packs the best desserts – as it may have been 30 or 40 years ago – as a society we are much more curious as to who’s packing the most fruits and vegetables.

🍪 It’s Normal
Children will find out that Lunchables, Double-Stuf Oreos, and Cheetos exist one day. We are not able to prevent this from happening. School aged children SHOULD be looking at what other kids are eating. It’s a normal part of growing up!

So instead of shielding them from foods we may not want them to eat, we can model how we want them to handle being around those foods. Gaining exposure to different foods, learning how to approach various food experiences, and observing how one’s peers do the same is a vital part of a child’s development around food.

💁🏽‍♀️ What’s the best way to prepare our kids for this experience?
Start by modeling a healthy relationship with food and positive eating behaviors at home. Modeling neutral reactions and responses to requests for these items gives our children a tool for handling the inevitable exposure.

It may seem like a fine line, but modeling is distinctly different than controlling everything our children eat. Research shows that rigid rules and restrictions over food can actually have the opposite effect than what’s intended.

🍎 🍐 🍫  Put it into Practice
So what to say when a child comes home and says, “Marcus had chocolate chips in his lunch box today and they looked so good. Can I have those tomorrow?” Instead of responding with “We don’t have any,” or “That’s not healthy,” which is a way of restricting and controlling, consider something like this:

“That does sound yummy, and I think we have a few at home. Should we pack them along with the leftover meatballs or a sandwich?” Or, “Let’s put those on our list for when we go to the grocery store. I also wanted to pick up some seasonal fruit. Would you like some apples or pears?”

🥛 What if a child is allergic to the item they are requesting, such as dairy in the chocolate chips?
Instead of “No you can’t have those. You are allergic,” try “We should read the ingredients to be sure this food won’t make you sick.” Or “There are a few varieties of chocolate chips at our market that are safe for us to eat. Do you want to try the dairy-free morsels?”

(For more information on talking to your school-aged children in a neutral way about their food allergies, check out FARE!). 

🧐 What happens when another child comments on what we should or should not be eating?
For example,Jenny told me that people should only have one dessert a week because too much sugar is bad for us.” Instead of saying: “Yes, sugar is bad for us, but we can have it sometimes (a confusing message if you think about it), Try: “Not everyone follows that rule and that’s okay.” Or, “You are old enough now that I trust you to know when you do or do not want dessert.”

❓Invite kids to ask more questions
Keep the dialogue open! Discuss how and why we make the food choices we do. It’s an opportunity to explain how all foods can fit – that everyone has their own personal, cultural, and religious relationships with food and that every family has different boundaries and different food needs.

And Remember…
There is a lot more to healthy eating than simply the nutritional make-up of a food (and its relation to body size) including self-regulation, satisfaction, self-respect, sustainability, cultural appreciation, financial security, and an individual’s unique nutritional needs to name a few.

I don’t claim to have all the answers, but I think it’s an important topic to unpack, in our own way, as we start this new school year.

Oh, and the NSLP was established in 1946 by President Harry Truman!

For more information on how to discuss food with your children at various developmental stages, check out:
Food Allergy Resource and Education (FARE) website
Ellyn Satter Institute
How to Raise an Intuitive Eater by Sumner Brooks & Amee Severson
@pediatric.dietitian on Instagram (a certified pediatric dietitian and mom of almost two!)

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