Children are becoming obese and ill, and we are responsible. We are loving our children to death with food. According to the CDC, “Today, about one in five school-aged children (ages 6–19) has obesity.” As they spend most of their time at school, children’s lunches are an important way to focus on their nutrition. There is a disconnect between what the we think children should be eating for lunch and what we are actually feeding them. Correcting this early on can help prevent the fact that “fewer than 15% of children between the ages of 4–8 years consume the recommended amounts of fruits and vegetables and, intake unfortunately decreases with age” (3).
Let’s look at two common reasons why children are not eating nutrition-packed lunches.
“It takes too long and I’m really busy”
Buying pre-made foods is a time-saver. Recipes found online showcase sandwiches cut into fun shapes made out of whole grain bread, gluten-free veggie wraps, gourmet fresh fruit and vegetables recipes as sides and snacks packed up in bright tupperware containers. However, it is unrealistic to think that busy guardians (mom, dad, grandma, foster parent, etc.) will be able to consistently make Pinterest-worthy gourmet lunches.
In any case, children do not need fancy lunches, they need healthy (and tasty) lunches. Packing a healthy lunch does not have to be overboard or time-consuming, nor does it need to be drab. If you are too busy in the morning, try setting aside some time the evening before to prepare for the next day. Packing a lunch is also a great way to interact with your child and discuss the importance of healthy, balanced meals in a fun way. If you’d like to read more on the importance of where food comes from, check out our blog post on the importance of food diversity.
If packing a lunch without including packaged food is out of the question, having your child eat the school lunch is a great alternative. According to a study of packed lunches vs. school lunches, “Packed lunches were less likely to contain fruits (54% vs 67%), vegetables (17% vs 61%)… Packed lunches also contained more savory snacks such as chips and crackers (57% vs 5%) and sugar-sweetened beverages (40% vs 0%)" (1).
“My kid won’t eat that” or “My kid likes…”
It is a lot easier to give children what they want to eat. You will likely avoid an unwanted tantrum and prevent money being wasted by food being thrown away. This attitude from children does raise a few questions. Why doesn’t the child want fresh fruit and vegetables? Why does the child think that junk food is an option at lunch? We adults have exposed children to colorful sugary foods, fast food, and everything in between. “In fact, by the time children are 3 or 4 years old, food choices and acceptance patterns begin to be influenced by environmental cues” (2). By not educating children about fresh fruits and vegetables, or not having an adult role model show a positive attitude toward fresh healthy foods, children are less likely want to eat them or even know they are an option.
Ready to pack a healthier lunch?
This is where it becomes tricky. Clever marketing and misleading information can lead someone who is trying to make healthy choices to provide their child with something that is not good for them. Welch’s Fruit Snacks appears to be healthy with its images of fruit-shaped gummies and “100% Vitamin C”, but is about as healthy as a pile of sugar with some vitamin C added in. Welch’s misleading labeling even led to a lawsuit. A child can enjoy 100% of their Vitamin C from only a small amount of fresh fruit which has the added bonus of containing other vitamins and minerals.
The easiest and quickest way to know for sure that what is being eaten is healthy is to know where it came from and how it was made. If there is an ingredient that makes you scratch your head because you have no idea what it is, or if the packaging says “natural flavor,” you are better off without it. When selecting healthy options, the fresher the fruit or vegetable is, the more nutrition it contains. Shop local when you can. Avoid sugary foods and processed foods (chips, fruit snacks, cookies, pudding, etc). For more information about nutrition and why it is important to educate children to reduce child obesity, check out our website (shameless plug) for recipes and information about vegetables. There is also an excellent Ted Talk by Jamie Oliver that is truly inspiring!
Eat well. Garden often.
(1) Drewnowski A, Bellisle F. Liquid calories, sugar, and body weight. Am J Clin Nutr. 2007;85:651–661. 22. Kant AK. Reported consumption of low-nutrient-density foods by American children and adolescents: nutritional and health correlates, NHANES III, 1988 to 1994. Archives Peds & Adol Med. 2003;157:789.
(2) “Story M, Neumark-Sztainer D, French S. Individual and environmental influences on adolescent eating behaviors. Journal of the American Dietetic Association. 2002;102(3):S40- S51.”
(3) “Lorson BA, Melgar-Quinonez HR, Taylor CA. Correlates of fruit and vegetable intakes in US children. Journal of the American Dietetic Association. 2009;109(3):474–478.”