Back to School Tips for Healthy Eating

As parents, we want to make sure our children are eating a balanced diet. When your child is a “selective” eater, that can be difficult, and back-to-school time is when issues around pickiness can become more problematic than ever. Whether your child takes a lunch or eats at a school cafeteria, if he or she only eats a very limited selection of foods, this can make for some challenging conversations.

With that in mind, we sat down with Meeting House board member, Jennifer Baum. As founder and CEO of Bullfrog + Baum, a Marketing agency specializing in the hospitality industry, it’s Jennifer’s business to keep on top of food and dining trends, and that includes having an understanding of the issues surrounding children and food. Jennifer also is mother to a 16 year old son, and in our conversation she shared insights she’s gained through her combined experience as a parent and as a thought leader in food and restaurant marketing.

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The importance of control and choice

Although now her son is quite the foodie and will try anything, Jennifer said that when he was younger he only ate 15 things. She and her husband sought guidance from a professional to help with overcoming her son’s limited menu, as it not only made things difficult in terms of meal planning and preparation, but it was also getting in the way of him getting all the nutrients he needed.

“One of the issues with pickiness is control,” Jennifer said. “We were advised to tell our son ‘We decide what you eat every day except Sunday. On Sundays you can have anything you want for dinner.’” Jennifer emphasized that, when following this plan, it’s essential that parents are okay with the Sunday meal being whatever the child wants. “If your child wants a bowl of cookies for dinner on Sunday, you really have to be OK with that.” In her case, this strategy worked; because he was given complete control for that one day of the week, her son became more flexible about his food preferences.

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Other tips Jennifer shared about ways to encourage more open-minded eating habits:

  • If your child is a picky eater avoid giving him or her snacks, so that they are hungry at meal time.

  • Don’t make eating vegetables a negative.

  • Get kids involved in food purchasing and preparation. Bring your child to the farmers market or grocery store and let him or her touch and smell produce. If you cook, have your child cook with you. “From the time my son was young, he was involved in cooking with us -- touching, smelling, tasting -- and I think that’s part of the reason he ultimately became interested in different types of food.”

  • Emphasize the idea that “when you make better food choices, you feel better,” and practice what you preach. More than any complex health considerations or cajoling, kids want to feel good and they look to their parents to model behavior.

Ask questions and encourage conversation

As the food industry in general has become more health-conscious, so have school lunch programs, Jennifer said. “A lot of schools offer great options now, so what we really want to do as parents is advise your child to make smart choices.” The most important thing is opening up that dialogue, and doing so in a way that isn’t accusatory. Instead of asking “What did you eat for lunch today,” Jennifer suggests that with a young child you might jokingly ask “So, did they serve worms for lunch at school today?” Keep it light, and use open-ended questions to encourage conversation.

Compromise on bagged lunches

While it can be challenging to pack a lunch for a picky eater, you are in a better position to encourage your child to try new things. It’s tempting to pack the same thing every day, but that will ensure your child keeps the same limited food preferences. Jennifer suggests applying a similar strategy to “kids choice” Sunday to school lunches. “Maybe your child only wants a cheese sandwich for lunch. You can say ‘I respect that you only like cheese sandwiches, and I’m going to pack that for you, but I’m also going to give you one new thing a week, and all I ask is that you try it, you don’t have to like it’” Validating your child’s preferences is an important first step, and sometimes that’s all it takes. Jennifer suggests packing items like clementines, edamame, red pepper, or carrot -- foods that are a little sweet and that are tactile and colorful, that kids can engage with.

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Get to know what your child’s school is offering

Especially if you’re concerned about your child eating a balanced diet because of food preferences, it is definitely worth a trip to the school, Jennifer said. “You don’t want your child to eat a plain bagel for lunch every day, so it’s a good idea to engage with the school and get a sense of what they serve, what options they offer.” Jennifer said that nutrition is increasingly becoming something that schools are paying close attention to; they know parents are requiring improvements, and the overall trend is toward healthier school cafeterias and lunch programs.

Don’t overlook the social aspect of eating

While there is a lot of focus on what children are eating, we often overlook the importance of how kids are eating, and Jennifer believes we need a greater emphasis on teaching kids how to sit at a dining table. This comes into play when children head back to school and are once again eating with their friends and classmates. “Knowing how to sit around a table is essential, not just for family socialization; it will play into every aspect of your child’s life,” Jennifer said. “As kids get older they observe other kids behavior. The child who can’t sit at the table, who doesn’t have any manners...after a while the other children are going to start noticing.”

This doesn’t mean children aren’t going to be messy when they eat. Jennifer said that, even now, she constantly reminds her son to use his napkin, but those reminders are essential training for the many social dining opportunities children will have throughout their lives. Education in this important social skill begins at home, but Jennifer said that the common trend of children and parents eating separately can be a barrier. But coordinating mealtimes can be difficult with work, school, and bedtime schedules. When her son was younger, to ensure they had family time around the table, her son would eat his dinner earlier, but then join Jennifer and her husband at the table and eat his dessert while they had dinner.

Flexibility, respect and empathy are all key factors in collaborating with your child on the nutrition aspect of their health.  Jennifer reminds us of the best advice for all things related to parenting which is to focus on the relationship with your child and keep your sense of humor, even when it might mean  cookies for dinner on a Sunday night.