Healthy Starts at Home (and in the Lunch Bag)
Tips for getting kids excited about lunch time from Cooking Matters
By Leslie Levine, Early Childhood Manager, Cooking Matters by Share Our Strength
"I used to hate it when I was a kid and you always served vegetables. Now, I actually like vegetables." Hearing those words from my 17-year-old daughter made my heart sing.
I have three teenagers, and I'm one of those moms. Having worked in the field of nutrition for 30 years, I have heard (and tried) all of the tips and tricks for encouraging healthy eating with kids. I’d always have a bowl of fruit on the counter. I’d ask my kids what vegetables they want for dinners that week when prepping my shopping lists. I’d even pull apart brussels sprouts because my kids loved the extra crunch the leaves get when roasting. And as you’d guess, I'm also the mom who brings veggies & dip or a fruit bowl to potlucks. Yes, there were many eyerolls over the years, but it’s all starting to feel worth it now that my teenagers are sharing their appreciation.
It’s hard for busy parents to find the time to peel off brussels sprout leaves, or the extra funds to buy fruits your kids might not like or even try the first time, but raising healthy eaters happens over time with making small choices and changes one by one.
As we head into the new school year, whether your child is learning remotely or at school, Cooking Matters has some tips to make lunch time a little less stressful.
1. Give kids choices so they feel involved in decisions. Children develop self-esteem at a young age so it is important to respect their food preferences and to help them feel involved in mealtime. “Do you want carrot sticks or cucumber circles in your lunch today?” Either response is a win! Try recipes that can be used as a framework with easily substitutable ingredients so that kids can build their own “recipe” (I love Cooking Matters’ Veggie wraps)!
2. Involve kids in prep and mealtime tasks. This will give kids a sense of freedom, get them excited for mealtime and make them more willing to try new foods. Some tasks to start with:
If it sounds overwhelming to have your kids help in the kitchen, try having them help:
- Shake small containers, such as jars or Ziplock bags, to mix ingredients
- Wash fruits and vegetables
- Measure ingredients
Check out the Cooking Matters “Getting Kids Involved in the Kitchen” handout (English | Spanish) for more ideas.
- Get out ingredients & equipment and help put them away
- Set and clear the table
- Clean up
3. Have fun with food. Use foods with a variety of colors, shapes and textures. Play “food inspector” by having kids describe ingredients to you as they eat. Consider arrangements and names that are particularly interesting to kids, such as making faces with cut-up fruits or veggies or having them name their creations (“Karla’s Salad”)!
In the end, whether you have a minute to sit with your child while they count cucumber circles to pack in their lunch, or the time to create elaborate food art, know that you are helping your child build healthy habits!
Cooking Matters is a national campaign striving to ensure that all parents and caregivers have the skills to serve nutritious food to kids from pregnancy to age 5. For more information and ideas on providing healthy food to your family, visit Cooking Matters’ website, follow them on Facebook and Instagram, and check out their toolkits: Cooking Matters at Home and Exploring Food Together.