Researcher Offers Parents Tips for Preparing Healthy and Appealing Meals for Kids

By Tom McLaughlin

March is upon us and that means it’s National Nutrition Month, a nutrition education and information campaign sponsored each year by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

However, ask many parents and they’ll tell you that trying to pack kids’ lunches according to the campaign’s theme, “Eat Right, Bite by Bite,” requires some serious food for thought.

“It might seem overwhelming, but with a little proper planning, it’s possible to prepare lunches that are both healthy and appealing,” says Charlotte Markey, a professor of psychology at Rutgers University–Camden, whose research addresses issues central to both developmental and health psychology.

Markey, author of the books Smart People Don’t Diet and Body Positive and the forthcoming The Body Image Book for Girls, offers a few evidence-based tips that parents can be mindful of when preparing their children’s lunches – or any meals, for that matter.

Tip No. 1, says Markey, is not to moralize food; it is not inherently good or bad.

“There are some foods we want to encourage eating more than others, such as fruits and veggies versus fast food, but making food ‘forbidden fruit’ can backfire,” she says. “When kids feel like a food is ‘off limits’ they often end up only that much more intrigued by it.”

Secondly, says the Rutgers–Camden researcher, talk with kids about food in an adaptive way.

“The message is that food is fuel for our bodies to do all sorts of important things – from studying to playing sports,” she says. “They should be aware that feeding ourselves is nourishing and a form of self-care.”

Next, says the health psychology expert, food should be fun and enjoyed. Food preparation, she notes, is an interactive experience with which even young kids can get involved.

“Food prep skills can be valuable for our whole lives,” she says.

Just as importantly, explains Markey, parents should model healthy eating behaviors, but that doesn’t mean they need to narrate food choices for their kids or make such a big deal about their food decisions.

“Don’t draw attention to food as something that needs to take up a lot of mental space,” she says. “Worrying about food and spending a lot of time focused on making only healthy options can result in a psychologically unhealthy relationship with food.”

Lastly, she says, parents should create a healthy food environment without being restrictive about some food indulgences.

“In other words, make it easy for kids to make healthy food choices most of the time,” says Markey.

The Rutgers–Camden researcher also offers some sage advice for coming up with a successful daily routine of packing lunches in a blog post, “More Than 100 Healthy School Lunch Ideas That Don’t Involve a Sandwich.” For starters, she writes, parents should try to include at least one fruit or vegetable in their kids’ lunches in order to get their recommended serving of two to six cups per day. She suggests that parents prep nonperishable options such as dried fruit the night before, in order to prevent forgetting them in the morning.

Likewise, she writes, parents can ensure that kids get their recommended four to six ounces of protein per day without having to pack sandwiches – and their starchy sidepieces – by trying less conventional options such as a tablespoon of peanut butter, one egg, 12 almonds, a cup of Greek yogurt, and two tablespoons of hummus.

“All of these servings have the equivalent of one cup of protein,” writes Markey.

Next, Markey notes that she tries to limit carbohydrates when packing lunches because there are many opportunities for kids to get carbs throughout the day. Rice cakes and whole-wheat pita bread are a couple of lunch-friendly, lower-carb options.

Markey also offers a “five things lunch” plan, a novel approach for ensuring that kids get a serving of fruit, vegetables, protein/dairy, and carbohydrates, along with one additional item.

Posted in: Research Highlights

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