Sabeen Islam

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Healthy School Snack Woes and How to Solve Them

It’s an age-old struggle: getting kids to eat healthy. Anything green, leafy, or even slightly resembling a vegetable usually gets met with a scrunched up nose and a subtle pushing to the side of the plate. Many times, it is easier to accept defeat and give in to their junk food demands. It is better than them going hungry, isn’t it? Technically, no. When our children are at a growing age, having a well-balanced diet is vital for their healthy development. Sweet and processed foods may be filling their little bellies, but doing more harm than good along the way.

So, the question is, what do we do to encourage them to willingly eat food that is good for them, particularly when it comes to packing a school lunch which they will have to eat independently at school? As a mom of 2 Elementary school-goers myself, I have tried multiple tricks and tactics. Here is what worked for me: (keep in mind, these are not fool-proof tips. They will work sometimes and not others. But every win, even small ones, counts for something!)

Teach them about the power of healthy eating

"Because I said so" isn’t always a compelling reason for kids to eat healthy food like fruits and veggies. Take a minute to teach them about the important role these foods play in our bodies, how they give us strength, improve our reflexes, and give us more energy. Be sure to speak their language and explain it in a way that makes sense to them. “Super Foods” always interested my kids because it made them think it would give them some sort of super power!

Talk to your children about what they would like to have in their lunchbox

Discuss healthier food and drink choices and decide what will be in the lunchbox together. Involving your children in planning and preparing their own lunch boxes gives them the opportunity to learn about healthy eating, and also gives them a chance to make autonomous decisions about what they will be eating during the day. Even if my kids started going all fancy like wanting a veggie pasta, or a pita wrap, or a fruit salad for their lunch, I would make sure to take the time out to prepare it for them.

Take your children to the grocery store

I know this feels like a task. But the key is to make it a trip that is pre-planned and has a purpose. Make a shopping list of some healthy food choices you want your kids to try (look for alternatives to unhealthy snacks that still taste good. Have you tried banana chips?), and get them to hunt down these items in the store. Take them to the fruit and veggies section and ask them to pick out one new fruit or veggie to try. I find that compensating with allowing them to also choose a favourite snack of their choice (which will most likely be a form of junk food) helps encourage them to try a healthy option too.

Try making eating healthy fun

Make a game of trying new fruits and vegetables. Put fruits, veggies and some dips in a muffin pan. Hand out score cards, pencils or stickers and let kids rate each food. Talk about their favourite and least favourite foods. You may be surprised at how much they’re willing to try if they think they’re just playing a game! I got my veggie-repelled daughter to eat broccoli this way!

Pair fruits and veggies with not-so-favourite foods

Researchers at Texas A&M University, looking for patterns in food consumption among elementary school children, had some interesting findings about when and why kids choose to eat their vegetables. After analysing plate waste data from nearly 8,500 students, one variable stood out that tends to affect whether kids eat their broccoli, spinach or green beans: what else is on the plate. Basically, the research deduced that kids are much more likely to eat their vegetable portion when it's paired with a food that isn't so appealing or a favourite food for them. When chicken nuggets or cheesy pizza is on the plate along with some veggies, for instance, vegetable waste tends to rise significantly. When other less-beloved foods, like a spicy salan, are served, the opposite seems to happen. In other words, if you put in a favourite food item in their lunchbox along with some healthy snacks, you will most likely find the disappearance of the burger, while the sad-looking cucumber and carrot sticks are untouched.

Getting your child to eat and actually enjoy healthy foods takes consistency and perseverance, and most difficult of all, role-modelling. Our children closely observe our relationship to food. They tend to like and dislike much of the same things we do. You can’t expect to have soda with your meal and not have your child want the same, or push away the side salad yourself while your child chows it down happily. The kinds of foods, the types of meals, and the relationship our household has with the food we eat as a family is something that is in your hands as a parent! If you are struggling with getting your child to eat healthy - my advice to you is - baby steps. Take it slow, go easy on yourself and your child, don’t give up, and celebrate small wins. P.S. Trying one bite of a new fruit is a win!