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Increasing Confidence with Lunch Time at School

Jay M. Greenfeld, Ph.D.,

One of the most exciting things that can happen for children when starting the new school year is going back into routine. One of those routine includes opening their lunch bags on a daily basis to see what surprises are in-store for lunch each day. For many children, starting school comes with a lot of excitement related to the anticipation of what they will have for lunch. However, for other children lunchtime can be very stressful, anxiety provoking, and create struggles with their self-confidence. One of the most important things going into the school year is to help build your children's confidence when it comes to eating and building a healthy relationship with food and their bodies.

Without hyper-focusing on body image, it is important to acknowledge that I have seen children as young as five years old tell me that they are not happy with how their body looks. If children that young are making these comments, it is clear the education and information on healthy relationships with their bodies can start as early as Kindergarten and continue well into High School. If we want our children to have a healthy relationship with their bodies, they need to know what they put in their bodies will have a direct influence on how they think and feel. If they have a diet of too much sugar, they may have much higher levels of Anxiety because of the high sugar content in the food they are eating. If they are not burning off the excess sugar they are eating through some form of routine exercise and activity, they can often experience a series of highs and lows throughout the day as a result of excess sugar. It will be important to begin the conversation with your children at the beginning of the school year that having a balanced lunch will likely help lead to have a balanced body. Regardless of what grade your child is entering, body-esteem (i.e., how they feel about their bodies) and self-confidence present themselves in a variety of ways at all ages (even as adults). Without becoming obsessed about the latest snack foods and lunch options that all have green labels and need to have the organic stamp on it, the focus needs to be on what is right for your child. Every child has different dietary needs to maximize what their body can digest and metabolize without challenges. However, the key is to be sensible and help your children see that they can be involved in the process to maximize how their bodies can feel.

Help your child build their confidence and knowledge with healthy eating by establishing what their options are for lunch each school day. Reward them for packing their lunch (any time after Grade One). Reward them for putting the best options in their lunch to have a maximal amount of energy. Help them see why they need to include certain things in their lunch and omit others. Even though at times, they will wonder why they cannot have Pepsi, ketchup chips, and a wagon wheel for lunch and a fruit by the foot for the morning snack, these are likely not the best options for children at any age. Help your children see which options are best for them and often times fruit juices are not, even if there are cartoons on the boxes. You want to include vegetables, fruit, some form of sandwich/rice/pasta, a dried snack, and ideally they are drinking water. Of the aforementioned options, the key now lies with you and who is buying the food for the house.

If there are other options in your house that are far more enticing, that is what they will want. It does not mean they cannot have those things (e.g., a mini bag of Oreo cookies or Dunkaroos), but make that a special option for them, not a daily occurrence. Halloween is one day, there is no need for a bag of candy to define a month of eating. Start to pay close attention to how much sugar is packed in their lunches, and remember they are eating two other meals and snacks throughout the day-- it all adds up, help them see that. The more aware and confident they can become with what they are putting in their bodies, the more likely they are to become happier with how they feel about what they ingest. It is important not to focus on the numbers, as we want to try and stay away from any early and unnecessary calorie/carbohydrate/fat content counting and remain focused on the type of food you are packing with them each night.

I suggest packing lunch with them each night. If you can avoid packing their lunches with them in the morning before school, you are helping them learn that things do not need to be rushed. Additionally, by not rushing the packing process, you can discuss with them what important contents need to go in their lunches and why it will help them maximize their focus and energy while in school and in life. By spending that extra time with them the day before, you can also help alleviate what many students struggle with - Anxiety surrounding meal time.

Many children struggle with Anxiety affiliated with expanding their palates and their menus at lunch. To help your child start to feel more comfortable around food and eating a wider variety of options, have them become more involved in trying something new each day. If they try a new item in their lunch each day and end up liking 50% of the new items, you have helped decreased their Anxiety. It is unlikely that they will like everything they try, but introducing new items is crucial so they can feel more confident at meal time, less anxious, and more willing to take risks with their meals. One resource that can help with this is: Raising a Healthy, Happy Eater: A Parent's Handbook: A Stage-by-Stage Guide to Setting Your Child on the Path to Adventurous Eating by Nimali Fernando and Melanie Potock.

Regardless of the age of your children, identifying the importance of following a balanced diet to equip them with the psychological benefits of mealtime is crucial, especially for the children who are more active and need to refuel. Help them establish a healthy relationship with packing their lunches as opposed to seeing it as a chore, not doing it at all, relying on buying snacks from a canteen or vending machine, or skipping meals. Starting the year off right and remaining consistent will likely help contribute to finishing the year the same way; more confident, happy, and purposeful when focused on packing lunches and reaping the psychological benefits for each child and their relationship with mealtime.

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