It's the start of a new era in the Jones' house - our oldest starts Kindergarten (TODAY!). My biggest girl is smart as a whip, so funny and creative, and fiercely independent, and while there is absolutely part of me that is sad time passes so quickly, she is no doubt ready. At our school, with big girl status comes a big girl responsibility - eating in the cafeteria. And as I started thinking about arguably my most picky eater choosing what she's going to have for lunch day in and day out without me there to set some appropriate boundaries (see: chocolate PB smoothie situation…), I started thinking about how I could encourage her from afar to make good choices. So here are some quick tips for encouraging healthy eating in the cafeteria setting (or anytime you aren't with your kiddo).
Start at home. I think the most important thing you can do to equip your kids to make good choices is show them what good nutrition looks like at home. Offering healthy meals and discussing what makes the meal healthy will inevitably transfer some knowledge of good nutrition over to them and influence their decision making even when you're not around.
Look together. Most cafeterias post their weekly menus online now, so take a look together with your child ahead of time and ask them what sounds good or what they think they might choose. Starting a discussion with your child about what the healthiest options are can help guide their decision making and make making a choice in the moment less overwhelming.
Set expectations. Talk to your kids about what you expect their meals to look like and encourage some healthy boundaries like "if you want dessert, please also eat a vegetable." Gentle encouragement is your best guide here because kids are influenced by so many things (including what their peers are doing) and we always want to create a positive food environment. Avoid labeling foods as "good" or "bad" and instead use words like "nutritious" or "healthy" and "fun". (In our house a "fun" food is a food you eat just for enjoyment (aka a treat) not because it is helpful to your body.)
Make a date. If your school (and your schedule) allows it, set aside time regularly to eat with your child. Have them walk you through the line and discuss what all the options are and what they usually choose.
Follow up. Ask your child when they get home what they had for lunch. Ask about how they liked their meal and how they felt in the afternoon after they ate. Beginning to help your kids see the connection between what they ate and how they feel is really important for developing healthy eaters.
Loosen the reins. Your kid isn't going to make a healthy choice every single time. If your kid loves pizza and the school is offering pizza one day, encourage them to have a slice. The model of good nutrition at home is way more impactful on your kids overall well-being then them eating ice cream two days in a row.