More than a third of all food produced in the U.S. is simply thrown in the garbage, according to a 2014 Food Waste Survey conducted by Sealed Air, an organization dedicated to reducing food waste. In addition, Americans throw away more than 50 million tons of food each year, and the amount of food wasted per person has more than doubled in the past 40 years.
As a parent, you may not find this data surprising. Kids are notoriously fickle eaters. Even the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) notes that if you have children at home, you’re likely wasting more food than other folks. No doubt there is more evidence of this in your child’s lunch box.
Sarah Martinez, a Lafayette mom of two, says that her kids often come home barely having touched their lunches, especially if she’s packed them. She says that her son will eat an almond butter sandwich he’s sloppily slapped together, but will ignore any sandwich she prepares. The sandwich comes home deflated, inedible and wasted. “Basically, they need to be in control of their lunch choices or they won’t eat the lunch,” she says. “If I let them choose what to put in their lunch, it gets eaten.”
Martinez’s amateur assessment is in line with what the American Heart Association (AHA) and many pediatric nutrition experts say: getting the kids involved in lunch and meal preparation can help reduce waste and get kids to make healthier food choices.
Of course, given unbridled control, many kids would pack a lunch of nothing but cookies and chips, so parents should monitor their choices. This will take some planning and requires that you give up some control, but it can make everyone happier, healthier and less wasteful in the long run. As added (major!) bonuses, giving choices helps build respect, develops problem-solving skills and capitalizes on a child’s normal human need for power and control, according to a recent article in Psychology Today.
Offer Choices to Teach Nutrition
According to Jessica Crandall, registered dietician nutritionist, certified diabetes educator and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, educating our children on nutrition, offering them a variety of healthy options and getting them involved in the process of food preparation and selection will help to build a lifetime of healthier and less wasteful habits. “Nutrition is a learned behavior,” she says.
Registered Dietician Stephanie Hancock, who specializes in pediatric care in Littleton, says, “I’m all for kids packing their own lunch and helping with meal prep as long as they have healthy foods to choose from.” Hancock says getting kids to pack their lunches is a way for everyone to have better control over and ownership of the choices they”re making.
Putting Choice Into Practice
To get started, Crandall suggests having four or five bins or designated areas in the refrigerator and/or pantry, each for a different food group from which your children can choose. “Aim for a fruit, a veggie, a grain, a dairy and a protein,” she says. (See the list below for more information.) Though convenience is important for most families, remember that grabbing an apple or a cheese stick is just as easy as grabbing a sugary granola bar. It simply takes a reimagining of choices.
Both Crandall and Hancock say that one of the biggest mistakes parents make with their children involves allowing them plentiful access to sugary drinks. Unless they”re playing a high-intensity sport for more than 60 minutes, kids don’t need to refill their electrolytes with a sports drink. Fizzy juices aren’t helping, either—these are not much better than soda when it comes to nutritional value. Stick to water or milk for lunch, and don’t make sugary drinks one of the regular lunch choices.
Another point both women make is that setting a good example is on you, the parent or guardian. “If you don’t eat veggies, why are you expecting your kids to? If you aren’t an adventurous eater, don’t expect your kids to be,” Hancock says. And don’t be a short order cook—making one meal for the adults and another for the kids doesn’t help anyone.
Moderation is Key
Healthy eating is all about balance, says Crandall: “You don’t want to go too far in one direction or the other.” Both Crandall and Hancock say that treats on occasion are just fine. Crandall says that she makes a “cookie” every night with her daughter—a mix of banana, dark chocolate chips and oats—to get the feel of a dessert but with a lot less sugar. Smoothies, yogurt parfaits (layers of yogurt, fruit and granola) or a fruit kebab drizzled with melted dark chocolate are great treats as well. “Don’t be too restrictive,” Crandall says.
So go ahead, let them eat cake—on occasion—and the rest of the time let them make their own healthy choices. You”ll reduce food waste and put them on a path to healthy decision making for the rest of their lives.
Courtney Messenbaugh is a freelance writer based in the Boulder area. She is married with three children and a big dog.