As we head into the back-to-school season, the idea of independence has been weighing on my mind. Maybe it's because my boys are getting older — the "little" one is on the verge of 7 and his brother is chasing 10 — or maybe it's that a backlash against helicopter parenting is bubbling. Whatever the reason, I've decided to spend the next year nurturing my boys' independence, even when it's uncomfortable and, yes, even around food.
And for the record, it'll pretty much be uncomfortable around food all the time. For me, at least.
Lunch as a Launchpad for Autonomy
I've spent a career honing a deep understanding of family eating and how to nurture healthy eating habits in children, from earning a master's degree in child development to professionally developing recipes for years to writing a cookbook, Make It Easy, that's all about making life as the family cook simpler and healthier at once (from meal planning for different tastes to coping with picky eaters). In other words, family food is my jam. And now I'm going to start giving up my tricks, my parental authority, and even my subtle (but strong) powers of indoctrination to let my boys start making their own food decisions, beginning with school lunch.
The Lunch Box Plan
This year, I plan on starting my boys off with the charge of making school lunch for themselves at least once a week. Although they'll have to work with the ingredients in my pantry, I will take requests and, if they include foods on which I wouldn't normally spend my hard-earned cash, they will have the opportunity to make food purchases with their own money. I hope to step up their responsibilities over the course of the year and even to throw in some dinner duties too.
I'm starting with lunch because it's not only helpful to me on busy school-day mornings, but it also empowers the boys to make a meal they'll eat on their own.
I'm starting with lunch because it's not only helpful to me on busy school-day mornings, but it also empowers the boys to make a meal they'll eat on their own (i.e., without me encouraging them to eat their fruit, explaining that they can't eat the sweet bite until the veggies are gone, and all that other parental jibber-jabber). These weekly school lunches will be their first genuine act of food autonomy, from kitchen to table.
Although handing over this power petrifies me, I know deeply that it's the right thing to do. My formal education and reflections on my own learning have taught me that children fare best when they have the opportunity to learn — and make mistakes — on their own. I fid this to be true when it comes to food, too.
Setting the Foundation for Good Eating Habits
In my work with families around the country, which largely inspired my book, I saw that children from families with different eating habits and varying parenting styles all ate better, were less picky, and gave less trouble at mealtime when they were taught about the value of healthy eating, given access to healthy food, and had healthy eating modeled for them. After all that, they were empowered to make many of their own food choices.
Now, of course, many don't make healthy choices right away or even that frequently. And, if they haven't been taught, aren't given access, or don't have a model for healthy eating to draw on, they may never. But if those three things are in place, something magical (eventually) happens: Kids learn in the most meaningful and powerful way — through personal experience — what it means to make smart and not-so-smart food decisions. This understanding becomes the foundation of their lifelong relationship to food.
And that's the point, isn't it? Not to make sure that my kids love kale if they really don't have a taste for it. After all, I'm a healthy person who hates asparagus — and exercise, for that matter. I still manage to life a healthy life even without the stinky green stalks and having to constantly re-examine and re-commit myself to physical activity. In fact, it's knowing these things about myself that helps keep me healthy. I want my kids to know themselves in the same way. In other words, I don't care if they eat kale. Rather, I want them to have a healthy relationship with food and to know what it takes for them to achieve and maintain that.
In other words, I don't care if they eat kale. Rather, I want them to have a healthy relationship with food and to know what it takes for them to achieve and maintain that.
So I've done the teaching, and I continue to give them access to healthy food and to model healthy, adventurous eating as best I can. Now it's their turn to start figuring out what this all means for them. One lunch box at a time.
Tips from One Hungry Mama
We asked Stacie Billis, author of Make It Easy and the writer behind the family food blog One Hungry Mama, to share her tips on putting together lunches kids actually want to eat. From grocery store hacks to thoughts on school lunch as the road to autonomy, this mini series is full of helpful tips to power you through the school year.