Do you often spend your days rushing to find your son’s soccer shoes just before his carpool arrives?
Or picking your daughter’s clothes off the floor after you’ve asked her three times and just-can’t-face-another-argument-right-now?
Do you sometimes get that horrible sinking feeling that you’ll be doing everything for your kids until they’re full-fledged adults, and possibly beyond?
Some days it feels like, without you, they’ll end up living in a pig sty eating McDonald’s for breakfast, Taco Bell for lunch and Domino’s for dinner. Every. Single. Day.
Raising responsible, independent kids is tough. It’s so important to let them do things on their own, from making a snack to walking to school by themselves, right from the time they’re little. But it’s so hard to let go, whether it’s accepting a messy kitchen or acknowledging that you can’t hold your child’s hand forever.
Our ultimate goal as parents is to send our kids off into the world armed with some basic life skills and the ability to make healthy choices. At the very least I want my kids to be able to do a load of laundry, run the vacuum, and prepare a meal.
And by meal I mean a healthy balance of all the food groups, not reheated nuggets and frozen pizza. (And yes, they need to be financially literate, socially responsible, and culturally aware… but baby steps people, baby steps.)
So, where to begin?
I started with Lunch!
Let me explain.
Three years ago, I had this brilliant idea to start my kids on the road to personal responsibility one lunch at a time. Not only has this helped foster independence, but, with a few easy tricks that I’ll get to in a minute, this has motivated my kids to eat healthy as well. Double whammy!
Kids of all ages can get involved in lunch making, and by starting early, it’ll become part of their daily routine before you (or they!) even know it.
- Pre-schoolers can be involved in the decision making process by choosing the fruit, for example: will it be apple slices today or bananas?
- Elementary school kids can pack the snack while you pack the rest of the lunch.
- By middle school they’ll be making most of the lunch themselves, although they’ll appreciate help with the sandwich or reheating leftovers for the thermos.
- And by the time they’re in high school, they’ll be making the entire lunch themselves.
But how do you get to this happy, independent stage and ensure that your kids are eating healthy at the same time?
The first step towards fostering independence is to stay out of the way. Let them do what is possible at their age on their own. Let them fail, if need be.
I found this to be the hardest part.
I know we all learn through failure, but that concept is easier to swallow when applied to learning to ride a bike, say, than learning to choose healthy food. A skinned knee is one thing, but we’re talking nutrition here: growing bodies! developing brains!
My kids are in high school now, and, while the first few weeks of Grade 9 were a time of trial and error, I think we’ve finally got the healthy lunch thing down.
The road from junky lunch to healthy choices was not without pain, however. My daughter arrived home one afternoon in the early weeks of September and threw herself on the couch.
“I’m starving! I’m going to pass out! I fainted on the bus!!”
“Well I practically fainted!” (She’s in the drama program at school, not that she needs instruction.) It was soon revealed that lunch had consisted of some crackers, a granola bar and a couple of cookies.
In his book Motivation, Brian Tracey says “All motivation is self-motivation.” It sounds self-evident: every parent of a two year old knows how hard it is to get a kid to do something unless he wants to do it himself.
If you can get your kids to make healthy choices for their own reasons, and not just because you’re telling them to, they’ll be far more likely to stick with it.
I’m no expert on motivation (I’m writing this in my pjs), but I’ve found that motivation works best when you link it to things kids care about.
Here are five motivational techniques that work with my kids.
1. Appeal to their vanity.
Healthy eating promotes clearer skin, better muscle tone, and shinier hair. When puberty hits, pimples and body-image-angst become overriding concerns. Remind your kids that what they put inside is reflected on the outside.
2. Appeal to their competitive nature.
- Healthy food makes you smarter. And faster! And stronger! I tell my kids this all the time, and it works. My kids are teens and hyper aware of how important good marks are in high school in order to get into the university of their choice.
- With younger kids the “makes you stronger” argument might work better. Watch an episode of Popeye together and tell them that’s why you eat spinach even though it isn’t your favorite.
3. Appeal to their frugality.
It’s cheaper to make your own lunch than to buy it. My kids realize they’d rather save their money for the things they really want, whether it’s a pair of cool boots or going to the movies on the weekend, instead of spending hard earned cash on fast food lunches.
You could even institute a reward system – every 10 days that everyone in the family packs and takes lunch is equal to one weeknight of take out. The result? Independent kids who pack healthy lunches plus you get a night off from cooking… muahaha… if that doesn’t make you want to laugh like the evil queen, I don’t know what will.
4. Appeal to their growing need for independence.
Kids crave freedom, particularly teens. When they grumble about making their own lunch, I point out that they’re more likely to be allowed to do things on their own if they show that they’re taking some responsibility for their own health and well-being.
5. Appeal to their inherent laziness.
This is counter-intuitive but it works! Kids in general and teens in particular are lazy. They’ll always opt for the path of least resistance. (Unless, they’re resisting you, of course, and then they opt for maximum resistance.) By making healthy eating the easiest route to satisfying hunger, they’ll be more likely to go down that road.
I’ve found this last point to be the biggest motivator. When healthy food is easily available, my kids will pack it and eat it.
Remember the book Bread and Jam for Frances? I’d love my kids to pack a lunch like the one Frances eats at the end: cream of tomato soup, a lobster-salad sandwich, celery, carrots, olives, plums, cherries, and vanilla pudding. Her friend Albert, meanwhile, has cream cheese with cucumbers and tomatoes on rye, a pickle and a hard-boiled egg.
Heck, I wish my lunches were as healthy and delicious!
I mention to my kids that variety is the spice of life, as they make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for the third day running.
“Sure, I like hard boiled eggs,” my son says, “but my friends say they smell like farts.” (Farts? Really? These guys are sixteen. Sad proof that no matter how old they are, boys will always be seven on the inside.)
Regardless of their age, however, it is possible to motivate your kids to take control of their lunch and eat healthy at the same time.
Here are my top tips for ensuring that my kids pack and eat a healthy lunch at school:
- Put a checklist on the fridge reminding them what goes into a healthy lunch. Here’s my list.
- Have fruit washed and on the counter – they’ll remember to pack it if it’s right in front of them.
- Wash, peel and cut up veggies and keep them in Tupperware in the fridge, ready and handy to be popped into a lunch container.
- Make muffins. Made from scratch or mix, doesn’t matter. Having something homemade and handy to eat at lunch or before track practice keeps kids from grabbing a chocolate bar from the vending machine. You can sneak healthy stuff into the muffins if you want, but don’t get caught – I added too much zucchini to the banana muffins once and still haven’t heard the end of “those muffins with the green bits.” (However, I do make brownies using a can of black beans and my kids have not yet caught on.)
- Variety, variety, variety. Have an assortment of breads and fillings in rotation: sliced bread, buns and pitas; chicken, salami, tuna… I find that if the choices vary every few days, there’s no chance for boredom to set in.
- Stuck for ideas? Get online! There are tons of websites with healthy suggestions and beautiful pictures. Make a lunch board on Pinterest for instant inspiration.
The road to independence and healthy eating is fraught with nutritional pot holes, but by starting small and working towards healthy eating goals one lunch at a time, it’s not an impossible destination.
And the ultimate upside? By motivating my kids to take charge of their lunch, I’ve ended up eating a more healthy diet as well. Win-win!
The 2-Minute Action Plan for Fine Parents
For our quick contemplation questions today, answer these (to yourself!) as honestly as you can
- How independent are your kids? If you were abducted by space aliens for a couple of nights on Planet Spa (hey, if we’re dreaming, may as well make it fun, right?), will they survive?
- Given an option, what kind of food would your kids choose to eat? How healthy is their choice? What can you do to inspire healthier choices?
- How often do you eat healthy? What do your lunches consist of?
The Ongoing Action Plan for Fine Parents
- Stick a list on the fridge to remind the kids what they can put in their lunches. You’ll find that after the first month you’ll no longer need this – it becomes second nature.
- Get the kids involved in making the grocery list of lunch items. Ask for their input – I find that my kids will eat it if they’ve had a part in choosing it.
- Commit to having healthy food in the house and ready to go. While this creates more work for you, especially the muffin making and carrot peeling, the long term benefits are worth it for everyone.
- Bring the benefits of healthy eating into dinner conversations. My son is a runner – I find that he’s motivated by hearing about what Meb Keflezighi or Mo Farah (Essentially, these athletes choose fruits and veggies, protein and balance. See? Just like Mum says!)
- Keep an ear out for good horror stories! That one that came out a few years ago about the woman who kept a hamburger on her counter for years and years was fabulous for turning my kids off fast food. (It has since been refuted but my kids don’t know that.)
- Finally, when they have the occasional lapse, and they will lapse, remind them about how great they look, feel and act when they’ve eaten a full and healthy lunch. They’ll roll their eyes, and possibly groan, but the point will be taken.