‘Healthy’ is what’s OUTSIDE the lunch box

Are you ready for it? It’s the beginning of the school year here in Australia and I’m holding my breath for the onslaught of the lunch box wars. The media will provide their two cents worth with sensationalist headlines,  public health campaigns will come at us, while the food industry ramps up their advertising and mummy bloggers get their lunch box game on. 

What if we looked at our intentions of getting children to eat ‘healthy’ as everything we do beyond the lunch box? It’s a long game, not the endgame. It’s the journey. What if we challenged our attitudes and beliefs about ‘healthy’ instead? What if we shifted our focus to what’s happening outside the lunch box? Is the ‘health’ in what we THINK rather than ‘what’ children eat? 

Let’s value actions and attitudes about food.

When our perception of health narrows only to food choice and the nutritional makeup of food, this endangers our connection to food and epitomises an ideal of health. The power of learning to eat a healthy diet is to say a whole lot less and model eating all kinds of food, a whole lot more. This is the only ‘more or less’ we need to do. It’s not about teaching children to eat more vegetables and less chocolate. 

Language about food promotes your attitude to food. Check-in on what you’re thinking and saying about food. Would you speak that way to a friend? Would you tell them they were unhealthy, bad or toxic? Would you make them fearful of food they liked? Would you shame them out of eating something they enjoyed? Challenge any fearful and judgemental language about food.

It’s not just about the food.

When we zoom in on the food in the lunch box we have our blinkers on. All we think about is the nutritional quality of the food and whether it’s enough or too much. We don’t automatically absorb nutrients after a bite of food nor do we eat empty calories. Remember, ALL food provides nutrition and energy, just in different quantities.

What if we zoomed out and considered that eating is social or relational and the environment provided by schools supports a positive feeding relationship. Teachers have an essential role in this space. Their job is to go with a calm routine. I understand how tricky this is with 20+ children all eating different foods. Whether sitting outside, at a table or on a picnic rug, the key is enough time to eat and children must be sitting down with their food. If we want to promote nutrient absorption, then sitting and eating in a calm environment is non-negotiable. Allow children the flexibility to choose what to eat in any order. If they’re struggling with choosing, take a look and suggest two options. It really doesn’t matter if a child eats all or some of what’s provided. What is important though, is for us adults to trust children’s choices of what and how much they eat.

Health is lived, not gained

If we recognise that we live health rather than gain health, this can shift our mindset to the present. Positive connections with teachers and classmates are part of everyday lived health. Conversing over food, enjoying a meal, seeking food for pleasure and even saying, ‘no thanks, I don’t like that’, is lived-health. This can start with the lunch box at school. Eating is just a small part of a child’s day where they get to be in-charge of their body and mind. And just think about the range of social skills children practice while eating: listening, negotiating, decision-making, learning personal space, speaking at an appropriate volume, practising manners and reading social cues. Social skills promote better physical health and what better way to do that through the everyday eating environment. 

The ‘healthy’ gained outside the lunch box is what will sustain healthy lives now and in the future. Zooming in only obscures the picture of food, zooming out gives opportunities for all of us to learn.

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