TLT Guest Blogger Dina Rose on “The Argument for Packing An Unhealthy School Lunch”

Continuing with our annual September series, “It Takes A Village to Pack a Lunch,” I wanted to share a thought-provoking post by Dina Rose that originally appeared on her blog, It’s Not About Nutrition.  Even though Dina and I don’t always agree on every kid/food issue, I love the way she delivers sometimes unwelcome truths to parents in a direct, no-nonsense way.   In today’s post, Dina chastises parents who pack “model” healthy lunches with the full knowledge that some of those healthy items are routinely being thrown away.  (Um, that hand you see raised right now is mine: when it comes to the fresh fruit I pack daily in my son’s lunch, I have no illusions that much of that fruit is actually being eaten.)  Instead of focusing so much on food, Dina wants us to focus on broader principles of proportion, variety and moderation.  See what you think.


The Argument For Packing An Unhealthy School Lunch

by Dina Rose

There’s a lot of pressure at this time of year to write a back-to-school healthy lunch post.

But I want to make an argument for packing an unhealthy lunch.  Not one filled with Coke, Fritos and Ring Dings, but not the vegetable-kabob, salad lunch of nutritionists’ (and bloggers’) dreams.

I’m talking about a lunch that might not have fruits or vegetables in it (yet).

Dina Rose of It’s Not About Nutrition

Packing an unhealthy lunch can be better than packing a healthy lunch if…

 1) Your children routinely throw out/ignore the carrot sticks or apple slices you pack.

I know a lot of parents who insist on packing fruits and vegetables (or yogurt, cheese…) knowing full well that their children will never, in a million years, eat these items. I get the rationale (you want to send the message that fruits and veggies are important, and you hope that today will be THE day) but it teaches the unintended lesson I call “Seek and Destroy.” For more on “Seek and Destroy” read The Bad News About Healthy Lunches.

2) You routinely send “healthy” versions of “unhealthy” foods. Think of this is as The (Chocolate) Milk Mistake argument on steroids. Eating pizza produces a pizza eating habit, even if the pizza is healthy. “Healthifying” food also distorts what kids think of as healthy, and this affects their habits too. Read Cookies and The Cycle of Guilty Eating to see how healthy cookies make it harder to teach your kids to eat vegetables.

3) You send the same healthy lunch everyday because you know your kids will eat it. This strategy limits your children’s palates, reinforces their ideas about what they should eat and teaches your children to expect the same food every day. Try introducing new foods after that.

You can use unhealthy lunches to teach your children healthy eating habits.

These lessons may not seem like much but these three principles translate everything your kids need to know about nutrition into behavior and, in doing so, they lay the foundation for better eating down the road.

  • Proportion: Eat foods in different amounts and frequencies according to how healthy they are.

I know this sounds like an impossible lesson to teach using unhealthy foods but it’s not. Help your children learn this concept with whatever group of foods they eat. Even if what you’re distinguishing between are not-so-healthy and really-unhealthy foods, you can still teach the lesson that “we eat this more frequently than that because it has better things for your body.”

  • Variety: Eat different foods from day to day.

Most parents think variety means new.  It doesn’t. Variety means different. Send a different, less-than-healthy lunch from day-to-day and explicitly tell your children why you’re doing this.  (Be up front: this is the foundation for new foods.)  I call this The Rotation Rule and it changes minds and taste buds.

If you think your children will only eat PB&J for lunch, think big. There are breakfast and dinner foods, and plenty of snack combinations that could fill a lunch box (raisins, crackers, yogurt and a granola bar for instance).

If your child must eat the same sandwich every day, at least put it on different bread or cut the sandwich into different shapes.  Do anything you can to make the sandwich different from day to day.

  • Moderation: Eat when you’re hungry and stop when you’re full. 

Don’t ask your children to finish their food. Rather, teach them to eat a little of everything in their lunchbox before they finish any one item.  The rationale?  Kids don’t know when they’re going to be full and so they devour the foods they favor and leave the rest as leftovers.  (This doesn’t seem like an important rule now, but it will stand your kids in good stead when they start eating better.) Read My Child Asks for Seconds of Pasta Before She’s Even Touched Her Peas.

It’s tempting to throw in the towel when your kids don’t eat well. 

Focus on teaching your kids how to eat, however, and you will still set your kids up for a lifetime of healthy eating.

* * *

Thanks to Dina for letting me repost this entry on TLT today.  Let me know what you think.



  1. bw1 says

    Reasons number 2 and 3 make perfect sense, especially reason #2, to which I’d add something – a distinction between food designated as junk food for nutritional reasons,and food so designated because if its cultural context. It’s possible to make nutritionally healthy pizza, but it’s still what I call “recreational food,” and it still reinforces the idea that eating is first and foremost a form of entertainment/gratification. As Bettina has admitted, our basic instincts are to eat unhealthy foods, so the key foundation to a lifetime of healty eating is teaching kids to choose food with though cognitive reasoning instead listening to their “lizard brain.”

    Reason #1 is only operational if kids haven’t been taught a sound methodology for food choices (or if they are spoiled brats.) It’s not a question of eat this, not that, it’s a question of life not being an exercise in doing what feels good. My mother packed very healthy lunches, and when she was working second or third shift, my father, who grew up in relative poverty, packed what I jokingly refer to as penance lunches. I ate every morsel of every lunch, and NEVER threw ANYTHING away,because I simply knew it was expected of me. I knew my parents worked hard to provide that food, and there was simply never a question of dishonoring their efforts be wasting it.

    Dina speaks in one of the linked posts about seek and destroy, with the modifier “unless you have extraordinary eaters,” but then later brushes the edges of my point with the statement “It’s important to shape how your children eat before you worry about what they eat.” I don’t see anything extraordinary about the way I ate, but it’s something that can’t be achieved through indulgent emotional stroking – sometimes you gotta be the bad cop.

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