Parents, we need to talk.
School lunch is the topic on many parents' minds, what with news stories, blogs and chefs outing school-lunch ladies as misguided fools. (Never mind that the lunch ladies aren't the ones making the food choices.)
And, yes, school lunch needs some serious work. If you have school-age children, you should be paying attention to what your child's school has to offer during lunch and at other times when the vending machines are open. (And if you don't like what you see, pack them a lunch.)
But as a parent, there is a far more important issue than school lunch -- namely what's on your child's plate at home.
Over 18 years, your child will consume at least 19,710 meals (parents of teenagers know that three-times-a-day is just the start).
Your child's school, should you put others in charge of lunch from first grade through 12th, is responsible for barely one in 10 meals, or 2,100 of them.
The biggest determinant of how well your child eats? Well, that would be you, the parents.
Of course, the food environment has evolved in the past 20 years (the deluge of food marketing to kids and adults, the lack of gym classes and walking paths, and much more).
But let's consider your actions, because you control, at least in theory, your child's menu at home.
Mealtime is one of those moments where, regardless of your intent, it teaches a lesson -- over and over again. What the lesson will be is up to you.
"If children grow up with mac-and-cheese and chicken nuggets, then that's what they'll eat as adults," said Jayne Fulkerson, associate professor in the School of Nursing at the University of Minnesota.
In other words, if you don't eat fruits and vegetables at home, it's not surprising when your child doesn't reach for them at school.
In the recent "Food Revolution" TV series with British chef Jamie Oliver, there is a scene where schoolchildren are offered a choice of marinated chicken drumsticks or pizza. When they go for the pizza, Oliver is shocked and blames it on the school lunch program. (And then he cries for the camera, which I sometimes felt like doing when my kids were grumbling about dinner.)
But that's too easy. Blame it on the parents. That scene reflects the kids' unfamiliarity with chicken drumsticks. They haven't eaten it at home.
Even if school lunches were terrific and kids got extensive nutrition education at school, they still would eat most of their meals at home.
"If you don't role-model at home, if children learn what to eat in the classroom and school lunch and then don't do it at home, how do you sustain that?" asked Fulkerson.
A matter of choices
It's about priorities. Today's "helicopter" parents hover over their children and their activities in a manner unseen in prior generations. Yet when it comes to mealtime, many don't give it a second thought as they grab burgers, fries and soda at the drive-through on the way to yet another soccer game.
"There are so many more choices of food for children. Parents are stressed out. Kids are being marketed to aggressively," said Mary Story, professor of nutrition at the University of Minnesota and director of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation's Healthy Eating Research.
"Unhealthy foods are in so many areas of life, not just on TV, but wherever kids turn. There are so many cues in our society for unhealthy eating," said Story. "For parents, it's easy just to give in to their kids. You can see it with parents cooking separate meals for kids. They don't want to deal with the hassle."
It's in your hands
So what can you do as a parent?
• Make mealtime a priority for your family. Sit down together. It isn't just the food that matters -- it's the time together, the sense of feeling connected to those at the table. And research from the U of M shows that children who eat with their families have higher-quality diets.
• Make dinner. Yes, take out the pots and pans and cook. No need for fancy food. Modest offerings will be more healthful than anything you can find at a restaurant or fast-food outlet. You'll eat less, too, than if you're dining at a restaurant.
"I can go to a restaurant and order pasta and know that it is three meals' worth of food because I have a context for that," said Fulkerson. "But kids don't have that perspective. Parents must teach them what a normal portion is."
With easy recipes, meal prep doesn't have to take long. When you do it yourself, you can have the benefit of using less processed foods and adding more variety to your diet than you will get eating out.
• Serve only one meal at mealtime. The home kitchen isn't a restaurant with a short-order cook. There should be one choice and that's called dinner. Frequent dining out gets kids accustomed to the "I want this, not that" approach to mealtime. Remember who's in charge (whoever is doing the cooking).
• Cook together. Let your children help with the cooking. It's not fast, and it's often messy. But learning to cook teaches children how to take care of themselves and how to eat healthfully. Plus, not so incidentally, kids really like it. (And they do get better at it with time.) They are also more likely to eat the food when they've been part of its preparation (see above).
• Keep healthful food in the house. That seems like a no-brainer, but check your pantry and refrigerator. Is it stocked with soda, chips and sweets? If so, don't be surprised if your child chooses those foods. As the parent, you're the gatekeeper, at least when your children are young.
Take a cue from the marketers and make good food visible in your kitchen. That means fresh fruit on the counter where the kids will see it (if you leave it in the refrigerator, no one will find it).
Behind every overweight child, there is an overweight parent or two, and often an overweight family. Eat better together.
• Expand your food horizons. Try new foods occasionally. "Oftentimes parents give in too easily," said Story, about children who are squeamish about new food. "We've seen in our research that when you increase fruits and vegetables in preschool settings, children will eat them.
"Those parents said, 'I can't believe that my child would eat broccoli' when they see them eat it in preschool. Oftentimes unfamiliar foods need to be presented numerous times in a neutral context for kids to like them."
In your hands
Convinced? Let's head to the kitchen with some family-friendly, easy recipes.
And, hey, bring those kids along.
Lee Svitak Dean, mother of three, with 24 years of child-raising recently behind her, has supervised 26,280 meals for her family during those years. And she still likes to cook.