Packing lunches that kids will actually eat can be a daily challenge for many parents, but a University of Guelph family health researcher says the key is to get children involved – and yes, that includes the little ones.
Dr. Jess Haines is a professor in the Department of Family Relations and Applied Nutrition and co-director of the Guelph Family Health Study (GFHS). Her team’s recent research shows that even children under the age of six benefit when they help with preparing meals.
“Our research has found that when kids are involved in the food prep, they are much more likely to eat the food that’s made,” said Haines. “Getting them engaged gets them excited to try the meal.”
A study she recently completed with dietitian and master of science student Julia Broad using data from the Guelph Family Health Study found that when young children were directly involved in meal preparation and grocery shopping, they were less likely to show food fussiness, such as refusing to try new foods.
“When kids are labelled ‘picky eaters,’ food can often become a source of struggle and a battleground of parents trying to maintain authority and kids trying to establish independence,” she said.
“But when you work together on a meal, you’re on the same side. It dissolves the battle lines. It’s not about ‘eat what I made.’ It becomes ‘we made this together.’”
Haines said it’s never too early to get kids making their own lunches and dinners, noting that even preschoolers can help with meal prep.
“Little hands can do a lot in the kitchen. Throughout our research in the GFHS, we have found lots of tasks young kids like to do. They are good at washing vegetables, rinsing and spinning lettuce for salad, cleaning fruit, stirring batters and doughs. There are many ways they can help,” Haines said.
Engaging children in even one step of a recipe can give them a sense of ownership in the meal.
“As you pack the lunches or sit down to eat a meal, share that your child helped with the food and praise their work. A kid who feels investment in the food is much more likely to eat it,” Haines said.
Letting kids help in the kitchen is also the best way to teach them “food literacy,” including knowing what’s healthy, how to make food choices and how to stay safe in the kitchen.
“Schools don’t have a great way of teaching food skills to children, so home-cooked meals are the best way to teach what will become a lifelong skill. And the earlier we start, the better,” she said.
Her recent study with Broad and co-authors published in the journal Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism found that involving children in grocery shopping was also linked to lower food fussiness. While many parents avoid taking their preschoolers to grocery stores for fear of meltdowns, Haines said it’s good to do so occasionally.
“Go when you are not rushed. Take them on a small run, not the big weekly shop. Avoid the ‘problem aisles’ filled with treats and instead take them to the produce section and encourage them to choose the fruit for the week. And try to turn it into a game, like a scavenger hunt.”
Haines said her own kids like to get up early, so she used to get them to help with lunch prep by turning it into a game.
“I’d say, ‘find something that crunches,’ or ‘let’s choose a protein.’ That gives them ownership on the choice. And if you start getting them involved early, you may find that dreaded task can be a job they choose to take over.”
Dr. Jess Haines