Five ways to help your pre-teen make healthier food choices at school

teens and tweens

They are starting to find their way in life and you have to give them some freedoms but here are five ways to help your pre-teen make healthier food choices at secondary school.

  1. Stop going on about healthy foods and unhealthy foods. Your child is entering a time of rebellion and there’s a big danger that they might just keep selecting the foods you describe as unhealthy to assert their independence. If you have a high fat/high sugar food be explicit about how you’re going to balance it out with some really nutritious foods later. Modelling it for them in this way whilst focusing on “bigging up” foods with loads of good stuff will shift the focus from good vs bad to balanced and nutritious.
  2. Accept that you are an idiot and you don’t know anything. Obviously you’re not but most 11/12 year olds are starting to think this way. Apps and life hacks are much more likely to shift their behaviour than your lectures. Fooducate is an App that allows you to scan foods using the barcode. The App then rates the food using a school style grading system A, A- etc. The grade is based on overall health giving properties of the food such as vitamin, mineral and protein content as well as being low fat, low sugar and low salt. Sadly it’s focused on the American food market so some products will be unfamiliar but it’s still a good educational tool. For the UK Public Health England has produced the Food Smart App. Again your child will be able to scan products and see the fat, sugar and salt content per portion with fun graphics. The App also gives bite sized info and handy swap information. You might also want to look cool by showing your child this “Hack your snacks” infographic.
  3. In the UK you can usually track your child’s food choices online. Most schools are cashless and use biometric data such as finger-prints to enable your child to purchase items. This links to an account you set up which allows you to top up their credit. You can see what they’ve selected and how much it cost. Although schools must provide healthy choices it’s perfectly possible for your child to rock up each day and select only potato wedges, pizza and tray bake!!!! In my opinion it’s best not to wade in too fast with sanctions. Try making positive statements about what you hope to see and why eg “I see you’re eating mainly pizza and tray bake at school you obviously enjoy them. It’s going to be great when you can balance it out with more nutritious choices. They have chicken salad sandwiches, you like those, the protein will help you build strong muscles for your sports.” I’m not saying that they will change their choices overnight but keep going like this and you should see some improvements.
  4. If you notice that the poor choices are a regular feature do chat to your child about any difficulties they face in the cafeteria. Many secondary schools only allow an hour for lunch and have to drive thousands of children through the cafeteria in that time. It may well be true that by the time they get to the front of the queue all the healthier choices have gone. Try to work with the school to see what can be done. It may be possible to increase the proportion of healthy choices and reduce the availability of the pizza and wedges. Some schools run surveys with their students to find out which healthier choices are most popular. This gives them valuable information about  volumes that might be needed.
  5. Whilst I am not a big one for sanctions there is nothing wrong with positive reinforcement of good choices. You could offer a new football or sports top for good choices 3 days out of 5 for a month for example. Try to link the reward to healthy lifestyle to drive the point home a bit more.

Good luck with the new school year and don’t let food become a stress point.

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