Welcome to Ask A Dietitian, a series where Yahoo Canada digs into food trends and popular nutrition questions with registered dietitian Abbey Sharp.
This article is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Contact a qualified medical professional before engaging in any physical activity, or making any changes to your diet, medication or lifestyle.
In the world of parenting, few subjects ignite as much passion as school lunches.
From debates about nutrition to concerns about picky eaters, it's a topic that generates a lot of conversation – even a dose of online shaming.
That's why dietitian Abbey Sharp gave us the scoop on what parents should pack for their kids' school lunches and how they can navigate shame around the cost of food — and picky eaters.
What's considered healthy food for children?
When it comes to children's nutrition, Sharp emphasized the importance of three macronutrients: carbohydrates, protein and healthy fats. Carbohydrates provide energy, which is crucial for rapidly growing kids. Protein supports tissue growth, while healthy fats, like Omega 3s, are essential for brain development.
In terms of micronutrients, attention should be given to calcium, vitamin D, iron, fiber and antioxidants (such as vitamin A, C and potassium) among others.
"They are rapidly growing, they're like little metabolism machines, they go through and need a lot of energy," Sharp explained.
Children should not be deprived of carbohydrates.Abbey Sharp
She also said fiber is also really important, adding "anyone that's had a constipated child knows that it's not pleasant."
Children can be fussy with food and often struggle with sitting through proper meals. This is where nutrient-dense foods come into play, Sharp said.
"For me, that means when choosing carbohydrates, ideally choosing carbs that have more fiber in them or more micronutrients, like fruit or whole grains – I see these as doing double-duty."
How to navigate picky eaters
Picky eaters can pose a significant challenge to parents, especially when they are at school.
Sharp's advice is to work with teachers to ensure a no-pressure approach at meal times – not force them to finish their food.
"Pressure often can result in even more protests, more food fear, and a lot more distrust," Sharp explained, “which can actually cause a picky eater to go in reverse to put the brakes on even harder."
For parents who don’t feel confident the teachers can do that, including safe foods – something the child reliably eats when hungry, is key. "Even if that means they're not being exposed to a wide variety of foods, you can work on those foods when you're home in a more supportive environment."
At least one safe food should also always be available at the dinner table, "so the child has the confidence in knowing they're not going to go hungry."
The key is consistent exposure to new foods, encouraging small steps in the child's food journey and avoiding pressure or bribes.
Pressure often can result in even more protests, more food fear and a lot more distrust.Abbey Sharp
"They eventually will feel like they've worked up the courage to even put something on their plate – that is a huge, huge step… Whether it's putting the food on their plate, that's a big step, putting the food to their lips, that's a big step," Sharp claimed.
"There's gonna be lots of these tiny baby steps before you even get to them ingesting that food, and you have to kind of just go along for the ride.
"I know how hard that is for parents, but I always say, 'nutrition is a long game.'"
Cost-effective, healthy lunch ideas
Sometimes the cost of "healthy" foods is also a problem for families. Here are some of Sharp's budget-friendly, nutritious options for school lunches:
Chickpea pasta (fiber and carbohydrates)
Whole grain bread (healthy fats and fiber)
Tuna salad (protein and healthy fats)
Full-fat Greek yogurt (protein-rich)
Fruits and vegetables (fiber and antioxidants)
Dips (extra calories and healthy fats)
Sharp also promoted occasional treats. "It's really important that we take sweet foods off of a pedestal and we normalize their consumption so that kids don't end up feeling deprived."
How to handle judgment from others
Parents often experience guilt or insecurity about what they can provide for their children's meals. But, the expert assures parents that children are "remarkably resilient" when it comes to nutrition.
According to Sharp, shaming parents for their kids school lunches is rooted in victim-blaming and elitism, which often targets women as the nutritional gatekeepers of their families. "We ultimately bear the brunt of a lot of negative feedback when it comes to our children or parenting choices," she claimed.
What matters a lot more than what you feed your children, is how you feed them.Abbey Sharp
It's also essential to remember we cannot fully comprehend the reasons behind the food choices parents make.
"We don't know anybody's full story… So unless that child is literally being abused or starved, it's really not our place to comment or intervene."
What matters more than the specific foods children consume is the atmosphere around mealtimes.
"Family mealtime has been shown in research to have a ton of very important benefits for improving kids’ relationship with their bodies and food and just general self esteem," Sharp explained.
Remember: it's a journey and every small step counts.