I'll be taking a few weeks off to spend time with my family and travel, and will write infrequently during August. Meantime, I'll be reposting some of the more popular posts I’ve written over the past years so that new readers have a chance to catch up.
I hope you all had a great summer, and a happy new school year to all!
As kids go back to school it’s a good time to take a good look at another aspect of their school days: What our kids eat at school, and which steps we can take to improve their nutrition, eating habits and food enjoyment this year.
Start with breakfast
It’s quite intuitive and common sense that children should eat breakfast before they leave home in the morning. Research has also shown that children who skip breakfast don't do as well in school as students who do, and tend to actually be heavier than breakfast eaters.
Yet many kids skip breakfast, and up to a third of teenagers skip breakfast regularly.
Whatever the kids eat at the breakfast table is better than no breakfast at all, but I’d recommend whole grain cereal, oatmeal or bread, a protein such as cheese, peanut butter or an egg, and fruit. Whole fruit, by the way, is much better than fruit juice.
I do not see pastries such as donuts and muffins as breakfast food. Those really sweet cereals that taste like a cookie fall into the same category. To me they're desserts, best eaten sparingly, infrequently, and on a full stomach.
What’s for lunch?
We’d like to believe that we can trust the schools to feed our kids’ bodies as well as their minds. Schools are in a unique position to help improve kids’ eating behaviors and prevent and reduce obesity.
Unfortunately, most school’s food environments are a far cry from what’s taught in nutrition classes. All to often cafeterias rely heavily on cheap processed food.
So take a good look at what’s offered at the cafeteria, and ask your kids what they actually pick from the offerings--if there is a salad bar, that doesn’t mean that the kids eat from it when the other option is French fries.
Also look at the competitive foods offered at schools. Those are the foods available for purchase, in a la carte lines, vending machines, school stores and school fund raisers, and consist mostly of beverages and snacks of poor nutritional quality—sugary drinks, chips, cookies and candy.
The only USDA regulations regarding the sale of competitive foods is that foods of minimal nutritional value shouldn’t be sold during meal times in areas of the school where USDA school meals are sold or eaten. However, those foods can be sold anywhere else on campus – including just outside the cafeteria – at any time. Foods of minimal nutritional value include chewing gum, lollipops, jelly beans and carbonated sodas.
On the other hand, chocolate bars and chips are not considered foods of minimal nutritional value and therefore can be sold right in the school cafeteria during meal times. Schools count on the revenues from these sales, and are reluctant to impose additional restrictions to their availability.
Yes, it’s hard to believe, but schools and the snack food industry share a common interest of peddling junk food to kids.
What’s a parent to do?
There are some schools that are great food environments, in which kids don’t only learn about nutrition, but also grow their own food, connect with local farmers, learn how to cook, and have delicious meals made from scratch freshly made in the school kitchen daily. I hope and believe the number of these schools is growing, but unfortunately, there are many schools that introduce kids to unhealthy eating habits and lots of junk food.
After assessing what’s offered in your kids’ school, if you don’t like what you see, voice your concern. Your opposition to the status quo can be a short letter or email to the school. Raise the topic when you meet fellow parents, or get more active and involved if you have the time and will.
But for immediate results you can decide to opt out. And the explanation you give your kids is as important as what they actually eat.
Packing your kids lunch on some or all school days gives them an idea of what you think lunch should be. Introduced right, it will be interpreted as some extra loving care and an opportunity for kids to have their own choices of good food, and not as a denial of treats.
There are vending machines in my kids’ middle school. I gave them some money on the day they visited the school for the first time, to “buy junk” – making sure they know that this will not happen often. As long as it’s framed in the right perspective, I think a little bit of junk will do no harm, and turning junk into forbidden fruit gives it too much importance and allure.
On the other hand, confusing these items with lunch, and eating them on a regular basis is why many people think that the school food environment contributes to the obesity epidemic.
Have some healthy food ready when they come home
My kids come home really hungry. Considering that there are many hours between lunch and the time kids arrive at home that’s not surprising. That’s why a small mid-afternoon or early evening meal makes sense.
Having a bowl of fruit or nuts out works well. In the past year I started serving yesterday’s leftovers as the afternoon small meal. It’s nice to sit together in the afternoon and talk about the day, and makes good use of the leftovers.
Regardless, the last thing you want is kids grazing on snacks the entire afternoon. Better sit them down for some real food and some conversation.
What’s your school’s food landscape like? What suggestions do you have for improving our kids eating habits?