I went to a school in England that provided milk as a morning snack every day. Adorable, tiny glass bottles of milk. Milk that was delivered early and sat unrefrigerated and sometimes went sour before we drank it. Milk that you had to drink, to the last drop, whether you liked it or not. Milk that would make your bones strong and give you energy. Milk that made me gag and want to throw up. I do not drink milk to this day. (Unless it’s in a latte, and I’m pretty sure the coffee negates any goodness there.)
There is a teacher at my sons’ school who, at the beginning of the year, inspects all her students’ lunch boxes. She does this in her classroom before the kids go down to eat lunch in the gym, even though she’s technically off duty for lunch. She tells them what is acceptable and what is unacceptable, and she tells them that they are not allowed to bring certain foods again (sweetened yogurt and raisins and canned fruit and certain kinds of juice, in addition to the obvious chips and candy). She means well, but she frightens them into submission, annoying a fair number of parents in the process.
Top-down, mandated menus for snacks and lunch are not the answer to the over-abundance of sugar in children’s diets or to promoting healthy eating. The nanny state will only produce rebellious citizens, both adult and child.
Here’s what should happen:
- Get kids to teach themselves (and their parents) good nutrition. At the beginning of the year, a note should go home to parents from teachers saying that the kids and the school are working together to establish healthy eating habits. The kids have learned in class how to build a balanced meal, they have a list of foods from each food group from which to choose, and they have a say in how to build the lunch. They can grade their own lunches from poor to excellent, and the goal is to pack and eat excellent lunches in order to grow excellent learners. Make age-appropriate lessons about the relative costs of fresh and processed food part of the curriculum. Teach them why junk is so cheap and so plentiful. It has to start with the kids, it has to be collaborative, and it has to have a pay-off. It was kids who made our school’s litterless lunch policy. I’m confident they could also lead the charge on ramping up the health value. Who knows? Parents may even be able to take one item off the to do list if the kids plan and pack their own lunches. Let the kids tell their parents that the yogurt they think is healthy is actually full of sugar. Trust them to make healthy choices and reward them with a gold star when they do. Eventually, you won’t need the gold stars.
- Add lots and lots and lots of extracurricular sports to the beginning of the school day. Get kids to school an hour early to play soccer, run track, skip rope, dance, do yoga, run the bases or shoot hoops. Give gym teachers the resources they need to offer those hours of exercise so that the kids can think better all day long. Let them build up a real hunger and let them satisfy it with real food: an apple, say, and enough time at morning recess to eat it and play, too. Study after study has shown that exercise makes for better thinking, but schools are cutting recess and gym times. It defies logic. When there’s no time to run around, sugar is not the only enemy.
- Stop rushing kids through lunch. My kids never finish their lunches and are often starving by the end of the day. I don’t pack junk, but inevitably, it’s the “main course” that’s left in the lunch box at the end of the day because that’s what takes the longest to eat. My kids will often get through the day on only the portions of fruit and veg that I pack because that’s what easiest to wolf down. Hungry kids will make poor choices later in the day, but my kids don’t have time to eat even the healthy foods I pack because they are in such a rush to get outside to play. They know that they feel better after having a really good run around the playground. Honour that and give it to them without taking lunch time out of the play time allowance.