Whereas there is some validity with the blanket statement that “taking kids lunches and snacks away is disgraceful”, there are some caveats that must be addressed. The socio-economic context, the methods, the school culture and policies, as well as the reasons for doing so that contain nuances that aren’t necessarily black and white.
Certainly in some districts and schools, poverty is prevalent, and by no means should any food be withheld from these children. This is a tremendous problem that is increasingly being addressed through programs such as the Breakfast Club of Canada (http://www.breakfastclubcanada.org/)
However, in schools where hunger is not an issue, policies may be in place that restrict junk foods. Parents are usually made aware of this at the beginning of the year through various “Back to school” materials. Although this may be inconvenient to parents, these guidelines are in place with the children’s well-being in mind. A 90 calorie banana has more energy-sustaining nutrients than a granola bar with the same amount of calories and promotes learning and concentration as well as good behavior.
Furthermore, parents may not realize the impact that putting sugary foods in lunches has on the other children in the class, not to mention the exposure to marketing that incites them to increasingly reach for these foods. A parent who packs trail mix, fruit, vegetables, and other nutrient dense foods may have pressure from their children to include sugary options because they cannot understand why their friends are eating these foods in class.
There is an abundance of opportunities for children to have these foods at birthday parties, events, grandparents’ houses, and even after school should the parents choose to do so. Limiting junk food in school can help parents dramatically reduce overall sugar consumption simply because most of the children’s time is spent in school.
One of the main reasons parents seem to put these options in lunches, is because they are afraid that their children won’t eat. However, if expectations are set early on, and consistency is maintained, the children will learn to eat the options that are available to them. Furthermore, if all children are eating healthier options, this promotes a positive culture about these healthier foods and portrays the message that these foods are yummy to eat. We impact and shape our children’s preferences based on what we make available to them.
Teaching kids to eat healthy is comparable to teaching them to read or write. This requires patience, perseverance, consistency, and a collective mindset. The administration, teachers, and parents should be working together in an effort to excite the kids about eating healthy foods. Beyond nutrition education (reading labels and understanding macro and micro nutrients), healthy food can be made exciting and fun to eat and promoting a healthy lifestyle provides an environment for meaningful and sustainable change. Visiting farmers markets and farms, reading healthy books, playing games, using colorful images like rainbows, putting stickers on produce, and much more can be done to get your children wanting these healthier options both in school and at home!
“Demonizing Foods” definitely sets kids up for an unhealthy path and this is where food related language comes into play. Instead of “healthy” and “junk”, we could use terminology such as “Anytime” and “Sometimes” foods. Furthermore, teachers and parents alike should eliminate “picky eater” and similar labels from their vocabulary as this terminology can become a self-fulfilling prophecy for some children.
“Anytime foods” are those include fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, beans, poultry, and whole grains, including complex carbohydrates complete protein, and healthy fats. These foods can be further categorized as green and yellow light foods. Green means “go” and can literally be eaten anytime such a fruits and vegetables. Yellow means “slow down”. For example, there is a limit to how many nuts and seeds one can eat (Although children should be taught to cue into their body’s hunger signals rather than be limited for these types of foods). The category of red does not apply for “Anytime” foods since red means “stop” and we should really reserve this category for “Sometimes” foods. Sometimes foods may be eaten once in a while. The objective here is not to label anything as taboo as this may have the unintended result of making these options more desirable and enticing.
Teachers who are monitoring lunches however, should certainly discuss their concerns with the parents and provide resources that help the parent make healthier choices with their children. (Provided by the administration on behalf of a nutrition professional). No child should ever be made to feel ostracized for what’s in their packed lunches. An alternative method is one where teachers provide green, yellow, and red dot stickers for the children to place on the various elements in their lunches so that the kids themselves are involved in recognizing and understanding the relative importance of foods and balancing their meals accordingly. Alternatively, the teachers can indicate that the “sometimes” food is available to them once they have eaten the “anytime” foods in their lunchboxes. Teachers would not feel a need to “police” the foods the children are eating if parents understand the reasoning behind the process, and work collaboratively with the teachers to promote a healthy environment for all the children.
The objective is to model a lifelong healthy and active lifestyle involving a positive relationship with food where the children are empowered to make healthy choices. Ultimately, we all want what is best for the kids, and the teachers work hard to foster an inclusive environment involving positive behaviors and self-esteem, as well as independence that complement the entire learning experience within their classroom environments.