It’s back to school time!
And what a back-to-school it’s been, here in 2021. Some kids were in school last year, some were in-schooled, out-schooled, home-schooled, virtual-schooled. You name it, it’s represented in these classrooms.
But one thing has stayed the same–the nutrition messages our kids are hearing from the adults they love. In fact, it may be even louder now. Maybe COVID-190 decibels louder? As we all face the changes to our psyches and bodies after lengthy lockdowns, we may be spending more time thinking about our bodies–and talking about them–than we did even before the pandemic.
Getting back to the classroom… what does that have to do with the classroom?
The Talmud states, and it’s been often repeated, that we see the world not as it is, but as we are. If much of our mental energy is consumed by thoughts of calories and pounds, we may see that in a child’s lunchtime brownie. We may, out of concern, encourage that child to eat her sandwich and veggies before enjoying that brownie. After all, wouldn’t it be wonderful if she could be spared a life of dieting?
Teachers hold one of the most valuable jobs in the world. They bring up the next generation. And sometimes we just expect too much of them. They can’t possibly be experts in every subject, and yet we somehow expect that the same teacher can instruct in English language, social studies, supervise a math club, and coach soccer–and then throw some special subject on top of them. Like nutrition.
Ahhh food. Everyone eats, so everyone is an expert, right? Here is the thing–to teach nutrition to kids, not only should you understand nutrition from an academic angle, but you also need to marry that information to an age-appropriate way of delivering the message that will build the child up.
Building the child up is always the goal. That’s why teachers become teachers in the first place! But there are so many ways where this goes sideways in the classroom.
When a teacher limits a child’s food, the teacher is likely trying to help the child in some way. Maybe that child brought a lot of sweets. Maybe the child is growing faster than the others. Maybe that child is getting bullied for their size. Or it could be something simple like a sharing or jealousy issue between kids. The problem is the messages received:
- You’re not good enough.
- You don’t deserve X.
- I agree with the kids who are teasing you.
A child should, ideally, have access to as much food as they would like. In this way, they learn to self-regulate. When a child is restricted, they often begin to seek out food. The trade, they hoard, and sometimes they even begin to steal in order to get the one thing they want–that one thing that is suddenly way more delicious than it was before. That’s thanks to the hormones released in response to food restriction. You’ve heard of the Forbidden Fruit, right?
When a teacher repeatedly requests that students bring “healthy” food, why is this so bad? Healthy food promotes focus and a positive experience in the classroom. I’m not going to argue that point. It’s true. But it’s also not that simple.
First, all kinds of flavors can be available throughout the day. We can detect five distinct flavors, and we should experience them all every day! By putting so much focus on “healthy” vs “not healthy”, we teach kids a hierarchy of food: We actually teach them that sugar holds a special place. Ideally, we teach kids that food is food. Learn what works for your body through experimentation with different food experiences. Respect your body and what it tells you.
“Healthy” means different things to different families. When the family is sending food with the child, they get to determine what that means to them. Those choices may be made with influence from culture, religion, financial factors, or due to medical reasons. If a child is in feeding therapy, they will be sent with foods that are currently safe. That safety relates to their feeding skills as well as the potential emotions that are associated with food-stress. This is a process, often a long one, and in the meantime, the child should have access to food appropriate for them as determined by their medical team. By bringing this up often, that child may slip backward in their therapy.
But what about the rest of the kids? Should they miss out on learning about nutrition?
Of course not, but teaching nutrition to kids looks very different from what often happens in the classroom.
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, children should not be put on diets for weight loss. The lifelong emotional repercussions of pediatric dieting are not worth the risk. That also extends to diet talk in the classroom.
What? There is no diet talk in the classroom!
I’ll give a few examples:
- How many grams of sugar are in a can of soda?
- Organizing food into green, yellow, red per the stoplight (always, sometimes, and never foods
But the hyperactivity!
That’s actually a myth I’m happy to dispel. More recent research shows that kids do not become hyperactive from sugar. They become hyperactive because of the sugar environment. The more excited they are to see sugar (and the balloons and gifts and party hats that often accompany it), the more their behavior will change after eating. This takes us back to the “food neutrality” argument earlier on.
Food rules in school are completely necessary. While nut allergies are not as common as many believe, the reaction after an exposure is dramatic enough to make entire schools nut-free. That’s a food rule that’s based on safety.
Many schools have additional rules regarding what a child is allowed to eat at which time or in which order, whether dessert can be part of the meal, and even lists of accepted foods. The problem is that these rules, while well-intended, serve to cause further food confusion.
Food rules in school might not match a family’s values. A family might follow Division of Responsiblity at home, teaching the child to determine food intake through personal experience and physical feelings rather than serving sizes and amount of bites. Food rules might not account for medical concerns, such as the feeding therapy example above. These rules are often enforced by the same people who otherwise provide sugary treats as rewards in the classroom, further confusing the child.
How about a case study?
One teacher recently noticed that certain kids whose parents don’t allow them sweets at school often steal food from the cafeteria, eat their own lunches extremely fast, and take food from other kids’ lunches. The school counselor believes this is due to food/sugar addiction and advises parents to be even more vigilant about restricting food at home.
The issue: Well, according to the counselor, the issue here is the children having an addiction to sweets. That is a common concern, although one that isn’t backed by science. Food is not an addictive substance. For more on that, check out this episode of Nap Time Nutrition. In this episode, I explain why it makes sense (and is 100% predictable) that kids who are restricted regarding specific foods will steal and hoard those same foods.
The real issue: This counselor is projecting their own perception of food onto the kids, not accounting for the families’ own traditions, values, and family obstacles.
The solution: Present a variety in the school cafeteria and allow kids to make their own choices. This study explains why the presence of a salad bar increases fruit and vegetable consumption in school cafeterias–it’s all about presenting options and allowing for individual choice within safe boundaries, not restricting and micromanaging food selections.
What’s the big deal here?
Kids are only in school for about 30% of the day. What’s the big deal?
Kids go to school to learn, but also to socialize. That socialization represents a microcosm of the actual big, bad world out there. School is where kids create lasting bonds with non-family adults. This is essential for future socialization skills.
This is also why it’s so important that those relationships are based on trust. When a child learns that they can’t trust their own body, through:
- Involuntary feeding as a baby (pushing food intake past baby’s fullness)
- Tight portion control
- “Clean your plate” rules
- “One bite” or “No, thank you bite” rules
- Food restriction
- Exposure to diet concepts–either directly to the child or overhearing adults discussing bodies negatively
It increases their chances of experiencing:
- Low self-esteem
- Poor grades
- Increased chance of dieting (according to a Common Sense Media report in 2015, 80% of 10 year olds have been on a diet)
- Increased chances of unplanned pregnancy
Conversely, children who are given food options within age-appropriate boundaries are more likely to:
- Feel confident in their body (and minds)
- Be more socially confident
- Show greater resilience
- Have healthy, trusting relationships with their adults
So what can I do with this information?
If you’re a teacher, consider the messages you’re sending your students. Does food come up a lot during the day? Do you find yourself using a lot of food-based examples? Consider diversifying. Many school districts have dietitians on staff who can help you create age-appropriate nutrition-based programs. I’m happy to speak with the administration or the PTO at your school to help–just email me!
If you’re a parent, share your concerns with the teacher or with the administration. You can check out this blog here with a printable letter all ready for your school administration.
And while you’re considering the value of a healthy relationship with food, might as well explore your own thoughts. Amelia Sherry has written a wonderful (free!) workbook that can help you heal your relationship with food and raise happy, healthy eaters! Check it out here: https://nourishher.com/mealtimepeace