Are school lunches helping kids develop a healthy relationship with food as well as a healthy body?

Early in my career, I had to make a paradigm shift. Starting out, I thought my job was to tell people how to eat and I expected that they would eat as they “should”. Now I know that eating is a matter of taste and style and depends, for most people, to a lesser extent on nutrition facts. Although I’d love to be able to control what my clients eat, I have settled with the reality that I can’t even control what my dog eats! I buy Whole Foods dog food…he eats the white bread our neighbors toss on their lawn for the birds.
The point here is that your child’s eating style will be as unique as his appearance. It’s important that kids are provided with regular, fairly balanced meals and can choose what and how much to eat. It’s also important that they eat with others because meals are not just about consuming food. Once kids have meals that provide a framework for eating a variety of foods at predictable times, then the tendency to snack will lessen and cravings for processed foods will fade. Your child’s diet won’t be perfect, but he or she can still be perfectly healthy.

Normal, balanced eating has been taught throughout history by example—traditional combinations of foods eaten in a social context. Now we are expecting that kids will eat “healthy” by following a set of nutrition rules while surrounded by an unprecedented variety of very pleasurable, accessible and heavily advertised snacks. It is similar to telling a child, “for God’s sake, don’t touch yourself!”
Several hours after a small breakfast consisting of processed carbs (or no breakfast at all), hungry kids line up for school lunch. They start smelling the food, and then are faced with the choices: a meal? French fries and a Powerade? Dessert and juice? Many adults faced with the choice of what they “should” eat and what they “want” to eat will choose the latter…even more kids will do the same.
So, how can we help?
Adults can do a better job of managing the food environment to make it easier for kids to make more appropriate choices and to learn by example which foods are “staples” and which appear “now and then.” They also learn that combinations of different types of food make a satisfying meal for their body and mouth (otherwise termed hunger and appetite—both are important for guiding food choices).
A more ideal food environment would:

  • Offer fewer ala carte options which encourage kids to eat in a snacking/grazing style with more processed foods.
  • Provide a full meal for a flat fee. Choices can be offered within each food group (kids could select among several protein-containing main dish items; grain foods; a variety of fruits and vegetables; limited beverage options such as milk, chocolate milk or water; and small (1960’s sized) portions of recreational foods (desserts, chips, fries) several times per week.
  • Allow more time for sitting with friends and eating by scheduling longer lunch periods and having shorter lines.
  • Manage the diets of kids by having a deliberate plan for portion sizes and for frequency with which desserts and processed foods appear on the menu.
  • Offer a variety of foods to encourage kids to expand their tastes and see that all foods can be part of a decent diet. While fruit snacks have little redeeming nutritional quality, kids like them and are probably going to eat them. They should see, by example, that they are “now and then” foods (currently, they are available every day).
  • Avoid labeling food as “junk” or “unhealthy” or using nutrition labels that quantify calorie or fat content. With the combination of the obesity epidemic fueling fears and the “dieting” mind-set that is normative in the US, we feel we should identify which foods are junk and tell our kids, “for God’s sake, don’t eat it!” But, most kids like Oreos, for example. Because American culture promotes labeling food as “good” or “bad”, most kids can classify Oreos as bad. There is a small (very small) subset of very disciplined kids that won’t eat them. But most kids, given the chance, will. Of these, many will feel some degree of internal conflict. Negative food labels don’t change the food habits of most kids…they just add shame.

We need to guide our kids to be competent adult eaters by setting a reasonable example for what makes a satisfying meal and a nurturing eating environment. This needs to happen at school as well as at home.
–Marcy Braun, RD, Nutritionist, Pediatric Fitness Clinic, UW Health.
Ellyn Satter’s books will give you more information on feeding kids.