When I received an e-mail from my son's new preschool outlining their "no treat" snack policy (even for birthdays), my first thought was, "where's the fun?" followed quickly by, "and what, exactly, is considered a treat?" But what really got me was the teacher's list of healthy choices, which included cereal bars, pudding cups, fruit snacks, and pepperoni sticks. My son's preschool is missing the mark completely.
YMC's Irritated By Allergies blogger, Alexandria Durrell, had a similar experience with her son's school, where he was sent home with a note outlining a strict no treat policy for school lunches. If that doesn't seem unreasonable enough, another YMC'er mentioned that her niece's teacher threw out her bag of plain air-popped popcorn, because it was considered a "treat." I found this almost laughable, considering the fact that I put popcorn as one of my top 15 dietitian-approved lunch box staples.
While I completely understand schools wanting to promote good nutrition and healthy choices, I do take issue with schools and teachers taking on the role of "nutritionist" and dictating what parents are allowed to send in their kids' lunches.
Many schools are using Canada’s Food Guide or other public health resources as a guide for their school nutrition policies, which can mislead people into thinking that processed, packaged items are “healthy choices.” Just because a food fits into one of the four food groups, doesn't mean it's a healthy choice. For example, most store-bought cereal and granola bars contain between 11 and 22 grams of added sugar and have a long list of mostly unrecognizable ingredients. Yoplait yogurt tubes aren't much better with about 10 grams of sugar per tube (sugar is the second ingredient), and even worse are dried fruit snacks, which contain about 18 grams of sugar per serving (about 4.5 tsp). Unsweetened fruit juice contains the same amount of sugar as regular pop—about 21 grams or just over 5 tsp per 200 ml juice box. As a comparison, one mini-sized bakery cupcake has about 14 grams of sugar (3.5 tsp).
My point is, some of these so-called "healthy choices" are equivalent to dessert. Why not educate parents on how to make healthier baked goods from scratch, by using less sugar, or by adding whole grain flour, grated fruits or veggies or even beans and lentils to boost nutritional value? Or why not suggest making treat serving sizes smaller (mini cupcakes instead of large cupcakes for birthdays) and pairing treats with more healthful foods, such as milk or fresh fruit? When I posted about this on my facebook fan page, a Dietitian colleague suggested having a "fun food day" once a month instead of having cupcakes for every single birthday (which could be every week), which I thought was a great idea.
I also feel that there is a lot of value in teaching parents to include their kids in grocery shopping, preparing and packing their lunches and to send homemade items prepared with real, whole foods (versus processed, packaged foods) most of the time.
I'm a firm believer in Ellyn Satter's Division Of Responsibility Of Feeding, which teaches that parents are responsible for the whats, wheres, and whens of feeding, while kids are responsible for whether and how much they eat. In my mind, parents should ultimately decide what goes into their child's lunch. Aside from ensuring that each child has access to a safe and healthy eating environment, teachers and school staff should leave the feeding and eating up to parents and kids. To have teachers and school staff dictate what parents can and cannot send in their child's lunch or what kids can and cannot eat out of their lunch, in my mind, undermines the feeding relationship that has been established at home.
Teaching kids about healthy eating extends far beyond food choices. How we eat is just as important as what we eat, and we need to put more of an emphasis on this when teaching our kids about nutrition. We should teach kids that we eat a variety of different foods every day, that all foods can fit (more nourishing foods, as well as fun foods), and that they should try to "listen to their tummies" when deciding whether and how much to eat. In saying that, it's also important to teach kids that we sometimes eat for reasons that extend beyond just physical hunger, such as celebration (birthday party or holiday) or just because something tastes really yummy, and that that is ok.
School nutrition policies seem to be missing the mark, focusing too much on banning certain foods (eg. treats) and emphasizing how healthy and nutritious other foods are (eg.vegetables and fruits). Although there is value in teaching our kids about balance and nutrition, in my opinion, the focus needs to shift more towards helping kids develop a positive relationship with food, encouraging mindful eating, and exposing them to a variety of different foods everyday.
What do you think?
My Facebook page is a great resource for parents who are looking for advice on how to feed their family, easy and yummy recipes, and dealing with food battles. Please feel free to check it out!