Monday, July 6, 2009

Thoughts on School Food - The Beginning

My 3-year-old daughter started nursery school two weeks ago (technically camp, but camp and school are pretty much the same thing at this age). Until now, I've never had to think too much about what my daughter eats. She eats what we eat, and we eat healthy foods. Sure, I've had to occasionally explain to a family member that she can't have certain foods in their house, and that's never a fun conversation. No one wants to be told that their food isn't good enough. Still, we've been lucky enough to have family that generally sticks to our guidelines ... generally.

School is quite a different story. My daughter has exposure three times a week to what most people consider acceptable food for children, most of which is far from what I would call acceptable. Since it's summer, the school treats the kids every day to ice pops. Now, that sounds like an innocuous, reasonable treat for a child, and most parents wouldn't object, and might even feed their own children such things. But what is an ice pop? It's frozen sugar water, most often sweetened with high fructose corn syrup, colored with artificial colors. Artificial colors contribute to hyperactivity in children and refined sugars like white sugar and high fructose corn syrup are exactly the sorts of sweeteners that can lead to type II diabetes, as well as contributing to the growing (pardon the pun) childhood obesity problem in this country. They are empty calories that don't serve the needs of the child in any way. Giving kids sweets like this, especially on a regular basis, makes it much harder to steer them toward healthier options at meal times. Why should they eat broccoli when they consider candy bars a food? What in the world would drive a parent or a school to give kids such seriously flawed "foods"? It baffles me, but that's the reality most health-conscious parents face when sending their children to school.

So, clearly, I cannot allow my daughter to partake in the foods provided by the school. But even avoiding that does not shelter her from the fact that everyone else is eating these things, and that becomes a difficult conversation to have with a 3-year-old. For now, my daughter assumes that she cannot have other people's foods because she has food allergies. But I would like her to understand that even when there is no danger of food allergens, there are other problems with some foods that make them bad choices. So, I've begun to tell her things like, "we don't eat that because it's not very healthy for us," or "we only have things like that as a treat, on holidays or special occasions," or "it's more fun to make things ourselves at home instead of buying them in a store." I think these sorts of statements help her to understand that we do have choices, but that not all the choices are equal. Eating isn't just about responding to hunger or cravings. It's about listening to the needs of our bodies.

I can teach her these things, hopefully with success, but I can't teach other parents or school personnel without crossing some boundaries. So, the question remains, what do I do to address them? Although I'd love to be an influence on other parents, I realize that's a long shot. For now, I'm contenting myself with modeling what can be done to feed good food to children. If a parent is interested in what I do, I'd be more than happy to share my methods. Otherwise, I'll avoid stepping on anyone's toes.

Thankfully, the school we've chosen is very accommodating in allowing us to provide our daughter's food and drinks. Instead of ice pops, we provide homemade smoothie pops (recipe to follow), and another snack of some kind (usually cut up fruit, but sometimes crackers or whole grain cereals).

The thought has occurred to me that my daughter might become somewhat preachy around other children, and that could become a concern for her socially. I try to stress that different people make different choices. We know what's good for us, but we don't know everything about other people. I hope that message gets through to her enough so that she won't go around judging everyone else. A physically healthy child with a severely injured psyche is not at any kind of advantage.

These last two weeks have given me a good lesson in letting go - something that is truly in order for me now that my little girl is becoming so independent. She needs to find her own way in the world, but as parents, I think it's still important for us to provide the tools and guidance that will help our children make choices that work for them, food-related and otherwise.

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