Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Is it really so hard to eat healthy foods?

I heard a statistic the other day that really struck me - a third of the world's children suffer from hunger and/or diseases associated with malnutrition while another third of the world's children are on a trajectory of over-eating and wrong-food-eating that will likely lead them towards self-esteem issues, away from active sports, and then towards depression, joint problems, heart disease, diabetes and even early death. Crazy huh?

I'm really busy with other things, but as a small group of valiant moms are trying to take on the issue of adjusting what's on the menu at our kids' school, I've felt a pull towards helping them as much as I can - especially since they're getting some real resistance from the administration.

I'm appalled at what is offered in the lunch room. With all the information we all have about what is and isn't healthy for our bodies, why in the world are government-sponsored lunches for kids in schools so totally out-of-tune with what kids' bodies need?  The menu for this past two weeks: breaded chicken patty sandwiches on white buns with fries and some "salad" (iceberg lettuce smothered in ranch), hamburgers, pizza, sloppy joes, hot dogs, taco salads (I asked the kids what this is and they said it's tortilla chips with grizzly meat on top and you can add cheese, sour cream, lettuce, tomatoes but most kids skip the veggies so it's not really "salad" in my book). Precious little sign of any whole grains or lean protein and while veggies are offered, they are drenched in ranch and/or optional. They do offer fruit rather than dessert and that's a really nice thing our school does that other schools don't bother with. If the kids don't want the regular main course, they can get a pb&j sandwich - one of those little "uncrustable" ones stuffed with corn syrupy jam and sugary peanut butter on white bread.

Simple changes could really make a difference. Why can't we phase out the chocolate milk that's currently offered every day? I'm all for chocolate milk as an occasional treat but kids don't need it for breakfast and lunch every single day (in fact, if they drink chocolate rather than regular milk at school, they're adding 2 full GALLONS of sugar to their diet each year). Would it be so hard to switch white bread and pasta for whole wheat? Couldn't we gradually phase out some of the fatty meats in favor of beans and hummus and pasta with red sauce, easy, kid-friendly stuff like that?

Sure, parents can send healthy homemade lunches to school with their kids - and many do exactly that. But so many kids get and really need free school lunch. Shouldn't those kids who need free lunch, and who may be getting pretty poor diet at home, have a chance to be exposed to healthy foods at school?

Enough on schools. On to parents - with all the information available to parents, why are parents still so heavily buying these "kid foods" that really don't give their children the nutrients and energy they need? Yes, I know the pre-packaged, pre-prepared kid-focused foods like mac and cheese and chicken nuggets and pb&j seem like the easy and normal way to go and I know it's hard to buck the trends around us. But seriously, we can make better choices, can't we?

Here are the main reasons I hear about why schools and parents don't feed their families healthier foods:

1. "Kids won't eat healthy food." Kids complain up and down about what's offered right now in lunchrooms across the country and I see them toss most of what's on their trays in the garbage as they run out for recess. So if they complain about healthier lunches and keep throwing away part of their lunches, no big difference there. It seems like kids will complain about food at school, at home, anywhere - especially if they think their complaining will lead to getting the food they want.

My kids have always loved the healthy, colorful, tasty, well-prepared meals we've hyped up and given them at home (especially since they get to help prepare these meals and "ownership" makes a real difference). My kids and all their little friends who are in and out of our house all the time happily eat apples and grapes and oranges and carrots and snap peas for snacks. They love the 7-grain Kashi TLC crackers with a thin slice of sharp cheddar on top. They love air-popped popcorn with a touch of salt and butter (not the stuff in the bags - just get an air popper - cheaper and so much healthier plus lots of fun to see the popcorn come out!). They don't miss the fruit snacks (seriously, does anyone out there NOT know that fruit snacks are actually just candy?) or chips or soda that people think of as "kid snacks." They don't compare because there's not a chance to compare. This is what we have so this is what we eat. Ultimately, kids eat what's available.

I'm not saying we don't ever have treats around here. We do eat candy and store-bought prepared stuff sometimes. But the norm for us is healthy fresh foods and kids generally accept whatever the norm is once it's established.

2. "Healthy food is more expensive." Healthy food is NOT more expensive. I'd venture to guess that my grocery bill is less than pretty much every family out there with 7 people. We eat fresh fruits and veggies in their season. We eat lots of rice and beans and lentils (serious cheapness - and deliciousness). We eat brown bread and whole wheat pasta (which is pennies away from white bread and white pasta). We go easy on the meat which is generally expensive. We eat homemade cookies that are healthier and cheaper than store-bought ones. We work together to prepare our own food rather than buying pre-prepared food full of fat, sodium and ingredients with long crazy names you can't pronounce. We buy bulk foods and it's cheaper and easier on the environment that way. I make quick, easy, tasty meals using in expensive ingredients and good recipes that focus on spices that give flavor rather than the salt and fat that many meals depend on for flavor.

Yes healthy food CAN be more expensive. But it doesn't have to be. If you buy individual packs of pre-cut apples, yep, that'll add up faster than fruit snacks. But if you buy apples for 68 cents a pound and take 30 seconds to chop them up for your kids, I think you'll fill your kids up more cheaply than you would with a bag of chips. If you think you always have to serve ranch dressing or cheese sauce or a bunch of butter with all veggies, that'll add up. Let your kids pick out exciting fruits and veggies at the grocery store, or better yet, at a Farmer's Market. Eat some naked veggies in front of your kids saying "mmmm" and "yum" and point out how cool those little peas are inside the sugar snap pea pods. Teach them the joys of fresh green beans cooked just right and lightly salted. Be a great example of enjoying healthy food.

Fresh food, unpackaged, naked and in season is NOT expensive. And there are tons of home-cooked healthy meals that are much cheaper than eating off the dollar menu at a fast-food restaurant.

I am nowhere near perfect when it comes to eating healthy. I eat more sweets and cheese and pasta than I really should and I certainly overeat sometimes. We make cookies a lot. We love good ice cream. And we indulge in yummy Italian crusty white bread  as well as hamburgers and pizza when the mood strikes us. We aren't super strict about food. But we usually eat things that are as "close to the earth" as possible. We love brown bread. We eat our veggies. We love our fruit. And we don't buy hardly anything pre-prepared or packaged. I feel good about what we eat around here for the most part.

I know that some kids have real eating issues due to allergies, the way their bodies work, special tactile sensitivities or especially picky personalities. I know that moms and dads and kids can't control everything about their kids' food intake or how their little bodies react to food. I get that. But I also get that parents and schools have huge influence over what kids eat and I think that we should all try to do the hard thing and the right thing more seriously and more often and get more healthy foods in front of our kids so their bodies can be nourished properly. I know it's very hard work to get certain kids to eat anything remotely outside their comfort zone. But I've seen parents work hard and keep trying and find ways to help their kids eat healthily even when the going is really rough.

We teach our kids that what we eat is about our health - not about our looks. Healthy people come in many shapes and sizes. I focus on teaching my kids to cook, prepare, savor and enjoy good food. We read the labels on food packages and watch YouTube videos about where our food comes from. We enjoy soda on special occasions and milk once or twice a day but other than that, we just drink water from the tap and we save tons of money by spending almost nothing on drinks (let alone saving the environment by avoiding all that packaging involved in drinks). We make cookies or brownies from scratch pretty much every week and we love good treats. We politely eat what we're offered at other people's houses and accept that everyone has slightly different needs and different taste buds and traditions that will lead them to make different choices and that's OK. But overall, we teach our kids that it's important to feed our bodies as healthfully as we can so we can maximize our energy and live long, healthy lives.

I've got a big post half-written about how I became so interested in healthy eating and other stuff on this topic. I'll finish that and post somewhat soon. Plus I'll keep posting some of my favorite healthy recipes. But what got me thinking about all this especially was this post that was forwarded to me today and all the comments at the end of it:

What do you think???

What works for you when it comes to healthy eating in your family?


charity said...

wow, sar. this got me through 20 solid minutes on the stairmaster today. very thorough. I have always been impressed with you and your family's healthy eating habits. I am on a pretty intense health food kick right now (pretty much gluten and sugar free) and I feel SO good! love you!!

For the Love of Naps - Sarah said...

I agree with all that you wrote. Have you watched Food Inc. SO Overwhelming. I think that healthy food is more expensive though in some ways. If you go and buy two can sometimes cost more than a candy bar or happy meal. Or a bag of chips. Your post made me smile too becuase today at our mommy / kiddo class...the parent in charge of bringing snacks for the kids and mommys...brought these muffins for the moms that were made with all these chunks of fruits and veggies in. They contained no oil, sugar etc. They were SO healthy and I honestly didn't finish mine and was disappointed. haha. And she said it was a new recipe but she tries to serve healthy snacks at her house. But guess what she brought for the kids. Animal crackers and FRUIT SNACKS. Seriously. FRUIT SNACKS. I watched from the window that you can see into the kid room while having the parent education part and Henry was hoarding the random fruit snacks that bounced around the table because we don't buy them at our house..they are a halloween candy treat in our house. SO FUNNY to me that my kid was eating candy and I was stuck with this muffin that was so gross. HAHAHAHA! Loved this post. Sarah (short haired sarah from NH retreat!)

Hilary said...

Honestly, I think that much like good parenting it's difficult, especially at first, to not be a short order cook to fill your kids with crap.

We certainly didn't eat that gross stuff when I was a kid, they had balanced meals with a fruit and a veggie and every now and then a snack, but I really wish they'd get some real chefs in there. I think the meals could be a lot better.

Jen H. said...

My girls pack their own healthy lunches to take to school. But almost every single day, they report that their teachers have given them treats. I think the treats are usually rewards for good behavior. It is very frustrating. Our teachers in California never, ever gave the kids food--they had different ways of motivating them to learn and behave well. Somehow the culture here is that schoolchildren expect to be given treats frequently.

Ashley said...

TOtally agree Saren. Would love some of your healthy beans and lentils recipes. Especially the beans and rice one we had at bear lake. SO good. But i do have to say, we eat pretty darn healthy and have for a the last 3 and half years, and Brooke still fights it ALL the time. But we still stick with it. And i feel like i can see some light at the end of the tunnel with all her complaining, not much, but some. As far as teh school lunches, she never gets to buy for that reason. But our school is WAY too strict with treats in the classroom. LIke, we didn't have a "fall" carnival because it involves too much candy. And we can't have treats at most class parties. But they will serve JUNK in the cafeteria. I just don't get it. I could go on and on. other good movies are food matters and fat, sick and nearly dead. If parents would just watch it, they would see that healthy food has such a profound impact on their kids.

Tara said...

You hit the nail right on the head when you said that kids will eat what they are offered.

We just came off of our Christmas candy/treat/junk food detox. We have family stay with us during the holidays (we are house sitting) and they loved to have chips/oreos/pop/you name it for the children. You can guess what my two year old was begging for every day!

However, now that all of that is out of the house, my little guy is back to begging for apples and whole wheat bread again. We like making our own cookies, too.

Would love to see your recipes!

Tara said...

You hit the nail right on the head when you said that kids will eat what they are offered.

We just came off of our Christmas candy/treat/junk food detox. We have family stay with us during the holidays (we are house sitting) and they loved to have chips/oreos/pop/you name it for the children. You can guess what my two year old was begging for every day!

However, now that all of that is out of the house, my little guy is back to begging for apples and whole wheat bread again. We like making our own cookies, too.

Would love to see your recipes!

Megan said...

I LOVE this! Moms spend so much energy on just about every other aspect of parenting, but when it comes to eating, people act like you are a freak if you have an opinion about healthy eating. It's like they think you are depriving your children of soemthing if you don't let them eat food that will do nothing but harm to them if given on a regular basis. I don't get it. Is our society really that out of touch with how yummy and soul-feeding a healthy diet can be, not to mention crucial to a healthy childhood?!

We do much of what you do, adding in that we try to choose organic dairy whenever possible. We do green smoothies every day (even the toddler). We drink mainly water also. My kids prefer brown bread. I do agree though that is is important to be polite...we always gratefully accept what we are offered as guests in others' homes, in addition to "lightening up" a little when others are visiting. :)

I am NOT a shopper who watches ads and clips coupons, so I'm sure we could be saving some money, but I don't believe healthy food is always cheaper or even the same. But our motto in our home is that we'd rather pay for good food and have healthy bodies than pay for all kinds of food-related health problems. You truly can't put a price on the food God intended us to eat or on good health.

I'd love to see some bean and lentil recipes!


Felicity said...

Saren I couldn't agree more!! I have often heard parents say things like, 'but my children just won't eat it' when referring to healthy food/vegies etc, but the reality is, children will eat what's available to them. As parents, we do the shopping. NOT the children. We can choose what food we bring into our homes, and therefore, what our kids become accustomed to. I know some kids are more picky than others, but still, if we don't offer junk/processed food as a replacement for the healthy stuff, they will eat the good stuff, even the picky eaters will! (and if healthy food is introduced right from when they're babies that also makes a big difference)! In Australia it is very rare to have a cafeteria at a school (I think only boarding schools have that option) and I am shocked at the food choices available to the kids everyday!! Healthy lunches are a BIG deal here (that doesn't mean everyone has them though)!. At my kids school they have 'crunch and sip' time everyday, which is where they can have a drink of water and some fruit or vegies during class. The kids love it! And chocolate milk everyday? That does seem crazy! Like you said, we love treats too, but we treat them as such and don't have them everyday! Another thing I find really interesting is the studies which link behavior issues to different preservatives and additives in processed food! Lots of 'food for thought' there :) This is a topic I am quite passionate about, so I look forward to reading your other post!!

Sarah said...

What a great post Saren! I have sent a birthday treat a few times with my children that was healthy---fruit kebobs. Now I would think "lame" right of the bat too, but do you know my kids (who requested this!) came back and said, "Mom everyone LOVED them...more than all that other stuff we usually get!" What is sort of sad is that I think that kids consider fresh fruit-berries, and melon, etc-as some "rare" treat vs. the common old sugary cookie and cupcake they have access to every day. (Which is the opposite of the way I grew up-those sugary snacks/candy were so special because they were indeed treats-reserved for holidays and rare special occasions.) Kids WILL choose to eat healthy if they are given the right choices and their taste buds have a chance to adjust to what real food tastes like. I will also admit that it is difficult sometimes-remember when Valentines Day meant just coming home with cards? Now a card isn't a card without candy attached to it-so they come home with basically a bag of candy. Too much spoiling all the way around. I relate to what Sarah (For the Love of Naps) wrote above too-some of it is just education. People really DO think those jelly candy fruit snacks are healthy-or Gogurt-which has more sugar and colorings than just about anything in the entire store-is healthy. It's education and reading ingredients and showing an interest into what our kids are putting into their precious growing bodies.
PS. Our lunch program is disgusting-my kids only buy once in awhile on a pizza day for treat. The rest of the stuff is so gross.

Karyna said...

Such a relief to know other moms feel this way! So many of the ones around me offer fastfood pizza fried food fruit snacks and cookies all day long and then wonder why their kids are so whinney, emotional, and hyperactive. Well balanced, regular meals with sufficient protein make such a difference in behavior.

Bindi said...

Great post! I love my kids so much that the thought of feeding them poorly just seems wrong. Being entrusted to raise them means that I also have to make sure they know how to eat healthily.

In my experience, if you cut up carrots, cucumber, apples, melons, etc and just place it next to the kids while they are watching tv or doing homework, it will all get eaten. Maybe because we don't make a big deal out of it being healthy?

Anonymous said...

Is the food at your children's school cooked on site or prepackage or reheated? Schools don't roll out dough to make fresh shells for burritos. They buy them pre made. Health department doesn't allow for home made treat sent to my sons school. It's public and we take turns for snack week. I send the apples in a bag so the teachers aren't needing to cut things up. It's special ed preschool and just easier given the needs of all in the class for it not to be an entire apple not cut up. But some weeks parents don't send in for their week. The class has funds but limited, those are the weeks the kids end up with cookie or crackers. In bulk. Cheap. They try and bring in a fruit on sale and they use their own money. Sad. It's funding and healt department regulations. There for good reason but drives up costs.

I don't know why chocolate milk is a choice. Except my child is a big sensory guy. Color, even brand matters. Fortunately it would be hard for him to even try a sip of chocolate milk. It needs to be white milk. This is not the typical situation.

Emmy said...

I grew up eating wheat bread, my mom used to call white bread prison bread- so then when I was on my own I only bought white bread as it seemed like a forbidden treat. But then my MIL introduced my son to "sweet bread"- i.e. wheat bread with a little cinnamon and sugar sprinkled on it for breakfast and he just wanted his sweat bread- so we now have all switched and eat wheat bread.
So sometimes, with the help of grandma, kids can even help lead us to be healthier.

Minola said...

It's so nice to know other moms worry too. It really does make a difference on their growth and development. It's been horrible at our house lately since I bought a huge cake for my husbands bday. I have to make a big effort to make them eat real food while they are begging for cake and ice cream every day. I want to throw the cake and Valentines treats away but can't.

Karin said...

Agree, agree, agree. Healthy eating is so important but so easy to cut corners on. I like to tell my kids, "The whiter the bread, the sooner you're dead." Can't wait for your next post and recipes.

Anna said...


I appreciate your willingness to help with the Wellness Committee. When I started it, I thought it would be something that could be solved with a bit of parent involvement and PRESTO, it was fixed. That was naive. This quote hardened my resolve. "Be the change you wish to see in the world." -Mahatma Ghandi. Roll up your sleeves ladies and get to work!

Ellie McFreaken said...

Yay! Finally someone is addressing this issue. After reading this I thought to myself why am I not doing anything about this?
I've told several of my friends that when my kids are all in school my dream job is to be a lunch lady. I want to get in there and actually turn on an oven and bring in a kitchen aid. The food is highly processed and absolutely disgusting. I too saw Food Inc and also read a book called Fast Food Nation. I read the part in the book to my 5th grader last year about what school lunches are made of and now she refused to eat it.

Why don't schools have gardens? Let;s teach the kids how to grow veggies and then surely they will be more interested in eating them right?
We have our fair share of sweets too but like you we eat lots of beans and lentils. Eating healthy may cost a little bit more in some areas (although I don't think it's that much more) BUT in the long run we can't afford not to eat healthy....the medical bills will make up for that.
I am so passionate about this and so if anyone in this area needs some help let me know. Saren...I live near layton. Please keep us posted. (I do know you are busy with lots of stuff:)
Thanks for this awesome post!

Ellie McFreaken said...

Anna....that's my favorite quote! Let's make a change!!!!


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