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 meat on top and you can add cheese, sour cream, lettuce, tomatoes). 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, 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 are already getting a 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 kids 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. 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. They don't miss the fruit snacks (seriously, does anyone out there NOT know that fruit snacks are NOT better than 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. 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 and teach them the joys of fresh green beans cooked just right and lightly salted. 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???