Dishing up Food Literacy?

On the last day of school, I spent part of the morning helping out with an end-of-the-year party in my child’s classroom.  The teacher had made a DVD of the songs they performed through out the year for everyone, and was reading aloud from a book she had made for them with a page about each child.  It was nothing short of absolutely lovely.  A very touching, meaningful way to bring a successful year of kindergarten to a festive end.

As the teacher was reading, I was helping another parent set up the snacks for the morning.  It’s the end of the year, it’s a time for celebration, and so we were scooping up ice cream (a scoop from each of three different flavors), adding whipped cream, chocolate sauce, sprinkles, and one of those candied cherries. Then on a second plate, each child was getting a cookie and some strawberries.  To drink, they each received a juice box.  I am not an experienced calorie-counter, so I am not going to offer an estimate of what the caloric or fat in-take of this “snack” was, but I don’t think I am far off when I place it in the same category as a full meal (maybe two?) for a six year old child.  And that’s before several of them came back for seconds, thirds, even a forth helping of ice cream, and cookies!

The atmosphere was one of pure celebration, and there was abundant ice cream to go around, still I found myself wanting to be the nay-sayer who tells the children, “no, you have had enough.”   But I couldn’t bring myself to do so; the cultural expectations linking sugary foods with celebration and love were more than I wanted to take on just then.  Instead I asked, sometimes twice, if they were sure they wanted more (a silly, pointless question, I know, but it was all I was able to come up with), and then, reluctantly, I served them another, significantly smaller, portion of the same.  

Before you start thinking that I don’t want children to have fun, or that I don’t know how to throw a party, let me explain what is going through my mind.  This is not the first time children have received a sugary treat.  In fact, depending on the school, the teacher and the parents, they may have one (or more?) every day!  Added together, by the time a child is six, they have had this experience often enough to now be fully convinced that sugary sweetness is the appropriate response (reward? consolation price? bribe?) for good behavior and/or accomplishment.  This cause and effect lesson has most likely been demonstrated at home, at grandparents’ houses, at school, after-school programs, etc, sending a children a clear message about how and when to use sugar and how much of it.  Not only does this eating habit result in way too much sugar and the common resulting blood sugar high and crash in the short term, but it is teaching our children unhealthy eating lessons. Once these lessons are instilled, it is very tough to undo as adults.  Many frequently dieting adults know this from personal experience.

I am all for marking accomplishments with celebration, but I am concerned about the limited way in which we tend to do so, particularly with children.  This is particularly so in a time when childhood overweight and obesity rates, diabetes and attention issues are all on the rise.  Instead of sitting still and eating plates full of sugary snack foods as the way we celebrate with children, how about a dance party? Some group games? Making nourishing food to share together, such a baking bread, preparing a fruit salad or assembling yogurt parfaits?  

Both at home and at school, children spend their days playing and learning from direct instruction, personal experience and adult example-setting.  Attention is paid to language literacy, math, history, science, the arts and the other subject areas of in an effort to teach them well.  Where I feel we are short-changing our children is in food literacy.  Every single one of them will be eating every day for the rest of their lives, and yet we do not officially teach anyone how to eat well.  All the lessons come implicitly.  Therefore, we need to support our children’s health, at home, at school, and elsewhere, by demonstrating healthy eating and lifestyle habits, and being clear about when we make exceptions so that these do not become the rule. For the benefit of our generation and the next, let’s increase our awareness of the implicit messages we send every time we offer food – are we furthering the sugar habit or demonstrating how nourishing healthy foods are?

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