Teaching Kids about Food & Eating (Part 1.5)
Since publishing my last post on this topic of food education for kids, a mother approached me about a school assignment that her grade schooler brought home recently. She was concerned about the prescriptive nature of the homework, the subtle good food/bad food philosophy, and the potential for shaming students who didn’t meet goals. She gave me permission to post the situation in the private parents Facebook group I run with my colleague from (and founder of) FeedingBytes.com. That discussion inspired me to add a bit more into this 3-part series. And thus part 1.5 was born.
Teachers are under a lot of pressure to meet standards, ensure their students’ success, and please those students’ parents. Sometimes that spills over into food and eating education, whether or not it is an official standard. Parents sometimes ask teachers to make sure their kids eat all their food and teachers end up generalizing that request to their entire classroom. When recess comes after lunch, kids are often antsy and chatty rather than focused on eating. So teachers feel compelled to require so many bites before kids are excused to play. They might even dictate to kids what order to eat their foods for fear that not eating enough filling and nutritious food will mean difficult behavior that afternoon. Who wants to be surrounded by 20+ HANGRY children? I feel for teachers because they’ve got valid concerns pushing them into the role of food police. While there are things that can help (having recess before lunch), the solution is complex and what works for one school or classroom won’t necessarily work for another school. So I’m not going to tackle this today, but I wanted to validate teachers because I know they are doing the best they can even when we might disagree with specific approaches.
Instead, I’d like to explore how one well intentioned nutrition education assignment could be done in a way that promotes curiosity and a healthy relationship with food..or not.
Let’s imagine a nutrition assignment that involved teaching grade-schoolers about the rainbow of fruits and veggies. Intent in most of these situations is to influence a child’s eating — it has an agenda. This is different than a math or science assignment where learning a skill, fact or understanding of a concept is the main goal. There are understandable reasons for wanting to help children increase their eating of vegetables. Vegetables are rich in beneficial and protective phytochemicals, fiber, and nutrients. We want our kids to make healthy choices in all areas so they can live healthy lives. It’s a common public health goal to help people young and old eat more veggies.
But there’s also fear behind persuasive efforts to get others to eat in a certain way. Lots of “what ifs.” What if they don’t learn to eat these foods without this education? What if because they don’t eat a certain amount of these colorful foods they develop diseases of deficiency or excess? What if they only eat ‘junk’ and develop heart disease and diabetes? What if without a plethora of vegetables they become … GASP … fat?
So let’s say you’re the teacher. Maybe you teach in a typical school setting. Maybe you’re a homeschooling mom. Or maybe you just want some guidelines on how to present veggies in a positive light. Here are some do’s and some don’ts for talking about the rainbow of fruits & veggies:
DON’T aim for quotas and comparisons like “eat 3 colors at dinner” or “let’s see who ate the most rainbow colors this week!” Definitely don’t grade on a child’s eating. Enjoying vegetables is an acquired skill. Some kids are “super tasters” and put off by many vegetable flavors and aromas. Others have difficulty with the texture of veggies. Comparisons and quotas require kids who have difficulty in this area to feel shame and look at eating colorful foods as a chore and task. Pressure to eat certain foods just isn’t helpful for the vast majority of kids. In general, advice about the shoulds and oughts of eating, really needs to be directed at parents–and done so with sensitivity.
DO create opportunities to explore new foods without pressure. Cut open an apple, compare the outside with the inside, look at the seeds, offer samples of different apples. Have kids use their senses: smell the vegetable, feel the vegetable, snap a slice in half, taste if they are ready, and so on. Do the same with other fruits or vegetables. Here’s a lovely apple exploration activity from Bug and Buddy.
DON’T wax on about how “healthy” fruits and vegetables are as if they are superior to all other foods. Tasty foods don’t need nutrition marketing. And kids (heck adults do too!) eat because things taste good. If anything, research shows that harping too much on how healthy and nutritious something is reduces a child’s desire to eat that food. Kids’ bodies are in the season of growing, so as nutrient dense as produce may be, they don’t pack many calories. They aren’t the most important food for kids. They are one category of important foods. Starches, proteins, and fats are also critical for healthy growth.
DO focus on sensory aspects: Is it sweet? juicy? crunchy? bitter? Is the fruit salad colorful? Think of fast food commercials. Do they go on and on about the protein content of their burgers? No, they make you drool with images and sounds that urge you to dive into the TV to eat all that YUM. So talk about how juicy and sweet oranges are, not cold prevention due to their content of vitamin C. Try this apple taste test as a vehicle for discussing the properties of apples.
DON’T be too prescriptive and exclude canned foods or foods with added sugar/fat. If kids are going to get excited about counting up their own foods (without a quota to meet, of course), don’t poo-poo on foods they enjoy. Home canned peaches that contain sugar are still peaches. Peas with butter and salt are still peas. Broccoli roasted with cheese is still broccoli.
Instilling a fear of ingredients or food groups really interferes with a child’s developmental need to feel good about food in general and makes kids tentative. It can also make children more likely to say inappropriate things to kids who eat differently than they do. “Cookies are bad for you–they will rot your teeth!” Nobody likes when someone “yucks on their yum.”
Moreover kids are naturally drawn to sweet flavors–even breastmilk and formula is sweet, not neutral. There is research shows that this liking of sweets is strong until growth is complete. It can be harmful to make children feel afraid or guilty about what seems to be a natural biological drive. Even in adults attempts to be too restricted with eating tends to cause problems later. I want my children to respond positively to a variety of foods rather than hold a rigid black/white view. Black/white food categorization tends to promote disordered eating behaviors rather than health. If any children in the class are prone to anxiety, perfectionism, or experience food insecurity — these kinds of assignments can really increase their worries about something that should feel effortless at this age.
DO incorporate science, math, geography: What makes produce different colors? Why does fruit get sweeter when it ripens? What are the different parts of plants we eat? Where do bananas grow? Why do apples float but not other fruits? Are tomatoes a fruit or a vegetable? What percentage of the class prefers Fuji vs. Red Delicious apples? Which fruits have the most, biggest, smallest seeds? How many green vegetables can you identify? Why does broccoli get soft with cooking? So many things to learn that involve zero stigma and pressure! My friend who blogs at Mealtime Hostage shared what her own children were curious to learn about various foods here.
Keep it Fun, Exploratory, and Pressure-Free
When it comes down to nutrition education in a school-like setting, help kids learn about food in an exploratory way rather than an agenda-driven way that makes food into a chore. Through exploration, children are more likely to discover something new to (genuinely) like and to eat it due to liking rather than duty. And wouldn’t you rather your kids truly enjoy the rainbow of foods?
**Join me in continuing the food & kids discussion in the Feeding Bytes community. We’re all about supporting you as you support your kids with eating!