Saturday, November 24, 2012

Eating Habits of School Children

This post is taken in part from a book review I published on my other blog  I have augmented the book review with additional comments.  The book is titled:

French Kids Eat Everything: How Our Family Moved to France, Cured Picky Eating, Banned Snacking, and Discovered 10 Simple Rules for Raising Happy, Healthy Eaters by Karen Le Billon

Although I do not have young children any more, I enjoyed reading this book. As a substitute teacher, I go to many different schools and I have previously taught regularly in quite a few more and I am not happy with the eating habits I see kids developing.

It started with water. There was a big push to have kids drink more water and since the water from drinking fountains was often not very good, kids started bringing their own water bottles and keeping them on their desks. Some kids didn't especially like plain water, so they would substitute juice for plain water, which soon was switched out for energy drinks. The morning milk and cookies snack, became the morning juice and crackers snack.

Then came the popular opinion that kids should determine when they were hungry and thirsty, so they should be allowed to eat whenever they felt they needed to. In some schools, VERY MANY of them, actually, this has become "kids can eat all day, whenever they want". Some schools try to regulate the types of snacks that kids can eat - candy is a No, but fruit rollups are OK.  Cookies are frowned upon, but almost all chips are OK.  Consequently, when it comes time for lunch, kids aren't especially hungry.  They have filled up on juice and chips, so where is the appeal of the school lunch or the lunch brought from home?

This has led to an INCREDIBLE amount of food being thrown out - from their school lunches or from their packed lunches, usually food that is higher in nutrition than sweet drinks and chips of various sorts. Even at the high school and middle school level, in MANY schools, kids are eating virtually all day. I had one very chubby second grade girl tell me that she "needed" to eat all day, or else she would suffer from faintness. She could have been telling the truth, I have no way of knowing, but it certainly wasn't doing her any good to be eating all day.

So, it was very interesting to me to read about a different culture where this was not accepted. Kids in France, evidently, eat four meals a day - breakfast, mid-day meal, after school snack, and dinner.  These are eaten at fairly strict times and there is virtually NO snacking outside of these times.  If the kids are hungry, that is considered a good thing - they will eat well when the time comes.  Kids eat regular adult foods - no macaroni and cheese for the kids, while the adults eat something exotic.  It is accepted that kids won't like foods the first few times they taste them and it is expected that they will eventually learn to like all of them. 

The only problem with this book for me personally is that I really do not like to cook. It made me wish very much that I did.

I must also admit to skimming a lot of the latter part of the book. Still, if either of my daughters ever decide to have children, I may seriously consider buying this for them.

And should I ever have a say in the matter, I would also seriously advocate for changing the eating habits of children in American schools.  Many, many years ago, I worked for a year and a half in a private school in the eastern part of the United States.  At this school, there were two teachers for every grade level (the regular teacher and an assistant teacher).  The whole school ate lunch at the same time and it was served family style from their own kitchen.  Two teachers headed up tables with approximately 20 students, two from each class.  Any extra teachers ate at the same time at a separate table.  Kids were encouraged to try everything, but no one was forced to eat anything.  I remember how good the food was and how relaxed the meal was.  No rushing through the eating in order to be the first ones to line up for recess.

I have also subbed at a Montessori school in Alaska, where the kids set the tables with tablecloths and and candles and the teacher sat with around 8 of the students at one table (on a rotating basis).  They, too, were encouraged to eat only wholesome foods and, although they were allowed one snack per day, it was usually one that was brought in by one student from an approved range of choices.

The above two examples illustrate that it is entirely possible to set up lunch in schools in the United States differently from how they are currently structured.  I think we need to take a serious look at the structure of eating and drinking in most schools in the US.  Juice and chips all day don't make for good nutrition or healthy children.

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