Back when we Boomer/Gen X parents were Boomer/Gen X kids, school-provided food choices in the public schools I attended were fairly healthy, though far from perfect. While most of the sandwich bread in our cafeteria was of the spongy-doughy-bleached white variety, meals were usually pretty wholesome with protein, veggies, and pasta or potatoes. There were also apples for sale, in addition to a comparatively limited range of chips, cookies, and ice cream desserts. Soda was available, but there was one machine and that was not located near the cafeteria. The whole nutritional set-up was (maybe) not ideal, but it was far from terrible.
Yet in the years since (I won’t state for the record how many years,) nutrition and food choices have knuckled under to tough financial realities and limited-budget concerns. Soda machines are now scattered all over many school properties, often placed there to generate supplemental sources of revenue to cash-strapped campuses. Many belt-tightened school systems have no choice but to serve government surplus food; what is available at any one time may or may not present well-balanced meal choices. While I am aware that budgets force meal preparers to make hard choices that they may not fully endorse, there are things we parents can do.
What’s a Parent To Do?
Get involved. For example, I and some other concerned parents convinced the local public school system to switch sandwich breads from white to whole wheat, and replaced the soda in vending machines with healthier beverages.
I get that not every school community is as receptive to change as ours. Yet even parents who are not able to influence the policies of their school systems may make sure their own children eat healthful, balanced meals. A well-balanced meal might be defined as one containing a protein, a portion of high-fiber whole grains, and fruits and vegetables. In my family, we referred to these as growing foods (for more on Growing Food vs Treat Food, see my last blog entry). By paying attention to the school’s meal postings describing school lunches – and picking one or two days off of the school menu featuring the healthiest meals and brown-bagging balanced meals the other days—parents can cut down on meals too high in fat or sugar.
Be aware that kids who eat well-balanced meals as a rule do better in school. They tend to be more alert and to focus more effectively; some studies show they also have greater control of their behavior in class and on the playground.
Each family sets up its own rules regarding food; eating healthy—or not-quite-so-healthy—is a lifestyle choice. As children understand (at least generally) the importance of good nutrition and that making healthy selections will not deprive them of foods they like, they can co-create healthy habits that will take them into adulthood.
Lessons as valuable as any learned in school.