Policing School Lunches - Helpful or Harmful?

Is this happening at the school your children attend? Are teachers confiscating
chocolate covered granola bars, gummy bears and chips from your kids’ lunch
box and replacing them with ‘healthier’ options? Likely not, is my guess, if they
go to school in Perth or Huron County.  But I've heard and read stories lately of
this  ‘lunch box policing’ happening in other parts of the province so I thought it
might be worth discussing.
Teachers’ concern about what kids have in their lunch box isn’t a new concept.
That’s because teachers know that what kids eat impacts their focus, learning
and overall well-being. In fact, tips for packing healthy lunches for kids is
probably the number one request we get from teachers and principals
 throughout the school year.

So, if food is so important for helping kids learn, shouldn’t teachers be pulling
out the unhealthy options?

The short answer is 'no'.
There are many reasons why little Johnny may not have a 'perfect' lunch every day
and shaming him about the food he does bring won't make him like the 'good'
stuff or feel comfortable eating at school. It's also a way to tell Mom or Dad
that they have no idea how to feed their child. And that message is not
well-received because parents, like teachers, are well aware that kids need
veggies and fruit and less processed and packaged food for optimal health.

What should concerned teachers do?
Stop sweating about the less-than-perfect lunch box. Instead, think long term,
and help kids become more familiar with vegetables and fruit. The tried and
true way to get kids to choose healthier options is by giving them a chance
to try them more often, without pressure, in a place where they feel comfortable,
with people they like and admire. A classroom has all these features. So, when
appropriate and possible, include a vegetable or fruit in lessons about health
or food and give kids a chance to try it. Keep in mind that 'try' doesn't mean eat or even taste. Some kids are hesitant to try anything new and for them, 'try'
means touch and smell. They might need to touch and smell a new food
several times and see their friends eat it before they even put it to their lips.
Don't label food as good or bad. Discuss where it comes from, how it's made
and what influences our food choices.

Avoid positive or negative comments to encourage kids to eat or try healthier
options. For example, at nutrition break, tell kids to focus on eating their lunch
so they can fuel up before going outside instead of telling them to 'eat the
healthy stuff first'.

Make sure that the foods and beverages available in the school environment
support your efforts to expose kids to healthier options: what foods and
beverages are available for celebrations and special events? What's
being sold at the tuck shop or for fundraising?
What should concerned parents do?
Parents can do the same thing as teachers but at home.
Stop stressing about 'nutrition'. That doesn't mean stop serving veggies and the other foods you want your kids to eat. But instead of worrying if your kids are getting enough protein or calcium or whatever, at every meal and snack, think about how and what you feed your kids as a way to develop lifelong eating habits that promote health and a willingness to try different foods. Setting a long term goal takes the pressure off the daily grind of getting kids to eat well. A few imperfect meals or snacks over the course of a week or two isn't going to derail their health, but months and years of them will.
Kids like what they know so help them get to 'know' vegetables and fruits and all kinds of foods you want them to eat. Serve and eat the food you want them to eat. Offer tiny amounts along with the foods they like and are familiar with. Tell them a bit about the food: what it is, where it grows (in the ground, on a plant) and describe the colour and texture, instead of telling them how healthy it is.
Don't pressure them to try food. Research shows that pressure - positive ('it will help you see better') or negative (your hair will fall out if you don't eat it) - eventually backfires. So avoid forcing them to try a food and re-think the 'one-bite rule'. Keep in mind that the goal is not to get them to love vegetables. The goal is to help them get to know a variety of foods so as they get older, they're not anxious about unfamiliar food and can comfortably eat with friends away from home.
Support teachers in their efforts to make sure that the foods and beverages in the school environment include more of the food you want kids to eat most of the time and less of the foods you'd like them to steer away from.
So, is 'lunch box policing' school lunches harmful? Yes it is. It's well-intended but it doesn't help kids feel comfortable eating at school or like healthier options. When it comes to feeding kids, parents and teachers want the same thing and there are ways to work together to achieve this. Offer the food you want kids to eat as often as you can without pressure. Focus on developing lifelong eating habits and don't panic about the nutritional quality of every morsel that goes into a child's mouth.
If you're a teacher or parent looking for ways help with reaching this long term goal, let us know.
Or if you have ideas or programs that have worked for you, please share them!

Michele, RD