There’s a story making the rounds right now about a mom in Australia who packed a slice of chocolate cake in her three-year-old’s lunch — and received a firm note back from the teacher: “Please choose healthier options for Kindy.” And while this particular incident is news, the phenomenon is not. Teachers grading lunchboxes make the rounds about once every year or two and that’s probably because it happens way more often than that. See this 2015 story from the Today Show about the Colorado mom who packed Oreos and received a note in response detailing a rather arbitrary set of school food rules. “All children are required to have a fruit, a vegetable, and a healthy snack from home, along with a milk.” Okay, fair enough. But there’s also this: ”If they have potatoes, the child will also need bread to go along with it.” What?
So I’m going to talk about why this approach is so flawed. But first, let me say this in defense of teachers: It must be really, really hard to teach a roomful of kids who haven’t eaten properly. Tons of research has shown that hungry kids are more likely to exhibit behavior problems and have a harder time participating in the school day. And while we’ve got free and low-cost school breakfast and lunch programs in this country (for the moment, anyway), teachers often end up supplementing those offerings at their own expense when they know a kid in their class isn’t getting enough to eat at home. So I understand why they feel like they have a stake in a kid’s lunch.
The problem is that the vast majority of teachers don’t have the kind of nutritional training that would qualify them to vet all of these lunches properly. Their ideas about good foods and bad foods stem mostly from whatever diet philosophy they themselves follow, plus the rudimentary nutritional education that’s included in the average elementary school curriculum. The photo above is my own daughter Violet, learning to classify healthy and unhealthy foods at her preschool last week. She came home and told us, “Cookies are yucky, they have sugar bugs and when we eat them, our teeth feel sad. Carrots are good!” Which is only quasi-true from a dental hygiene perspective (last time I checked, carrots also contain sugar and brushing your teeth after meals was pretty important no matter what you’ve been eating) and downright contrary to the shame-free, food-neutral approach to nutrition that we’ve been carefully cultivating since she learned to eat again. This doesn’t mean I’m right and her preschool teacher is wrong. Of course, carrots are healthier than cookies by many measures. But a black and white food rule like “cookies are bad” doesn’t leave any room for the wide variety of philosophies, opinions and scientific debates that emerge once you start talking about what makes for “good” nutrition.
I’ve also been interested to see that most of these stories center on teachers pulling high-sugar foods like cake and cookies out of lunches. As I’ve written before, we live in deeply sugar-phobic times and many teachers and parents alike remain convinced that sugar induces a kind of deranged mania in children, even though a double-blind placebo-controlled study demonstrated over twenty years ago that this just isn’t true. (Here’s another good study with similar results.) Why does the myth hold so firm? One likely explanation is that kids are often served sugar in highly excitable circumstances (like birthday parties), and adults confuse environmental stimulation with nutritional failure. There’s also this psychology 101 thing where the more you hype up a food as forbidden or use it as a reward to be earned, the more a kid is likely to go nuts when he finally gets to eat it. Which is why including treats with regular meals (like school lunch) is a pretty sound nutritional strategy: When we take the mystique away from these coveted foods, kids can learn to enjoy them in moderation without the requisite mood swings and guilt trips.
But even if this wasn’t a nutritionally valid approach, that still wouldn’t give teachers the right to edit lunchboxes. There are too many perfectly plausible scenarios where a cookie ban doesn’t work. Maybe a child has a lot of anxiety around school lunch or finds the cafeteria totally overstimulating, so parents pack a few treats to ease their child’s stress level, and make up for it with more vegetables at home. Maybe the whole family is eating a diet heavy in processed, packaged foods, because that’s all they can afford right now, or because the parents work long hours and don’t have time to shop and cook whole foods. Maybe the child struggles with picky eating, sensory issues, food allergies, or a history of oral aversion and cookies are one of her few safe foods. Even though we’re now past a lot of our own feeding strife, I often pack fig cookies or another snack that’s only quasi-nutritious in Violet’s lunch, because I’m gambling with a “meal centerpiece” food that’s new or just less reliably embraced (like diced curried chicken or lately, any kind of cheese). If she’s having a pickier day, I want to be sure that there’s at least one reliable source of calories in the mix. If a teacher decided to yank that snack, Violet might end up eating nothing — and if you think sugar is bad for a kid’s mood, you are welcome to come parent my three-year-old on an empty stomach. Whatever the logic (or even lack of logic) informed the cookie decision, shaming the child or parent won’t address any underlying issues because it doesn’t leave room for a productive conversation.
So what should we do? I love the suggestions made by Katja Rowell and Jenny McGlothlin in their NYT Motherlode piece about Oreo-gate for how parents and teachers alike can engage in a more meaningful dialogue about food choices. I’ve used a version of their lunchbox note, and also make a point to have a friendly conversation with any new teacher about Violet’s food history and why it’s so important to us that she never feel shamed for what she does or does not eat. I’d say it’s sort of working, and sort of feels like a losing battle — because, of course, I can’t control what these (hardworking, well-intentioned!) teachers say to other kids, or about their own food choices, when mine is within earshot. But if I don’t want teachers getting upset over a single piece of cake, I’ve got to take the long view as well. Part of raising kids to be competent eaters has to be teaching them how to handle the mixed food messages they receive daily.
Even when that’s a lot harder than just banning the cookie.
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