In Your Absence
This is one of the toughest posts I've ever written. First of all, I don't like offending people (and I'm probably going to). Secondly, it relates to children that I love (and all of children-kind). This is about the lunch of a 3rd grader.
I am a healthy eater. I'm not boasting, I'm just stating a fact. I'm not perfect all the time, but even my "treat meals" are strategically stacked in a way that incorporates them into my meal plan to offer me a "healthy balance", maintain enough body fat to have some stored energy for an active lifestyle and to remind my mildly obsessive brain that dessert can be enjoyed responsibly.
Because part of my job is to make healthy living look reasonable and attainable (which it definitely is), a common question I get is: "Do your kids like to eat healthy foods?" The short answer that I offer is this: "They eat healthy when they are with me and at home. We keep healthy, fresh foods in the house so that it's easier for them to make a healthy choice. However, I know that they eat junk food on occassion and I try not to freak out about it."
Kids love smoothies! Add spinach and avoid adding sugary yogurts for a fresh breakfast.
That statement was true (especially the part about me "trying" not to freak out), until yesterday. As of yesterday a harsh reality was unearthed and I have officially begun. to. panic. Here is what happened:
After school yesterday, my son saw me tracking a meal plan for a client (calculating the calories and macronutrients they were intaking in a typical day) and he thought it was interesting. He asked me if we could calculate what he had eaten for the day and, of course, I responded with an emphatic YASSSSS, because I love this stuff and I sensed a learning experience coming on. Little did I know, I was the one who was about to get schooled. **Let me add that I do not want my elementary aged child to be concerned with calorie counting, but rather I'd like him to focus on eating healthy, real foods to fuel his activity level and support his growth and development. Regardless, I was looking forward to taking inventory of the types of food he is choosing when I am not around.**
Breakfast was a simple bowl of cereal. Not the perfect meal, but certainly didn't sound alarms or induce panic. Then came lunch. School lunch has never had much of a reputation for being healthy or gourmet, but I've often allowed my kids to buy because 1) they want to, 2) it's convenient, and 3) I assumed it contained at least some real food and a limited amount of sugar. Additionally, for the past 7 years, Michelle Obama has made it her mission to improve the quality and nutrient density of school lunches, so certainly some improvements have been made, right?
Here is what Liam (a 9 year old boy) reported eating as his school bought lunch yesterday:
1) Walking taco: If you aren't familiar with this recipe, It's a bag of Fritos filled with ground chuck and processed cheese food. FYI: Liam says that this picture is accurate except that there is no lettuce in the school's version of the walking taco…hmmm.
2) Refried beans and more cheese: from a can, full of sodium
3) Chocolate milk: basically, liquid ice cream with additives and preservatives
4) Vanilla ice cream sundae cup
5) Sparkling juice
While I had to assume portion sizes on some of these items, I'm fairly certain I came up with an accurate caloric total of 1,145 calories. The exorbitant amount of calories isn't even the scariest part. They bigger concern (in my opinion) is the fact that these calories are void of nutrients and contain more sugar than an person should be consuming over the course of several days. He did let me know that he finished it all. The school lunch included the first three items and the juice and ice cream are available "add on" items that are available to children in 3rd and 4th grade. So, a 3rd or 4th grader can walk into the cafeteria and has select lunch options that equate to this:
This one meal, that was served to a 9 year old contains over 100% of the daily recommended value in fat and sodium (for an adult! A child needs about 500mg less!). It contains 80% of what is recommended for the entire day in carbohydrates.
I do understand that it is my responsibility as a parent to teach my child to make healthy choices. I take that role seriously. I also understand that I can pack my child's lunch. Knowing what I now know, there will be plenty of packed lunches in our future. However, that doesn't really solve the problem as a whole. The bottom line is: Why are our children offered ice cream, fried and fatty chips, and sugary beverages at school? What is so complicated about exposing them to real food and nutritionally responsible choices? Can't we make it easier for them to make the right choice when walking through the lunch line? Simply removing ice cream sundaes and Fritos from the buffet of options would be a start. Additionally, having access to these salty, greasy, sugary, overly processed products 5 days a week not only contributes to disease and poor dental health, but it also lays a foundation that shapes what a child will prefer as an adult.
Here are some images of what a typical lunch tray looks like:
Is there anything on any of these trays that doesn't resemble a beige pile of mush? Some of them contain so few calories that the child will be too hungry to focus for the remainder of the day. Some contain an excessive amount of empty calories. None of them contain vegetables (Sorry, folks. Corn from a can is not a vegetable in my book. It's gross. It's sad. It's a disappointment to our children.
What can we do?
Jamie Oliver is one of my favorite chefs. He has started a Food Revolution movement to help educate children on power of real food and the importance of proper nutrition. There are other websites and ambassadors out there that are supportive of educating our children in proper nutrition. However, if we don't convince the adults and parents of the importance of proper nutrition in the home and school, how can we expect our children to choose carrots over cupcakes?
While medical advances have allowed people to continue to be alive for more years than their ancestors, is their quality of life even remotely close to that of their grandparents?
We've succeeded in "starting the conversation", but have we taken any steps at all toward creating a solution?
I could wrap this article with scary descriptions of obesity related diseases, but I'd rather move toward a productive solution. Who wants to brainstorm with me? I know it can start in the home. I know we can pack healthy lunches and send them to school with our children. But how do we make an affective change in the schools? How can we take the conversation and put some action behind it? Who will brainstorm with me? Who will help me keep the energy up? Let's not lose steam. Let's make a difference for these kids. Let's set an example through our own healthy habits and let's show our kids how loved they are but making a difference that lasts.
Links to healthy packed lunches:
Finding this mutant strawberry gave him inspiration for his healthy breakfast, plus a good laugh.
Let's offer real food to our kids. Enough to give them energy to play and grow. Let's eliminate those poor nutritional choices so that they can focus on learning, growing playing and living.