Chef Ann's National School Food Challenge
It’s important to all of us that our kids eat good food every day, at school and at home. The National School Lunch Program, which is directed by the Child Nutrition Act (CNA), feeds thousands of children as many as two meals per day during the school year. As Congress reconsiders CNA reauthorization, it’s up to us to make sure that they know how important it is that every student is fed fresh, healthy meals made from foods grown by local family farmers. To make this possible, we need to let Congress know what matters most:
- Whether or not children have access to healthy food should not be defined by income level. As Congress reauthorizes CNA, the guidelines for how families and individuals qualify for federal food programs including free and reduced school lunch must be redefined. Congress needs to align the guidelines to match realities about income at the county level.
- The per-student reimbursements for schools must be raised to $4.00 to reflect the rising cost of foods and the real costs of serving fresh foods to children.
- The standards for federal school food programs need to be raised in ways that require whole, fresh foods be served most often in order to ensure maximum nutrition.
Join Chef Ann in the School Food Fight!
Eating habits are learned behaviors, so what your children learn to eat at home early in life sticks with them well into adulthood. Today we are disconnected from our food sources in a way that is unprecedented in human history. Fewer Americans cook meals from scratch often because of time and money. The good news is that there are things you can do to help your kids eat more healthy foods and get more healthy foods into schools.
1. Be a good role model.
Most of the parents we know complain that their children refuse to eat healthfully and come to us in search of magic recipes that will put an end to mealtime madness. But most of us are so accustomed to eating out, grabbing a fast food something or other on a lunch break, and buying prepared foods in the grocery store that we don’t even know what good food is anymore. In order to be good role models we must educate ourselves first and then practice what we preach.
2. Take your kids shopping with you.
We don’t all live near farms or farmer’s markets, so it’s not easy for us or our children to feel a connection with good, whole, unprocessed foods. One way to help them learn is to make a point to take them grocery shopping with you. Take them when you’re not in a hurry and spend talking about unprocessed foods—the produce, meat, and fish departments, for example. Take home a fruit or vegetable that your child expresses interest in and let him try it so he can make his own decisions.
3. Make mealtime special.
There are lots of fun things we can do to make mealtime special. First and foremost, sit down and enjoy your food. Take time to savor flavors. Children should never eat while walking around. We understand that some young children have difficulty sitting for the entire meal. In those cases we recommend allowing the child to get up once or twice, while encouraging the child to sit, not stand, at the table when he or she comes back to eat. For children who are able to understand, explain to them that mealtimes are special family times and it is important to the family that everyone sits down to eat and talk together. Make a ritual out of dinner and give everyone a special task—maybe even let each child have one night a week to plan and help make dinner. Have the kids set the table. Cloth napkins and real glasses set a more formal tone and are better for the environment. Candles can set a calming tone for the meal and show kids that mealtime is special.
4. Don’t be a short order cook.
Ever find yourself making one meal for the adults in the house and another for the kids (or even one for each kid)? Children take their time warming up to new things and if you keep giving them the old stand-bys they’re not going to branch out and explore new foods. Be patient. Most research says that it takes an average of 10 to 12 times before a child will try a new food unless they are involved in cooking and gardening projects. Learning about food and cooking in an active way helps breed a sense of culinary adventure. Make the same dinner for everyone in the family while taking some time to put some foods on the plate that your children like, then add something new. If they don’t touch it don’t worry about it and definitely don’t make an argument out of it. Try again the next week and again the following week. Eventually they’ll surprise you by at least tasting that new food.
5. Don’t buy into marketing for kids.
Kids don’t need frozen chicken nuggets, French fries, macaroni and cheese, and pizza to keep them happy. And those kinds of foods certainly don’t make for healthy children. Avoid preprocessed foods at all costs and start talking to your children early in their lives about what constitutes a good diet and why it’s important for them to avoid foods like the ones mentioned above. Even a three year old can grasp why sodas aren’t good for you and why we don’t eat foods with lots of fat every meal. Highly processed foods are loaded with chemicals, synthetic fats, additives, artificial sweeteners, and food colorings. Kids love brightly colored foods because advertising (kids see 10,000 commercials a year!) trains them to believe that those foods are kid foods.
6. Don’t use food as rewards, bribes, or punishments.
Okay, okay, we know. M&Ms have a long history as the greatest bribe candy on earth for potty training—even the most health conscious mom will break down and try M&Ms during that oh-so-critical stage of development. Don’t give in! Stickers work just as well and you won’t be setting a precedent for using food as a bribe or reward as your child gets older. Sure, it’s okay to take the kids out for ice cream or frozen yogurt after a good (or even a bad) soccer game, just don’t use it as an incentive for a good game. On the flip side, don’t punish children for not eating certain foods—it will only foster a negative relationship between you and your children, not to mention your children and food.
7. Let kids help in the kitchen.
Encourage your children to help out in the kitchen. Invest in a stool or a child-height counter that allows your children to see what you are doing and even help out. If a child is interested in doing more in the kitchen, don’t automatically assume that she can’t or that the task will be too dangerous. Know your child’s limits and help her achieve success by providing support and encouragement in a safe setting. Kids love eating food they created. Involve your child in the cooking or snack preparation and they will be more likely to eat new foods, including fruits and vegetables.
8. Encourage your children to move their bodies.
A good diet is only part of the equation. In order to stay healthy our bodies need exercise. Studies have shown that vigorous exercise boosts the immune system and increases our ability to concentrate. Help your children find physical activities they enjoy and encourage them to get outside to play as often as possible.
Identifying age-appropriate activities will make exercise more fun. Every once in a while a family hike makes a great change of pace for all ages. As with eating, a parent’s good example can make the difference for a child. Make sure exercise is a part of your daily routine as well.
9. Remember that you are the boss.
Adults need to set the boundaries for kids because left to their own devices they may choose salty and sugary processed foods over fresh, healthier choices. Children actually do much better when they know that they have boundaries and limits. Listen to your child, but set clear limits and guide them towards the healthier option.
10. Love and accept your child no matter what!
Love and accept your child at any weight, size or shape. During childhood growth is unpredictable at best. There’s a lot of pressure in our society to be thin and you might be tempted to put your child on a diet during a growth spurt, but that won’t be helpful and may even cause emotional and physical damage. Instead, help your child maintain his weight until his height catches up. The best way to do that is to teach good healthy eating habits.
My Healthy Kids Meal Wheel will help you and your kids identify the most nutritional, good-tasting foods. I also have recipes that offer ideas for a menu that is grounded in whole foods and balanced among whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables, and proteins.
Making the right choices about what to eat for breakfast and lunch and choosing healthy snacks can be tough. When your friends are eating French fries and chicken nuggets, it’s not easy to make more healthful choices. But it’s important that you take control of your body and make choices that are good for you. The more often you make healthy food choices, and choose the farm-fresh salad bar over the processed chips and soda, you’re sending a message to the people making decisions in your school and taking control over your lunchtime menu.
Is it ok to have snacks?
Absolutely! You should pick snacks that are yummy and good for you too. Perfect snack ideas are carrot sticks, grapes, a banana, or an apple with peanut butter. Talk to your parents about what foods are best for snack time.
What should I do for exercise?
Anything that gets you out of your chair and moving around! You can play soccer with your friends, ride your bike, or jump rope in the backyard. Exercise should be fun and enjoyable, so make sure you are doing something that you like.
Why are my parents always making me try new foods?
Trying new foods is a part of growing up. Our taste buds change all the time. That weird, green food that was on your plate last month may be your new favorite snack. You should always try new foods because you never know what you might really enjoy!
Why should I eat fruit and vegetables instead of chips and candy?
Fruits, vegetables, and other fresh foods keep you healthy. Chips and candy don’t give you the same, long-lasting energy as healthier food options.
How can I get more fresh food into my cafeteria?
Talk about it! Let your teachers and your parents know that you want to see more fresh, healthy foods on your cafeteria menu. Let them know that being healthy and taking care of yourself is important to you.
Click HERE to find out how your food choices measure up.
Join Chef Ann's National School Food Challenge if you'd like to join the fight for healthy kids.
This is an open group. Anyone can join and invite others to join.