Planting seeds of healthy eating with children
Communities are finding new ways to get healthy foods, especially locally grown produce into school meals.
Remember when school lunches were actually healthy and made at the school by a crew of cooks bustling about, stirring and ladling food onto plates? Then, at some point, because kids weren’t eating much of the food and throwing much of it away, staff and administrators decided that the food being served should be more acceptable to the kids. In the effort to please the students, schools began serving pizza, chicken nuggets, vegetables with a lot of cheese or sauce and several other similar choices that might meet nutrient standards, but also have a lot of fat, sodium or sugar.
In time, parents, teachers and community health educators took note of the amount of kid-friendly but less than healthy choices every day. Soon, menus began to change again, this time back to healthier options. Some schools now have salad bars, which many kids enjoy as they are able to create their own plate. Other schools are serving fruits and vegetables in more appealing ways and providing more choices. Even when kids don’t choose some of the healthy choices being offered, they are being exposed to them, which is a first step towards learning to eat them.
Some schools have even started growing vegetables in a garden or hoop house right on their campus. The students can see and work in the gardens in the fall and spring, and often community members tend the gardens during the summer. When students play a part in growing healthy foods, they will be more likely to eat them. Farmers have been connecting with schools through a Farm to School program which encourages and supports schools purchasing locally grown produce from farmers, thus supporting their local economy and the small farming business. As younger and older students see these changes in their school breakfasts and lunches, they are learning about healthy food options, and that vegetables can be fun to eat.
Michigan State University Extension says that as parents or caregivers of children, we can support this effort in many ways. Talk to your kids about what they choose to eat at school, and gently encourage them to try new or unfamiliar foods. Serve vegetables often with meals, so kids have more opportunity to try them. Be flexible and try to give your kids choices about what kind they would like or how they would like to eat them. Be a role-model and eat your vegetables in various ways. Children learn by watching us. When they go with you to the grocery store, point out vegetables and ask them which ones they would like to try.
Get your kids into a garden, your own or one in your community, to learn about where produce comes from, early and late season produce and the joy of watching plants mature. You might try a tomato plant or onions in large pots if you don’t have yard space. Read more about Farm to School and ways you can help your children learn to appreciate gardening.
Take your children to farmers markets, often during the summer and let them talk to the farmers and ask questions. Most farmers love to talk about their produce and give ideas of how to prepare it. They can also tell you some things about how they grow food. Point out some of the less familiar produce, and consider buying something new to try.
Remember that kids love to learn and try things, especially when we don’t push too hard. Expose them to gardens, farmers markets and fresh produce at home as often as you can, and you might plant the seeds of something other than just a garden.