Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Spotlight on Children and Healthy Eating

I read the Well blog frequently; I have to for work, but I read most of it because I’m genuinely interested in its content. In the past few days, Tara Parker-Pope has written two entries that deal with children and food, one of her many pet topics.

Friday’s “Slowing Down School Lunch” featured a short interview with Dr. Arthur Agatston, a cardiologist who has done studies on elementary schools and children’s eating, seeing how the shortened school lunch period negatively affects students’ eating habits. “Children in America today are often overfed and undernourished,” he said, and cites the positive turnaround that antismoking campaigns have done for children’s health, hoping that a similar initiative can be put in place to foster healthy eating.

I spent every day in middle school bitching about how short my lunch period was. The time did not change in high school, but by then I was used to it and resigned to the fact that there was nothing I could do. Lunch was twenty minutes, which included time from the bell to get out of the previous class to the bell that announced the next class begin, and in that time you had to fit in walking to and from your locker, exchanging books, walking to the cafeteria, possibly buying lunch (something I did approximately once a week), and using the bathroom. I also tried to squeeze in some homework or socializing in addition to eating my lunch.

That’s not enough time. I’m a slow eater—always have been, always will be—regardless if I’m doing anything other than eating. I just am. Inhaling my food has always been problematic, and I spent many lunch periods still choking down food as everyone exited, packing up my books with a banana in my mouth.

What Parker-Pope discusses goes hand in hand with the post from the previous day, how you can teach your child to eat healthy. Having quick meals encourages fast food of all stripes—frozen dinners, breakfast bars, a bag of chips. Eating an apple takes time, especially when your mouth and hands are small. And shorter lunch times, especially when faced with a ridiculous long line, bullies, and a Spanish test to study for guarantee that a trade-off is made, and that trade-off is usually to disregard lunch. And with meal times so out of whack (10:30 am, anyone, when school starts at 8), it’s often hard to eat too, especially if your body is severely sleep-deprived.

I am a big believer that children need to be exposed to lots of different things, and that includes food. They may not appreciate some of it until they are older, but sometimes children are more willing to try things than adults are, and they at least have the knowledge to recognize that they don’t like something for a concrete reason that’s not “because it’s green”.

Too many kid-centric entertainments consider children’s food the lowest common denominator, and as such perpetuate the horrible nutritional value and bad reputation of food that children like. There are children who like vegetables and healthy meals, and they don’t all live in San Francisco. Going to a McDonald’s party (do they still do those?), a Chuckie Cheese, or a movie theater is a recipe for a toothache and a stomachache, and really poor quality of pizza. It’s distressing to see children—even adults—who are reduced to chicken fingers and French fries, and their version of a salad is the basic “chicken ceasar”, nothing but some iceberg lettuce, cheese, three croutons, and creamy dressing. Gross. It also fosters children to be very narrow-minded food consumers as adults, and will balk when presented with anything different or fancy—even if a common dish’s preparation is altered. This viewpoint leads to finicky, picky people who often have poor habits and an even poorer diet, which can lead to problems down the road…which leads to higher health expenses, less mobility, less options, and a crappier quality of life. Sold?

I’m getting ahead of myself. My original intention was to highlight part of Parker-Pope’s interview with Tom Colicchio, the head judge on Top Chef. He discusses how hard it is to teach children good healthy habits in regard to food, and his experience with his son. I agree with a lot he says, and love that he points out the positive feedback his show has gotten. Food and cooking shows can be great family entertainment, and it’s encouraging to hear that Top Chef has changed viewers’ habits positively.

Does having a father who is a chef make a difference in your son’s eating habits?

I don’t think having a father as a chef makes you any more or less susceptible to eating unhealthy food. If he’s out with his friends he’s going to do what his friends are doing. He’s like most kids. He’s not a chicken finger kid, and we’re not big fast food eaters. But it’s still a struggle to get him to eat healthy food. He’d rather grab a Sprite. But he enjoys good food. His idea of a great meal is seafood.

What do you think is the most important thing you’ve done to shape his eating habits?

We’re eating healthier food at home, so he’s eating what we’re eating. For us the challenge is he likes soda and he likes sweets, so we have to limit that. I think the patterns are set very early when the kids are young. But at the same time, there are some flavors kids just don’t like. For him, he’ll eat peas, but he doesn’t like broccoli. Green was always an issue. For a while he wouldn’t eat anything with chopped parsley. He still doesn’t eat raw tomatoes, it’s the goop inside. I had the same issue when I was a kid. But there are also things he loves that he probably wouldn’t if he hadn’t been exposed to them. For instance, he loves caviar.

Do you talk to him about healthy eating?

Giving him a choice between something that is unhealthy and something healthy, that’s not the choice. It’s between good and bad, well prepared and poorly prepared. He used to complain that the school cafeteria food was so bad he wouldn’t eat it. He used to like boxed mac and cheese, but once he got the real stuff, he said he didn’t want the boxed stuff anymore.

Does it surprise you how popular your show is with kids?

I travel around and hear from so many kids. Their parents say they were always very picky but they watch the show and they want to try stuff. The show is entertainment, but I think it has done so much for the public perception of what food can be.

Should restaurants be doing more to promote healthful eating?

What chefs can do when it comes to getting the word out is have people understand food differently. If food is well sourced and well prepared, I don’t think the word healthy needs to be brought into it. It’s healthy because it’s wholesome. That’s what we should focus on. You can buy a box of low-fat macaroni and cheese made with powdered nonsense. I’m not worried if I’m using four different cheeses and it’s high in fat. It’s real food. That’s what’s more important.

What do you say to parents who work all day and rely on packaged foods for convenience?

I want to feed my kid something that is real and not processed. It’s hard to do. People are working and busy. The question is: Is it worth it? Is it worth stopping at the farm stand or supermarket to buy fresh ingredients? Even just choosing whether to buy a head of lettuce. Do you buy fresh or the prewashed lettuce in a bag with the nutrients leached out of it? That’s what’s more important to me.


John said...

Your lunch was only 20 minutes total, from 10:30 to 10:50? That must have been rough. Our earliest lunch was 11:15, and it was a full-length period (45 minutes.) The seniors definitely wouldn't have had time to get to White Castle and back on your school's schedule!

It is good to use fresh ingredients whenever possible, but a lot of people in the world today simply can't get to the grocery store often enough. Farm stands don't cater to those of us who leave for work at 6:30 in the morning and get home at 10 at night. Hopefully the economy will turn around and people won't have to be doing three employees' worth of work in order to keep the company from going under, and can actually spend time and energy on long-term health concerns. Hopefully.

Emily said...

My lunch was only 20 minutes as well, and one year in high school I had lunch at 10:45am. It was so terrible.

One of the best parts of "Supersize Me," in my opinion, was when Spurlock went into the schools to question the cafeteria's "healthy" choices. They didn't have soda in the vending machines, but they sold lemonade with just as much sugar as a can of soda. He also wrote a lot about it in "Don't Eat This Book."

Eating well is expensive, and since schools are publicly funded, it's hard to get healthy foods in schools. The schools that do have acceptable menus are usually in very rich neighborhoods.

MediaMaven said...

John, students were once allowed to leave at lunchtime--but that was so long ago it seemed like it took place in a world of sockhops and poodle skirts.

You do have a point, though. It's also hard to keep a lot of fresh ingredients if you live alone and not in New York City, where there are markets on every corner.

Schools that do have really healthy lunches are also private, or in some sort of special or pilot program--those are the ones that are spotlighted on the news. It sounds like some schools are changing, but it really is a matter of exposure and being able to make the healthy choice.