Break Out of the Pizza Box

Recently a friend said to me with frustration in her voice: “Where is it written, that pizza and cake is what we should serve our kids at a birthday party?” Considering the fact that was the menu at the last kid’s birthday party I hosted, I had to search hard for an appropriate response. And, mentioning that in addition to the cake I offered an optional cupcake followed by a goody bag with candy, was not the way to go. I felt guilty. I know the difference between healthy and unhealthy food. “Why don’t my actions always reflect that?” I wondered. I was sure of one thing though: the conflict between what we know about nutrition and what we practice is a dilemma faced by many parents.

Unfortunately, the birthday party scenario is just one example and every day we witness similar actions in other settings. For instance, let’s take a look at lunches at some schools across the country. These days there is quite a bit of emphasis on offering children a meal that consists of the right amount of servings from all the food groups. We even have physical education and health teachers informing the children about how to read food labels and how to make the “right” choices. However, at my son’s school, right along with a healthy lunch option, some days there is pizza, or bagel with cream cheese alternative. That hardly sounds like a wholesome lunch for a child. And how reasonable is it to expect elementary school children to eat chicken and green beans when they can enjoy a juicy, warm slice of Domino’s?

One place that you’d think would serve as an example of encouragement in proper nutrition is the youth sports programs arena. After all, one of the reasons parents want their kids to participate in these activities is to teach them healthy habits. But as some research has shown, this is not always true. In a study published in the July/August issue 2012 of the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, University of Minnesota researchers concluded that the youngsters commonly had sweets, pizza, hot dogs, salty snacks, soda, and sports drinks. “The food environment in youth sports exposes kids and their families to many unhealthful foods and beverages and few healthful options,” principal investigator Toben Nelson said in a journal news release. “Youth who participate in sports spend considerable time in these activities outside of school, and these sports environments are likely to influence their eating behavior.” Since my son has been swimming for the past seven years, my husband and I have had a number of occasions to witness this behavior first-hand. Last year our swim club invited a nutrition expert to address parents about helping kids make healthful choices. Yet, on several occasions we have watched our son stuffing a doughnut or two after Saturday morning practice. At first, I convinced myself that since it doesn’t happen every weekend, it’s alright. But now I wonder whether it’s truly the best way to reward for a job well done.

I think that it’s easy for parents to say that even though we know what’s good and what’s bad, it’s ok to allow for “goodies” on special occasions in moderation. But between teachers rewarding kids with candy, in-school and weekend birthday parties, and unhealthy snacks provided by some parents at the end of sporting events, it seems that every day is “special”. And when you have three parties in one month, what’s a parent to do, pack up some broccoli for the third one? Of course we can try to convince ourselves to view it as a “teaching moment”, but isn’t it better to be more mindful, creative, and (do I dare to say!), eliminate these options all together (at least from the school)?

I am not trying to diminish the effort that has been made. There is definitely more discussion on the subject today and we have come a long way. We are teaching kids about nutrition. Still, as my not-so-carefully-selected menu from my son’s birthday reflects, I am far from perfect. Putting structure around pizza, cupcakes, and candy is not an easy task. Let’s face it, our kids are used to it. It tastes good and it is certainly a safe choice that puts a big smile on their faces. But I do think that there is room for improvement in theconsistent implementation of the “nutrition message” our kids are getting from all the adult figures in their lives. Maybe now is the time to break out of the pizza box?

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