I applaud the recently issued USDA Nutrition Standards and am a huge fan of nudging students toward putting healthier options on their trays (aka behavioral economics). However, there is an incredibly important issue missing from most current conversations about food at school.
The REAL question is: How do we get all these wonderfully nutritious school breakfast and lunch meals into kids? My manta for 2012 is that is it only nutrition when a child eats or drinks it. If school food goes into a trashcan, it is garbage, not nutrition.
Let’s be honest: Most school cafeterias are not conducive to a pleasant dining experience for anyone (which is why few adults want to eat in them). Many barely give kids enough time to eat and drink what’s on their tray now (which will be more of a problem when more fruits and veggies are served under the new meal patterns). I have been in a few school lunchrooms with the feel of a prison – adults patrolling the aisles, prohibitions on talking to your friends, and stoplights when things get “out of hand.”
If, like First Lady Michelle Obama, we want to the new meal patterns to succeed in growing healthier children, we have to create more positive and pleasant mealtimes in schools. If we truly believe that school nutrition programs are critical for a healthier generation, we have to give more time and attention to HOW we feed children in school as well as to WHAT we feed them.
Three tried-and-true tips for more comfortable cafeterias from Montana Team Nutrition
1. Schedule Recess Before Lunch
Research shows that the best sequence for children is playing, eating, then learning. When kids have Recess Before Lunch (RBL), it improves their nutrition, their behavior in the cafeteria, and their focus when they return to the classroom. From the nutrition side, they eat more entrées and vegetables – and drink more milk. Montana Team Nutrition offers a complete Recess Before Lunch: Guide to Success – a no-cost way to help close children’s nutrient gaps!
2. Establish Reasonable Eat-tiquette Expectations
Like anything else in school, children can learn to behave well in the cafeteria. They just need to be taught appropriate eat-tiqutte – and then to have positive behavior consistently reinforced by everyone from the principal to lunchroom aides. In Welcome to Our Comfortable Cafeteria, real school staff from a real school in Gallatin Gateway, Montana, show how well this works with real kids. Bottom line: Adults need to have clear expectations, to teach them to everyone, and to reinforce them constantly.
3. Provide enough time and enough adult role models.
What was one of the most important things that the First Lady did when announcing the new USDA meal pattersn? She sat down at a table and enjoyed turkey tacos while talking with the students at Parklawn Elementary School. Children need enough time to eat – at least 15 to 20 minutes of seat time after getting their trays – and they will eat better when adults sit and enjoy lunch with them. The free Montana Team Nutrition Welcome to Our Comfortable Cafeteria webinar on February 21, 2012, will outline ways to create a lunchroom where administrators, teachers, aides, parents, and grandparents want to eat with kids.
We have to take a new approach to HOW meals are served in school cafeterias. The “herd-em-in/herd-em-out” mentality is not the path toward healthful eating habits. If our goal is competent eaters who make smart choices for lifetime health, we have to do better. Fortunately, for everyone in schools, Montana Team Nutrition resources provide some wonderful new road maps.