On Nutrition by Ed Blonz

Helping Students Form Healthy Habits

DEAR DR. BLONZ: As a middle school teacher, I am concerned by what many parents give their children for lunch. I want to develop a lesson strategy that involves sending home a newsletter to the parents. Our children’s dietary habits are at stake here, and I do not wish to be a part of the demise of wholesome, nutritious habits. -- F.T., Chicago

DEAR F.T.: A balanced meal, even if processed, is better than no meal at all, or one based on snack foods. But it’s not the foundation on which long-term healthy eating habits are established. One problem with prepackaged, processed foods is that it’s often the foods’ convenience, not their nutrition, that sells them. Consider also that the value of whole foods is greater than the sum of their “nutrient” parts.

The Nutrition Facts label lists calories, protein, fat, carbohydrate and a selection of vitamins and minerals. You won’t, however, find any notation for the healthful phytochemicals found in fruits, vegetables and whole grains. A fabricated, fortified food could wear the same Nutrition Facts label as a whole food where these nutrients occur naturally with all their associated healthful compounds, but it would not truly be as healthful.

Lessons and a newsletter are great ideas, but I would proceed cautiously. The idea is to enlist the support of the parents -- not alienate them.

In the classroom, gather a list from the children of their favorite processed foods, and then find and present the ingredient lists of those foods. Go through the ingredients, explaining which are true “food,” which are good for you and in what ways, etc. You will have to do some online research on food ingredients. The lesson can be an eye-opening exercise, and it can be made quite entertaining. The idea is to give the children important facts, empowering them to go home and begin using their new knowledge on their next shopping trips and while checking the foods in their pantries.

At home, it’s important to get children involved in menu planning. Parents should discuss food options and ask for input. If there is more than one child, they should take turns. If possible, take them along on shopping trips to increase the odds that they’ll eat fruits and vegetables that they select.

At the grocery store, a child is at the receiving end of a tremendous effort devoted to influencing their minds and their parents’ shopping behavior. This effort goes hand in hand with the highly produced advertisements clustered around children’s television shows. Therefore, it’s best not to have children go shopping on an empty stomach. Parents should plan ahead about how they’ll react when their child bargains for dubious items. Depending on past experiences, it may be helpful to go over basic ground rules before entering the store.

Parents also need to enlist their children’s help with meal preparation. Being involved before the meal can increase satisfaction with what’s to come, whether it’s making a lunchtime sandwich, helping measure ingredients or simply arranging food on a serving plate.

All these efforts can have a greater chance of success if paired with ongoing, in-school lessons about the value of wholesome, healthful foods and their importance to growth and good health. I applaud your energy and wish you well in your efforts. I wrote a Supermarket Buying Guide for the Berkeley Wellness Letter to help with these types of issues, and it is available at no charge online: goo.gl/1pOkw9.

Send questions to: “On Nutrition,” Ed Blonz, c/o Andrews McMeel Syndication, 1130 Walnut St., Kansas City, MO, 64106. Send email inquiries to questions@blonz.com. Due to the volume of mail, personal replies cannot be provided.