Thursday, September 13, 2007

Teaching Kids About Food

Yesterday we began another round of my "food appreciation" classes at a private elementary school here in the District of Columbia.

In the introductory lesson, I work with the kids on the basics: how we perceive food, what happens after we put food in our mouths, the different types of foods and how some are healthier than others.

In one exercise, I have the kids close their eyes and we pass around cups of different foods and herbs to illustrate the role of smell in tasting foods. In another segment, we sample the four taste sensations: salty, bitter, sour, sweet.

To show them how calories work, I apply a blow torch to foods with different caloric values and carbohydrate composition, starting with broccoli, then potato. The kids love it when I torch a couple of marshmallows to illustrate how empty sugar calories are immediately burned and incorporated into the bloodstream. The marshmallows burst into flames, a moment of high drama and hilarity that leads to a brief conversation about diabetes and obesity.

But what really impresses me is what happens when the class ends and the kids file out of the room. Invariably, they beg me for the unused marshmallows. They are so disappointed when I decline. "Didn't we just talk about how bad those are for you?" I scold.

This reminds me of the study conducted earlier this year by the Associated Press finding that most programs aimed at teaching kids to eat better don't work. The U.S. government spends more than $1 billion on such efforts, but sadly, it isn't talking the kids need to stop eating all that junk food. They need their behavior changed.

I recently finished reading Lunch Lessons by Ann Cooper and Lisa Holmes. Their book covers everything from the importance of breakfast to the dangers of pesticides. But what I came away with is the factor most important in shaping kids' eating habits: the way adults eat.

So yesterday I had a queasy feeling as I watched the other after-school instructors standing around the microwave, wolfing down cheap noodle dishes off paper plates, swilling cans of sugary soda, by way of a mid-day meal or snack. Then I took a gander at the Wheat Thins I was munching on and noticed for the first time that they contain high fructose corn syrup. These are the same Wheat Thins the after school children are fed as snack food on a regular basis.

Last year I persuaded the school to stop serving a yogurt full of high fructose corn syrup and find something healthier. The kids never noticed the switch. But now I see we have a lot more work to do with the adults in this crowd.


Joanna said...

This is reallly good work ... but thankless, too, because you are always up against the food processing industry - and if you don't read the label every single time you buy one of their products, you don't have any idea what junk you are eating. I only fully realised this after my husband's heart attack, and we wanted to cut down saturated fats and salt - shouldn't that be easy? I am really interested that the children didn't notice the switch to healthy yoghurt ...

Keep up the good work


Sunny said...

Great post. It's so difficult. We want children to be "healthy" but we seem unaware of how our actions affect them. I personally don't have children but I am trying to change my habits, which is difficult because my husband could care less. My cousin told me one day that kids don't like wheat bread. I bit my tongue but thought no your kids don't like wheat bread because you don't eat it and provide them with that white notebook paper that should never be called "bread" in the first place! Aw-well. They are her children and not mine.

Ed Bruske said...

Joanna, we definitely are swimming against the tide. Not only are heavily processed foods too easy, they are usually cheaper. Ironically, our government subsidizes many of the ingredients that go into those processed foods, so there's blame to go around for everyone. Keep trying...

Sunny, where is that adults pick up these horrible habits. Probably as kids. So it's a viscious cycle and takes a lot of work to break it. But you'd think adults would be more conscious and more easily convinced to make the necessary changes. Just keep spreading the word.

Great Big Veg Challenge said...

This is such a difficult subject. There is no one way of remedying it. Children take so much time to change. And politicians want quick fixes. It has to be an holistic approach: good food at school. leading by example in school, support to teach families to cook on a budget, teaching children to taste and cook.
The one thing I have learnt in our challenge is that I have had to change as much as Freddie. I have had to change the way I shop, cook, the example I set etc - and all this at a very steady but slow pace. It is hard work. I really found your piece interesting. It is great that there are people like you working with children to help in that long process of change.

Ed Bruske said...

Exactly, Charlotte--even more difficult than dealing with the kids is changing our own behavior. Mea culpa

Paula said...

Never before in human history has so much food been available so cheaply all the survive on that....Developing a healthy attitude to eating in childhood depends on many different factors.Its sometime hard to understand labels and claims made by the advertisers but what I personally came to know is that nutrients are stripped away to make white flour.These nutrients are very important for a better health and we live in a unique time when most of our diet constitutes processed foods.We must be a model for the kids if we really want to develop good eating habits in them.Its nothing but a small decision we make for a lifetime. Find more on