My 5 year old daughter started school in September. The school experience has so far been positive, she rushes home and eagerly tells me how she got another marble in the class jar today, once the jar is full the class then get some kind of reward. Whilst I am all for motivating and encouraging children the rewards so far have tended to be food based, junk food to be blunt.
Month one was cake pops smeared in chocolate and sugar sprinkles, month two iced biscuits decorated with sweets. Last month she wandered out of class and gave me a huge chocolate coated smile. As endearing as it was I did question how she had managed to get chocolate around her little face. I was told excitedly it was the hot chocolate, marshmallows and doughnuts the children had been given as a treat for filling the marble jar.
Now as well as being a nutritionist I am also a realistic parent and I work hard to try to give my children a balanced diet. I’ve found that banning unhealthy food is counter productive and leads my children to binge when given access to sweets, cakes and other indulgences. But I try not to use food as a reward for behaviour. The whole eat your dinner or no dessert doesn’t cut it in our house, food should be about balance with no one food deemed better than another. I certainly don’t want sugary foods placed on some pedestal that are to be aspired to and obtained by good behaviour.
What to do about the schools actions did cause me a few sleepless nights, do I complain and single my child out or do I just ignore this, well she eats healthy most of the time. In the end I chose the latter option and met with the teacher. I raised my concerns as a parent and as a nutritionist. The discussion went well and the class are to look at rewards in the future that don’t involve unhealthy foods. But this did get me thinking about how and why we use food, especially with children and using unhealthy food as a reward. Our relationship to food is complicated it develops from our our own childhood and its instinctive, we want to nurture our children and feeding them is the core of this. But instincts aside we do need to start thinking about unhealthy food in a different way. I don’t want demonize sugar or sweets but I am also acutely aware that in the UK we have a nation of children spiralling towards obesity, recent figures from the World Health Organisation (WHO) state that 33 % of 11 year old children in Europe are overweight, that is a scary number and one that we all need to take some responsibility for. We can’t let obesity become the new normal for the next generation.
So where do we start, well education is key, I think nutrition and cookery should be on the curriculum, how can we expect our children to make positive choices if they aren’t aware of how important good nutrition is. I also think taxation has its place as well, instead of making unhealthy junk food cheap and accessible lets tax it. But I believe we also need to take personal responsibility. We need to be confident to say no to our children, we need to look at our own patterns of behaviours and how we use food. The relationship your children develop with food will be influenced by how and when food is used, so use it wisely, before reaching for the sweets when they do something positive or eat their greens think again, we have a generation of kids who deserve better.
As for my daughters class, well for their next marble jar treat I will be going into class and making green smoothies with them all, after all who said healthy food cant be fun!