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Family Meals Focus

The Ellyn Satter Institute Newsletter

Coping with school lunch

To comply with current regulations, school cafeterias have to offer lunches heavy on whole grains, fruits and vegetables, low fat or skim milk rather than whole milk, and limit lunch calories to 850 for high school lunch and between 550 to 650 for elementary school. At the same time as I remain faithful to the National School Lunch Program, I regret this decision, which is the ultimate in controlling nutritional interventions: Taking a captive audience and forcing them to eat according to the nutrition rules. I continue to hope (and do my best to encourage) that as time goes on, National Nutrition policy, on which NSLP is based, will become more positive and eating competence based rather than so negative and controlling.

I protested. You can too!

I could have told you this would happen: Some school systems are opting out of the National School Lunch Program (NLSP) based on children’s complaints about not liking the food and not getting enough to eat with their “healthier new options.” Children are bringing their lunch more frequently and school lunch sales have diminished. A June and July 2013 School Nutrition Association survey showed that 1% are leaving the NSLP because they object to the nature of the constraints and that 3% are considering leaving the program.  I earned my right to speak out by protesting to the powers that be before these rules passed. I have written quite a bit about NSLP, and you may use my writings to help you organize your own thinking and recommending. I

I earned my right to speak out by protesting to the powers that be before these rules passed. I have written quite a bit about NSLP, and you may use my writings to help you organize your own thinking and recommending. In my view . . .

  • We need to focus on providing for our children rather than depriving them.
  • We need to stop addressing child obesity by deciding how our children should eat (and grow) and trying to get them to do it.
  • Instead, we need to provide a variety of healthful food, including giving them enough to eat, and trusting them to eat and grow in their own ways.

Policy-makers: pay attention to data

Instead of restricting children and forcing them to “eat right,” we need to trust them to eat and grow in their own ways.

  • Restricting a child’s food intake makes children fatter, not thinner.1
  • Children who are forbidden to have sweets and high-fat snacks eat more of them—even when they are already full—and are fatter than children given regular access.2
  • Children who drink low-fat milk  tend to be fatter than those who drink whole milk.3,4
  • Tight controls on school menus leave children’s overweight status unchanged.5,6,7
  • Limiting school lunch calories means some children go hungry, at least some days.

Be realistic about how children actually eat

  • Some children need to eat way more than others.
  • All children eat more some days than others.
  • All children eat and enjoy a food one day and reject it another.
  • Children eat better when they have well-seasoned food that has contains a bit of fat.and salt.

Let’s not throw out the baby with the bath-water

Despite it all, I remain faithful to the NSLP, its traditional role of being sure that children get fed, and its structure and function. Other countries don’t have NLSP, and it is difficult – each school has to organize and find the funding. However, I encourage myself, and you as well, to think in terms of making the best of the program and teaching your child to do the same, rather than being critical and/or opting out. Consider the positive service NSLP does for  children – both your own and others.’  But don’t stop protesting to the powers that be! 

Hope for a better day

I continue to hope (and do my best to encourage) that as time goes on, National Nutrition policy, on which NSLP is based, will become more positive and eating competence based rather than so negative and controlling. There is reason to despair, and reason to hope. Advocates of the new program interpret statistics to support their point of view: They celebrate the fact that fruit consumption is increased and plate waste of entrees is not increased.8 In my view that means that children are hungry and doing their best to get enough to eat, even if they have to eat food they don’t much enjoy. While that tactic is effective in getting children to eat right now, it doesn’t do much for their food acceptance long term. The reason to hope? That some day the nutrition policy makers will pay attention to the eating competence research and use trusting and supportive strategies in supporting child nutrition. The research on eating competence is persuasive, in that it consistently shows that people who are eating competent do better in all ways: nutritionally, medically, socially, and emotionally, and that eating competent parents do better with respect to feeding their children. Sooner or later, EC’s positive and practical message will replace today’s negativity about food and eating. 

References

1.  Faith MS, Scanlon KS, Birch LL, Francis LA, Sherry B. Parent-child feeding strategies and their relationships to child eating and weight status. Obes Res. 2004;12:1711-1722.

2.  Birch LL, Fisher JO, Davison KK. Learning to overeat: maternal use of restrictive feeding practices promotes girls’ eating in the absence of hunger. Am J Clin Nutr. 2003;78(2):215-220.

3.  Hendrie GA, Golley RK. Changing from regular-fat to low-fat dairy foods reduces saturated fat intake but not energy intake in 4-13 year old children. The American journal of clinical nutrition. May 2011;93(5):1117-1127.

4.  Huh SY, Rifas-Shiman SL, Rich-Edwards JW, Taveras EM, Gillman MW. Prospective association between milk intake and adiposity in preschool-aged children. J Am Diet Assoc. Apr 2010;110(4):563-570.

5.   Donnelly JE, Jacobsen DJ, Whatley JE, et al. Nutrition and physical activity program to attenuate obesity and promote physical and metabolic fitness in elementary school children. Obes Res. 1996;4:229-243.

6.  Caballero B, Clay T, Davis SM, et al. Pathways: a school-based, randomized controlled trial for the prevention of obesity in American Indian schoolchildren. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2003;78(5):1030-1038.

7.  Luepker RV, Perry CL, McKinlay SM, et al. Outcomes of a field trial to improve children’s dietary patterns and physical activity. The Child and Adolescent Trial for Cardiovascular Health. CATCH collaborative group. Journal of the American Medical Association. 1996;275(10):768-776.

8. Schwartz MB, Henderson KE, Read M, Danna N, Ickovics JR. New school meal regulations increase fruit consumption and do not increase total plate waste. Child Obes. 2015;11(3):242-247.

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