Your Health

How we talk to kids about nutrition at school can have a lasting impact

Photo of a ham sandwich, a banana and an apple inside a brown bag.
Photo of Megan Bale-Nick. MEGAN BALE-NICK
Winnipeg Regional Health Authority
Published Friday, September 14, 2018

How do we get kids to bring healthy lunches to school?

That is a question many educators and parents are asking themselves these days as they settle in for another school year. But the answer is not always as straightforward as it might seem.

As a registered dietitian and the manager of Manitoba Healthy Food in Schools, I spend a lot of time working with educators to make sure they have the tools and resources they need to promote healthy eating among their students.

I know that schools can be a great place to expose students to nutritious foods and drinks, to teach consistent and reliable nutrition information in the classroom, and practice healthy eating. Indeed, creating a positive school environment can have the largest impact on a child’s eating habits. That’s important because kids who eat well tend to do better in school and enjoy greater overall health.

But I also know that talking to kids about nutrition can have unintended consequences. Consider the many factors that impact what ends up in a student's lunchbox, things like availability, advertising, cooking skills, time, and knowledge all impact our food choices. And don’t forget, one in ten Manitoban households don't have enough money to buy safe and nutritious foods for their families. 

As a result, educators need to tread carefully. When a student is called out for the less-nutritious choices in their lunch, or is asked to eat their healthy snack first, they can feel shamed, confused, and embarrassed, lowering their self-esteem. It's not the role of school or educators to police what parents pack for their children, unless it is specific to an allergy.

Instead, educators can have an impact on what students eat by taking a big picture approach and creating a positive and healthy school food and nutrition environment. For example, hot lunch programs, canteens and cafeterias can be used as learning vehicles to promote tasty and nutritious foods and drinks. Nutrition can also be integrated into the lesson plans of other subject areas, such as language arts, math and science. 

Many educators are also teaching students how to tell the difference between credible and false health and nutrition information. With all the information out there, this is a valuable skill to have. We encourage students to ask questions like:

  • Is the information based on science or on personal stories?
  • Is the author trying to sell something?
  • Does the information sound too good to be true?

Educators and parents should ask similar questions when they are looking for reliable nutrition resources, including whether a particular author is a recognized expert in their field. You wouldn’t ask a celebrity to fill your cavity, you'd ask a dentist. The same thinking should apply for nutrition advice. Seek nutrition information from a registered dietitian, as they are able to look beyond fads and gimmicks to deliver reliable nutrition information. There are a number of ways for parents and educators to speak with a registered dietitian. In Manitoba, for example, Dial-a-Dietitian offers general food and nutrition information and advice at no cost, over the phone at 1-877-830-2892. Schools can contact the Manitoba Healthy Food in Schools Dietitian for tailored advice and practical solutions at no cost by calling 1-855-547-0535.

Healthy and positive school nutrition environments are not created overnight. Schools can use the Moving Forward with School Nutrition Guidelines checklists (www.gov.mb.ca/healthyschools/foodinschools/policy.html) to identify one or two priority areas they would like to work on within the school year, and then build on those successes year after year.

For example, educators can use classroom celebrations to expose students to nutritious foods, provide hands on cooking experiences, consider selling and offering local sustainable foods, or share reliable nutrition information with students and families. Activities such as cooking a meal together or planting a garden can help to create trusting relationships between educators and students. Over time, schools will see healthy physical and social environments forming, and most importantly students who are becoming healthy students, and better learners.

Megan Bale-Nick is a registered dietitian and manager of Manitoba Healthy Food in Schools, which is funded by the Manitoba government in partnership with Dietitians of CanadaThis column was originally published in the Winnipeg Free Press on Friday, September 14, 2018.


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