Food Revolution Fridays: The Day Care Disadvantage?

Yesterday was a snow day here in Rhode Island (surprise, surprise!  Hello, Winter of 2011), and I was home with the boys all day.  After digging us out from another 8-10 inches of snow, J. had to go in to the office for a day of important meetings, but I had the luxury of staying warm and snug with L. and P., whose school was canceled.  We did all the typical snow day things — movies, art projects, freeze dance, stories, and strewing the house with every imaginable small toy that came out of hiding to occupy the children.  We even tried to go outside and play, but the snow in the yard was so deep that I spent most of the 20 minutes we were out there desperately trying to extract one child or the other from the drifts.

With all that activity, the boys were in need of serious sustenance; they’ve both been unusually hungry as of late anyway (probable growth spurts on both fronts), but somehow they seemed particularly ravenous yesterday.  After breakfast, I decided to give us all a healthy food advantage for the day by making up a “Please Enjoy” plate.  I loaded a medium-sized platter with kale chips, homemade broccoli nuggets, steamed carrots, applesauce cups, orange slices, and bananas and set it in the middle of the dining table.  For the rest of the day, the boys were free to eat from the plate at will — as snacks or lunchtime sides, whatever they wanted.  I considered it an experiment in two areas: 1) Their ability to self-regulate; and 2) Their willingness to eat the healthy stuff and resist asking for other choices.

It went well.  Better than well.  I’d half-suspected that they might graze all day, but the two of them still only went for the food at their usual meal and snack times.  And though they did ask for crackers at their afternoon snack time, they wanted a small dish of crackers in ADDITION to the fruits and veggies, not as a replacement.  By dinnertime, more than half the platter was gone; between the three of us, we’d eaten everything but a banana, some of the oranges, and a few kale chips.

Musing on the empty platter, it occurred to me that I’d do this every day if I were a stay-at-home mom.  J. and I, like most of the people we know, don’t have the luxury of living on a single income; our kids have had to be in day care since infancy, and while we’ve had some luck with slightly flexible schedules and help from family, the boys still spend the majority of their weekdays in a school environment.  I send as much healthy food as I can in their lunchboxes, but I realized yesterday that they had a far more well-rounded day with the “Please Enjoy” plate than they do on even the best lunch-packing day at school.

L.’s best lunch of the week, I think, was Wednesday’s lentil stew, cauliflower, applesauce, and spinach salad.  Can’t argue with the nutritional value of that plate.  But if he’d been home on Wednesday, he would likely have had the same lunch; and his snacks would have been of the orange-slice, kale-chip variety, with probably some popcorn or a few crackers thrown in alongside.  At school, he got a morning snack of sweetened cereal and a few raisins; the afternoon snack was cheese-flavored crackers and juice.

Are they the WORST snacks in the world?  Not by a long shot.  The pairing of raisins with the cereal is the kind of thing we’d do at home.  And the portion sizes at school snack are really pretty small — I’ve seen them — so the handful of cheese-flavored crackers or the 1/2 cup or so of sweetened cereal hardly represents a nutritional disaster for my kid.  However.  That’s MY kid.  Whose overall diet is better than average.  What about the rest of the kids?

Oh, it’s not really about P. and L.’s classmates; while a lot of the kids may eat a relatively typical American kid-diet of processed food options and stuff with additives, there are also a lot of families who do what they can to provide good fruits and veggies and things like oatmeal and yogurt and whole-grain bread.  I’m thinking more about the larger picture and the scale of things.  L. and P.’s school is nationally accredited, which is a rare and wonderful thing; educationally, socially, and in all possible ways, their school environment is held to a higher standard than many.  So naturally, I looked at the website of the accrediting agency to see what they have to say about nutrition and health and snacks at schools across the country.

Unsurprisingly, the bit that I was able to read (there were quite a number of position statements and studies cited) came down to this nutshell: They’re concerned about the health and well-being of kids, they are particularly worried about low-income children who get their meals and snacks primarily at their day care centers, and they want schools to be adhering to USDA nutritional standards in providing those meals and snacks.  It all sounds pretty much right on target.

Except…we all know by now that the USDA nutritional standards are, again, a matter of interpretation and degree.  And that most of us who want to feed our kids really well at home don’t follow the Food Pyramid; we follow common sense and make meals and snacks primarily from real food ingredients.  Hence, I created a “Please Enjoy” platter that contained few, if any whole grains or protein sources or anything like that, because I knew my kids would easily fill out their diets with those types of foods without me having to encourage them.  But if I’d been feeding a bunch of kids at a day care center and trying to follow USDA guidelines and Food Pyramid standards, I’d have likely felt obligated to add cheese sticks, yogurt, whole-grain crackers or pretzels, toast, and probably a whole bunch of other things to the equation.  Except that would be expensive, so I could only choose a few things.  And probably cut back on the abundance of the servings.  And get the varieties of those items that have fillers and additives and junk added to them, because they’re cheaper than the higher-quality versions.  And not have scratch-made things on there at all, due to lack of kitchen, lack of resources, and allergy restrictions.

And lunch wouldn’t be lentil stew and cauliflower and spinach salad, either.  If I had to provide the meals (which our school does not), if I had to feed a group of low-income toddlers who depended on me and my school to give them their sustenance for the day, I’d be doling out things that I could reasonably handle reheating and serving, that I could store easily, and that matched those USDA standards exactly.  Oh, and things that would be easy on my budget.  Also, things that my staff and I wouldn’t have to work hard to get the kids to eat.  I’d probably be checking out something like this list, which I’ve pulled from an excellent post over at The Lunch Tray — this is a list of foods the government thinks we should be ENCOURAGING kids to eat because they are “Better For You” choices than most processed food options.  I’ve read the list, and I know what I think about it.  You be the judge.

It’s heartbreaking to me to realize that while we’d all like to put the health and nutrition of kids on the backs of parents — and I’m all for personal responsibility, believe me — we’re also tying the hands of the people who are actually feeding so many of our very young children by offering well-meaning “guidelines” that, in practice, amount to disadvantages for the centers and for the kids.  Our school does the best they can do, and they comply with the standards better than most places, I’m sure.  But when even under the best of circumstances, we can only achieve “Better For You” nutrition for our kids, what does that say about our priorities as a nation?  “Better For You” than WHAT?  And why shouldn’t we be demanding that “Better” become “Best?”

There’s not an item on this “Better” list that I’d want to put on a “Please Enjoy” plate for my kids.  Shouldn’t that be our standard, as parents and educators and concerned legislators?  Shouldn’t we be pushing the foods that we would allow any child to consume as freely as they might choose?  Or have we simply given up and decided that “better” is somehow good enough for our kids?

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9 Responses to Food Revolution Fridays: The Day Care Disadvantage?

  1. Kim W says:

    One minor point – the BBB is not a government agency. It is a private non-profit.
    That being said, I am appalled at what is served at my Kindergartener’s lunchroom (which is covered by federal guidelines). In what world is strawberry milk, a chili hot dog and an applesause considered real food for growing bodies!? At our daycare, we weren’t given any restrictions or guidelines (it is not a nut-free school). I learned that some parents were sending their children with a lunchable for lunch every day! I nearly fell over when I found out that these smart, well-educated parents thought that was OK.
    And the better for you list? I agree – better than WHAT!? I get it, the challenges you outline for day cares and schools are real. I only have 2 children and I find myself using the crutch of frozen PB&J sandwiches on occasion. I don’t think perfection is the goal and I certainly don’t have the answer. But, it’s as if everyone has just thrown their hands in the air and said it’s too hard so why bother. Grrrr. I would LOVE for my child to be able to thave a hot lunch at school in the wintertime. But, the school can’t serve food that meets the basic criteria of actually being FOOD.

    • Kim, you’re right. The CFBAI is an initiative that is managed by the BBB, which I overlooked in writing the post. It’s a food industry thing, not a White House thing. Thanks for pointing that out. However, the guidelines that allow the CFBAI to categorize these foods as “Better For You” are taken from the USDA regulations, just as school lunch menus are.
      Bringing me to your point…strawberry milk and chili hot dogs? That’s the kind of food they serve on the midway at State Fairs. It has no place in the daily intake of a growing child. Perfection is certainly not the goal; it’s often the enemy of progress, in fact, whenever you’re trying to accomplish something truly substantive. Trying to achieve the PERFECT menu or the perfect system could lead us to overlook small, measurable steps towards change which have real value. On the other hand, the attitude you describe is exactly right: We Give Up. As parents, as educators, as legislators, we’ve all just apparently decided that it’s much too hard to buck the trend on this one.
      That all being said: Do you mean frozen PB&J as in Uncrustable-type things? I’ve heard (though have not tried it) that a homemade PB&J freezes just fine and thaws in the lunchbox without issue; that may be worth trying (I bet it’s cheaper!). Also, I’m trying to spearhead a campaign to bring back the good old Thermos. I used to eat hot soup and spaghetti and all kinds of things when I was in Kindergarten, because my mom packed them in a Thermos. Whatever happened to that? I feel like people don’t do that anymore.

  2. Sarahliz says:

    Wow. I only scanned the “Better For You” list, and seemed to focus-in on the cereals listed more than anything else, but whatever happened to Cheerios or Chex cereals? None of the cereals on that list were EVER allowed in my house growing up! 90% (or more) of that list is what I would call “junk food”! I think it’s funny that BK has come up with “Apple Fries” as an alternative to french fries. Once something has been fried, it loses most of it’s nutritional value, so it doesn’t matter what it is that they put into the frier. When it’s done, it’s “junk”. Even McD’s adds caramel dipping sauce to their apple slices. Not exactly what I call “healthy”!

    I see a lot of correlation in my new job– I am working as a nanny these days and I am finding some of these items in the family’s pantry, in which the kids can help themselves at snack time. The mother tries to be healthy by offering her kids grapes, but has taught them to dip them in Cool Whip before consuming! Whatever happened to the sweetness of the grape being enough? Her kids will only eat veggies if they come with dip, and even that is very rare. I am doing my best, but at 5 and 8, these kids are already pretty set in their ways…

    Thanks for the inspiration, Bri. I wish more parents were as healthy-food-minded as you are!

    • Sarah, you’ve hit it right on the head. My kids LOVE Chex cereal and consider it a treat when it comes into the house; they’ve never had any of the “hard stuff” that’s on this list! 🙂 I absolutely agree that the items on this list are appallingly devoid of any real food value, but they’re also pumped full of “fortified” nutrients….in other words, we’re letting the “nutrition” perspective outweigh the actual value of the foods. And as far as the apple fries, I have to say that I don’t think they’re actually fried — it looks like they’re just raw apples cut into french fry shapes, so BK is mimicking McD’s on this one with the apple and caramel dip. However, what’s IN that caramel dip concerns me. We’re so messed up that we consider something fat-free to be “healthy,” even though it’s full of sugars and additives. Wake up, people — kids need fat!
      Grapes in Cool Whip — I can’t even wrap my brain around that one. And veggies with dip only? That’s a predilection they got from their parents. I don’t mind the idea of occasionally letting Little Joey dip his baby carrots in a bit of ranch, but that shouldn’t be a daily occurrence. Good luck with helping them to change their food culture. It’s got to be so tough to be in that position.
      And thanks for the kind words! Let me know if there’s anything I can do to help.

  3. Mike B. says:

    It’s amazing to me that these foods (exploding tip popsicles, stuffed crust pizza, Activia yougart, canned pasta – CANNED!!!) could meet ANY definition of healthy eating. Then again, this is the same country that only require Taco Bell to put 40% actually beef in their ground beef filling… Then again, maybe that’s a blessing too…

  4. Mike B. says:

    It’s hard to believe that you can have a list that combines “exploding candy tip” popsicles, Marshmallow Pebbles, a McDonald’s or Burger King “hamburger,” a Lunchables Fun Pack – BBQ Chicken Shake Up, Activia Fiber yougart, Kid Cuisine Magical Cheese Stuffed CrustPizza, and Kid Cuisine Dip and Dunk Toasted Ravioli and they all meet the guidelines for a growing child. This coming from the same government that says Taco Bell’s “Beef” only needs to actually contain 40% REAL BEEF.

    • Amazing, isn’t it? Although, as Bill Maher said the other night, “if you spend 99 cents on a taco, don’t be surprised if it’s not actually beef.” That’s one of our big issues, actually, as a culture. We spend far less of our money, percentage-wise, on food than Europeans do; we somehow think that 99 cents is the appropriate price for a meal item. What in this world can you actually get for 99 cents, outside of the fast-food realm? Nothing! And that should tell us something.
      The Fiber yogurt for children just kills me. People are starting to feed that to their kids because they can’t figure out why they have such terrible digestive problems. I’ll tell you why, folks — they are not eating any of the things that naturally regulate your system! They don’t NEED added fiber, they need fiber-rich foods. Two different things. Show me a kid who eats whole-grain bread, oatmeal, broccoli, and fruit, and I’ll show you a kid who doesn’t have to eat Activia. Sheesh.

  5. Kim B. says:

    Wow, what a timely post. I was just re-reading our preschool’s Parent Handbook this morning and came across something that immediately inspired the thought “I should share this with Bri.” And this is it:

    The Department of Early Education and Care regulations require us to give you this list of lunch bag suggestions:
    Milk or fruit juice, meat or meat alternative such as cold cuts, roast beef, chicken, ham, or bologna; poultry or fish without the bone, tuna or fish sticks, chicken nuggets, eggs; vegetable or fruit (two or more); bread or bread alternative, enriched with whole grain.

    Seriously, bologna? Chicken nuggets? Even my pediatrician says “no fruit juice” (except perhaps as a very occasional treat). If the Department of Education constitutes a “respected” source of information, no wonder parents can’t figure out what to feed their kids. I guess I should feel encouraged by the fact that they mention fruits and vegetables and whole grains at all!

    This list makes me thankful that, despite the inconvenience, our preschool does not provide lunch *or* snacks. I’ve mentioned before, the morning snack is “Friendship Fruit”: all kids bring in one piece of whole fruit to share with the class for the morning snack. For the afternoon snack, I usually pack yogurt or applesauce or more fruit or carrots & hummus or a cheesestick & whole grain crackers.

    • I know — those are the “wow” moments, aren’t they? I have to say, we haven’t been given suggestions of things to pack — we’ve been told what NOT to pack, but other than that it’s pretty much left alone. You’re absolutely right to question, though, because even though we could say “well, they’re just giving a list of examples, you don’t have to be literal about it,” in fact there are many parents out there who don’t have much education or knowledge about nutrition. To them, having a list from the DEEC that specifically names bologna, juice, chicken nuggets, cold cuts, fish sticks, etc. is tantamount to having a list of good foods to give to their kids. I mean, let’s face it — many people just want to be told WHAT to feed their kids, and they want it to be as easy and kid-friendly as possible to avoid headaches. For them, this is a green light to go buy up a bunch of Kid’s Cuisine dinners and Lunchables and send them to school.

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