No matter how hard parents try to instill good dietary habits in their children, those times arise when parents are unable to control what children eat, especially once young people begin school. Although schools generally offer meals with balanced nutritional value, parents cannot ensure children will eat the food provided. There are, however, some ways to increase the likelihood that children are making nutritious choices.
Revamp the Vending
Many campuses are equipped with vending machines stocked with colas, fried snacks, candy, or other empty-calorie products. Following the example set by one school district in Kentucky, many of these items can be replaced with lower-calorie, more natural options. Chips and crackers are available in baked varieties, and juices and vitamin-fortified waters can serve as replacements for sodas. Such substitutions improve the nutritional value of snacks, and may also encourage students to skip the snack machines and rely more on the meals and whole foods offered by cafeterias. If substitutions aren't feasible, another option might be to limit vending access for meal and classroom hours, making them operational only during after school periods.
Change-It-Up in the Cafeteria
Other public schools, such as those in Medford, Boston, have resorted to hiring professional chefs to redesign school lunches. Cafeteria offerings have evolved from traditional, higher fat, higher calorie entrees to more healthy cuisine, with a focus on increasing fresh options, offering more produce, and employing whole grains. Financial studies done by some districts also indicate that schools can save money—and calories—by baking bread dough, such as that used for dinner rolls and pizza crusts, on site rather than purchasing pre-made products.
Educate the Palate
Merely offering healthy alternatives may not be enough, however. Some children may simply choose not to eat until they have access to "junk" foods, which could lead to extreme hunger and perpetuate binge behavior. Educating students on the effects—both short and long term—of poor eating habits and the benefits of healthier eating may help them make better mealtime and snack choices. Another option might be to offer cooking and/or nutrition courses as electives or after school activities.
Cook the Books
Many campuses often need a fundraising project, and a school cookbook serves a dual function. Not only will it generate revenue for the school's programs, but might also serve as an impetus to compile a body of healthy recipes. In developing and trying these recipes, students may be motivated to seek better nutrition overall. In addition, a health-conscious cookbook project provides opportunity for healthy eating habits to be extended into the community.
According to the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), childhood obesity has risen from 6.5% in 1980 to 17% in 2006. CDC statistics also reveal nearly 95% of American youth regularly attend school and eat at least one meal at school each day. Educational institutions have a golden opportunity to exert a positive effect on the eating habits of youth by offering nutritious foods, creating menu variety, and educating students (and parents) on the principles of good nutrition.