One of our missions in Chicago is to start redefining the cafeteria lunch. As a kid, standing in line on the rare days I didn't have my brown bag in hand, I remember thinking, "Where are all the fruits and veggies?" Though I indulged in sweets and Lunchables were often a staple in that brown bag, I knew what healthy food was, and I didn't understand why we couldn't have it at school. We had computers and craft time and a great gymnasium with rows of new Tetherballs, so, where was the brown rice and chicken breasts? The shiny apples and oranges? The romaine and celery? Why did the sloppy joe look like vomit? Why did the pizza's cheese taste like glue? I understand that schools are on a budget, but when that budget includes absolute crap for kids, it exposes issues with our food consumption in general.
Health starts as a child, period. While our bodies are lucky enough to fight off infection and hide "sickness" until later in life, disease is accumulative. It doesn't suddenly pop up out of nowhere - oh look, it's cancer! - it's a culmination of all of our habits - both good and bad - throughout our lives. When a child (or teenager) is only offered pizza, sloppy joes, fries, or other fatty, salty food, and these become their daily diet staples, they are setting themselves up for trouble later in life. When a child eats food like this on a daily basis (such as in the school systems) they get spikes in insulin, drops in blood sugar and inevitably, mood swings. Kids get tired in the afternoon or wired or aggressive or a combination of all three. And most times, it can directly be correlated back to food (i.e., sugar, fat and salt).
There was a study in Madagascar about how children acted on an airplane. There wasn't a single child who was misbehaving or crying. How? Their diets. They are well-behaved because their bodies are pumped full of healthy grains and produce. Nothing comes out of a bag, and no child is guzzling buckets of sugary carbonation and then throwing insane tantrums, which leave parents utterly exhausted. These children eat the way we are all intended to eat, filling themselves with cleaner, healthier, more natural foods.
Many parents pack their child's lunch with the best intentions, but when that child sees the other kids feasting on junk food, that's what they want too. While occasionally eating "poor" food won't lead to poor health as an adult (because, let's face it, some of the greatest joys are eating a gooey piece of cake, a delectable slice of pizza or an ice cream sundae), eating cookies, chips, candy, unhealthy sandwiches and anything from the cafeteria will not only lead to childhood obesity but it is doing an injustice to kids.
I know so many adults who really don't understand what they are supposed to be eating. They look for the quickest fix and the newest diet book to get them on track. This is usually due to insufficient knowledge about nutrition as a child. It's up to the parents - literally - to instill these healthy habits and arm your children with the proper tools to have a healthy adult life.
Here's a list of questions to ask yourself (and your child):
1. What is healthy food to you? What is healthy food to your children? What does the term "health" even mean to you?
2. Do you know how to cook? Do your children know how to cook basic things?
3. Do you like vegetables? What vegetables do you bring in the house? Do your children like vegetables? If not, why? Is it because they've actually tried them, or because they never eat them?
4. What do you think about being a vegetarian? Does your child know what this means?
5. Do you eat breakfast? What does your child eat for breakfast?
6. How much water do you drink a day? How much does your child drink?
7. What do you like to eat? What does your child like to eat? Figuring out what you enjoy first can help you find healthier alternatives.
Proper nutrition can cure most ailments in life. The power of nutrition is a glorious thing. If you don't believe me, read The China Study, one of the most comprehensive books on nutrition ever written. This book is based on factual research, not just some person's opinion. It's science, conducted over 74 years, and the facts are astounding.
Think of it like this: If your child never knows what a Big Mac is, he won't ask for it. You don't have to be a top chef to give your kids what they need. If they hate vegetables, keep trying different ways to present them until they like at least a few. That doesn't mean drown them in butter or oil, but perhaps you find a fun salad to make, or you roast some veggies in the oven. If they are consistently exposed to fruits and veggies, they might grow to like them. Just like we weren't born loving junk food, eating healthy is an acquired taste. But, it's worth the "growing pains" to experience the benefits later in life. It's all habit. Start today, with yourself, with your child, or with your family.
Here's an example of a brown bag lunch you can pack for your children:
Peanut Butter/Banana/Apple Sandwich
Celery or carrots, sliced
Organic chocolate milk
Peanut Butter/Banana/Apple Sandwich
2 tbs. natural peanut butter
1 sliced banana
1 tsp. agave nectar
2 slices ezekial bread (or whole wheat)
1 sliced granny smith apple
On two slices bread (toasted or plain), spread peanut butter and layer with sliced banana. Add thin slices of granny smith apple on top. Drizzle with agave and enjoy!