|Pretzels with homemade hummus served for all school snack.|
Research shows that 40 percent of students buy and eat snack foods at school in a typical day. I can see this daily in my classroom. Many parents are too busy to pack snacks, especially healthy ones. Some of my students are on their own to pack lunches and snacks, and the result can be unhealthy, processed and packaged foods. When schools sell unhealthy snacks and drinks outside of meals, it can cause kids to eat less of their lunch, consume more fat, take in fewer nutrients, and gain weight. How can we improve what kids snack on at school, and what is available?
A team of organized parents, school staff, cooks and students can change the eating culture of the school significantly. Here are a few ideas for how to improve school snack nutrition, from an insider:
1. White to Wheat
We’ve all heard that white flour baked goods are not very healthy. These carbohydrates break down into sugar, are used by the body quickly, and don’t sustain energy. One change to advocate for is a shift from white baked goods to whole wheat, in all items possible. One great place to start? Bagels. In my school students used to eat huge white bagels with white cream cheese. We shifted to smaller, whole wheat bagels wrapped in foil. The foil is recyclable, which makes this even better.
Then the cooks started shifting our pizza dough to half white, half wheat. Now the crust is all whole wheat and is tasty as ever.
2. Move away from packaged snacks
This seems like a huge endeavor, especially if your school has vending machines with junk food choices. In some schools, replacing poor nutritional quality foods in vending machines for healthier ones is a great place to start.
For other schools, take one packaged item, like an energy bar, and replace it with a homemade version. Our school sells super tasty homemade bars and muffins each week. You can find the nut free energy bar recipe here. No packaging needed! These are served in small wax paper bags.
3. Talk with students about healthy choices
This may seem obvious, but it surprising how communication can be overlooked in our busy lives. As a parent, teacher, or nutrition advocate (and maybe all three!) you can find opportunities to communicate that can make a real difference in the lives of students.
In my 14 years of teaching I have had hundreds of conversations with students about healthy eating. I’ve seen students eating chips, cake, and candy for breakfast. The key is to not come from a place of judgement, but from a place of sincere helpfulness and caring. Teachers can ask if the child is hungry, would like help finding other food, and come up with some healthier choices together. Many times, this kind of conversation is a relief for students. They may be shouldering much of the food preparation burden. Also, it is another expression of love and caring for the whole child.
4. No more liquid candy: encourage water consumption
We know that children drink many of their calories in soda or juice. These extra calories can add up to weight gain, diabetes, and cavities. There are many ways to take this on.
One is working to eliminate sugary choices available in school. Our school phased out chocolate milk in the last 2 years. This was not without complaint, of course, because what kid doesn’t love chocolate milk? But the question became, should students be drinking it every day, sometimes twice a day at school?
Next is encouraging water consumption. Not bottled water, which is terrible for the environment and not as well regulated for health as tap water. Schools can put in refillable water stations by water fountains (our middle school has doene this). It even has a tally for how many plastic water bottles were saved from its use. Classrooms should allow and encourage students to bring, use and fill water bottles.
5. Take small steps
This issue can be overwhelming. But every school can make significant progress by starting small. We have made steady progress at our school, but have kept it manageable for everyone by taking it one step at a time. Start (or join) a nutrition committee at your school, and identify one or two small steps to begin with. Every change you make will improve the nutrition in your school for hundreds of students!