Eating and trying new foods, much like having an adventure in the woods, is an opportunity for children and adults alike to explore, share, and have new sensory experiences while nourishing our bodies and our minds. Studies on emotion and neuroplasticity continue to show that new and novel experiences, including time spent outdoors and in nature, allow us to release serotonin and dopamine, combat depression, and be happier individuals. By encouraging our children, at a young age, to engage in health positive behaviors, to move more, to eat better, to be outside and connect with their communities and their food sources, we are healing our entire community and helping them to be healthy in a way that is much more balanced and significant than their BMI could possibly indicate. When we move beyond seeing snack time as a time to reach for a box of crackers and satiate until the next time we eat, and view meals as opportunities to learn and experience and participate in the world, we move beyond encouraging physical health, and set our children up to be healthy on an emotional and cognitive level as well.
When working with children how can we help encourage healthy attitudes about exercise, food, and body image?
I will never encourage a child (or an adult for that matter) to move around to burn calories, to lose weight, or to “earn” permission to eat treats. I will encourage a child to move to express joy, to feel strong and competent, to develop new skills and gain physical strength. I will encourage them to move so that they can celebrate the amazing things their body can do and the blessing of having functional limbs, and so that they will know the exhilarating joy of sharing experiences like dancing, running, and playing with their friends. I will encourage them to move around outdoors because our world is an amazing place, and they will not be able to fully understand that, or be in awe of our planet and nature, or inspired to study it, or protect it, until they have first experienced it.
I will never use food as a reward for behavior. I will never encourage a child to “trade” “healthy” foods such as vegetables for “unhealthy” foods such as desserts, to count calories, to watch their carbohydrate or fat intake, or to deprive themselves of foods they love. As long as children play and move and do not have underlying health issues, if they have access to a variety of good food choices- nutritious whole foods, they are naturally good at eating what they need. I encourage them to try new foods because it is exciting and fun to try new things. I talk with them about what they are eating and where their food comes from. How they feel about it and how it tastes. I encourage children to learn where their food comes from, and then go a step further and plant the seeds, to grow the vegetables, to participate in cooking their favorite meals. I encourage children to eat because sharing meals with friends promotes meaningful conversation and relationships. I encourage them to eat because they love the sensory experience and taste of the foods in front of them. I will encourage them to think about how what they are eating affects the way their bodies feel. I will give them more when they ask for it, and trust that they know their limits, are done when they say so or walk away, and never force them to eat food or clear their plate.
I teach the preschoolers to look at their food and think about the ingredients, to know where it came from and how it is connected to the earth. Yes, that is string cheese. But how did it get to your lunch box? An amazing number of children will tell me that it “comes from my refrigerator” or it “comes from the store”. How can we expect children to care about what they put into their bodies, and care about animals, and care about the earth, if they don’t see how these things are all connected? I want them to know that the little things like sunflower seeds, and blueberries, and water drops, and the big things like mountains, and forests, and cities are all part of cycles that affect one another, and give and take energy, and I want the children to understand that they are part of those systems too.
Making meals an adventure helps underscore a broader message that life is full of opportunities to explore, to be flexible, and to celebrate and feel grateful for the simple joys in life.
My goal, when feeding my daughter or sharing food with the people in my life- children and adults, is to be intentional in the choices I make. To create opportunities to eat a wide variety of whole foods (as few ingredients as possible, as close to their natural form as possible). I try to offer different colors and textures and types of flavors, and make each meal a sensory experience. At the same time, I try to support my values by shopping as locally and organically as possible, and support my family by doing it as an economical a way as I can.
This week we had some encouraging local news about children’s health. Too often we are told what we are doing wrong, and given a gloomy picture of the ills in society. It’s nice to pass on a story that is hopeful and encouraging, and share some useful tips about what we CAN do to make a positive difference for our kids and our world.
One important side note to this story, if you can’t already guess from my previous statements, is that I don’t believe talking about obesity and focusing on BMI and caloric intake and weight is a useful way to encourage health among children. It is a data point that can be tracked and measured which makes it useful to administrators and organizations when looking at the impact of this grant program.
Both the Seattle Times and NPR reported a drop in obesity rates of 17% among high school students in King County. Overall, for Washington State and for our country as a whole, obesity rates remain stable or are on the increase. This change seems to indicate that we can have a positive impact and change outcomes for children and young adults on a broad scale. (here is the original article: (http://seattletimes.com/html/localnews/2022957941_obesitydownxml.html) The children being tracked in this study are generally from low income school districts, and participated in a grant program designed to promote healthy lives among youth. This grant program took a holistic approach at promoting health. From the article:
“The 41 grant recipients were asked to focus on goals such as creating safe, walkable and bikeable communities, reducing consumption of sugary beverages, and supporting farm-to-school programs, low-income immigrant urban farmers and small retailers seeking to provide healthful options.”
I’m so encouraged that this program took a look at the school and citizens within the context of a community. It recognizes that time outdoors, and community connections, and fresh produce and whole foods are all interconnected components in creating a healthy life for our children. And the proof that this approach works seems to be evident in the numbers. My hope is that parents and school districts and legislators can take this evidence and use it to affect change in our schools across the state and country. Investing in our children’s health is an investment in their future and an investment in their ability to learn and thrive in the classroom environment. Children who are hungry, sick, tired, poorly nourished, and deprived of time outdoors playing, exploring, and moving, cannot be effective learners. As a nation we all need to do the same thing that I encourage my preschoolers do. And we need to make sure these opportunities are accessible regardless of where children live and go to school. Go outside. Move. Play. Explore. Eat real food. Be happy and grateful and responsible. Every. Single. Day.