Navigating Junk Food, Snacks, and Child Food Sensitivities in School
It’s that time of year, back to school again. Does anyone else feel like this is a catch22? I’m ready for the kids to go back, eager to have those few hours a day to work on my writing and developing my business, yet, with it comes the crazy after school rush to practices, the constant battling the “in school snacks” and cafeteria craze, dealing with teachers, and child food sensitivities.
My kids are 4 (going into Voluntary Pre-Kindergarten, or VPK), 5 (heading into Kindergarten) and 8 (about to start 3rd grade). My oldest is used to this drill, and we’ve gotten pretty good at navigating school events, handling obstacles and packing enough lunches and snacks. Meanwhile, my youngest is staying in her former daycare and knows her teachers, they are very accustomed to our eating habits and rules.
Last year, my oldest child had a great teacher that was also pretty sensitive to food issues (her own son had a nut allergy). Toward the end of the year, we had a discussion about my youngest heading into Kindergarten and the stress that was consuming me about the fact that I had found out that Kindergarteners were offered a daily communal snack. Luckily, she really went to bat for us and recommended a teacher she thought would be most appropriate for our family and my type-A-qualities.
I am a very hands-on mom, I volunteer in the school, classroom and on field trips quite frequently. So, many of the faculty and staff have gotten to know me. This is a plus for me, I have no problem with having a “reputation” as a mom who very clearly articulates and advocates on behalf of her children (or being “that” mom that everyone is afraid of).
Before you say it, yes, we’ve considered the home school as an option. However, I also believe that our education system needs reform and I’m just the crazy lady to start a revolution.
This week my son’s new teacher actually called me to introduce herself and let me know that she was aware that I had some concerns. We had a great conversation and reached a couple of decisions before the year even starts. If you are a parent for whom school, birthday parties, sporting events, etc. causes anxiety because of child food sensitivities, let’s talk about a few ways to prepare yourself and your children so that you can avoid an epic fail that leaves everyone feeling defeated and deflated.
Preparing for Child Food Sensitivities
First and foremost, don’t underestimate the intelligence of your child, no matter how young or old they may be. It doesn’t matter how set in the ways they are. Children are eager to learn and adaptable. I speak very openly and honestly will all of my kids. We use a lot of science in our conversations as well, after all, life is the greatest classroom. We curb concepts to their level of understanding, and reinforce through repeated conversations, Q&A and most importantly by leading by example, living according to the concepts we teach.
My children have a young friend that endured chemotherapy for 18 months, they remember her immune system being compromised. They also remember my dad losing his hair through chemo, and asking him about his surgical scars when he had his cancer removed. So, in our house cancer isn’t something that happens far, far away, it’s real life. My children understand that to treat this disease, the treatment requires further damage of the body. Therefore, it makes sense to avoid the disease in every way possible.
When my children are asked why they don’t eat grains, sugar or processed food they will respond themselves a very matter of factual way, “because that makes me feel sick.” Kids absolutely understand how they feel.
Tips to Navigating Child Food Sensitivities in School:
Here are some tips to navigating junk food, snacks, and child food sensitivities in school. The following processes help me lessen my anxiety, curb arguments, handle upsets, stay prepared and keep us functionally insane (just kidding, well, sort of!).
1. Schedule an in-person meeting or phone conference with your child’s teacher.
Dominic’s teacher and I just had ours earlier this week. I explained that I had some fears about a new environment, new teacher and issues we’ve faced in the past and that I wanted her to be part of my “team.” She was very receptive and willing.
LESSON: don’t assume that everyone thinks that you are insane. Remember most people want to do what’s best for their kids and/or your kids, they just don’t know HOW!
Some of What We Planned Ahead to Do:
Prior to even talking to me, this teacher put a ban on junk food in the classroom. Which, now I know, is why she came so highly recommended by our former teachers and the faculty who know us. Because of this, classroom birthdays will be celebrated without cupcakes or candy, but with a small child-centric classroom free-time or “party”, as well as the presentation of a class gift to the child. Making the celebration about the children, not food! Can I get an A-M-E-N! I think I heard angels sing!
Another bone of contention I have comes with using food as a reward for behavior. Treasure boxes full of candy and aspartame-containing gum, etc. Nothing gets my blood boiling quite like reinforcing to a child that food is a reward, especially junk food. I once heard an elementary school teacher say that she loaded her students up with sugar toward the end of the day so that the parents had to “deal” with it. She was specifically using candy as a reward for quiet, then giving it to them right before dismissal.
That’s called bribery. Ugh. Our teacher explained that instead of a treasure box of candy, she allows the children to earn play money throughout the week and buy small toys on Fridays with their earnings or save them for larger prizes. FANTASTIC – financial education, responsibility AND a lack of sugary temptation! I might just fall in love with this teacher!
One of the things we cannot avoid though is a daily snack. In our school (which is in session from 8:30 to 3:30), going to a full day of kindergarten is a big adjustment for most of the kids. They eat lunch at 10:30 am, which means they are dying of starvation (especially if they eat the sugar-laden, carb-heavy, addictive SAD foods that most families do, or that the school offers) in a few short hours.
Each parent supplies a snack for the entire class on a rotational basis, every single day. Clearly, my child, cannot participate. This truly terrified me for a couple of reasons. First, I don’t trust other parents, plain and simple. Second, I don’t want my son’s first year in real school to make him feel isolated and alone or different.
Third, I also don’t want him sick or getting explosive diarrhea from a gluten reaction… pretty sure that won’t help him make friends! So, despite the fact that I’m widely considered quite harsh in my method, certainly I want to avoid any embarrassment or hurt feelings for my child. After all, I’m a mom and moms uniformly want to protect their children from ever hurting. As much as I know that’s not realistic, it’s ever present in our subconscious, a desire to shelter our offspring from disappointment and pain.
So, to accomplish this, I will provide a variety of snacks weekly that my son can choose from daily, giving him choices and empowering him to be part of the solution. Bringing me to number 2.
Provide an Alternative
One of the things that helped us tremendously last year was to keep several safe snacks on hand at all the schools so that if the unexpected arose our teachers felt empowered to act, our children felt empowered to make choices, and we were empowered as parents because we didn’t have to panic.
Nothing makes you feel more powerless than giving control of your children to another person, only to have them put your child in what you consider to be a dangerous position. By providing a stash of snacks, you prevent that from happening. LESSON: preparedness gives everyone power!
Some of The Things on Our Snack List:
1. Trader Joes individual trail mix/nut packets (sold for $5.00 containing 10 individual cellophane packages)
2. Pure7Chocolate or Get Sweet Eats Chocolate
3) The New Primal Kids’ Snack Mates
5. Sea Snax
8. Artisan Tropic snack-sized Plantain chips
9. Dried fruits
Have your child help give you ideas, try some different things. These are items that can be kept in the classroom and don’t pose food storage problems. I reserve fresh foods for lunches and daily snacks, but these can be pulled out of a cabinet at a moment’s notice if an emergency arises. We don’t have Clif fruit snacks often, usually, I make my own with gelatin and fresh fruit, but this way there is always a safe food for both the teacher and the child to feel comfortable with.
Next, Pack a Lunch That Everyone Can Agree on.
I got the idea of making food choice lists from The Paleo Mom, Sarah Ballantyne, last year when I was having some problems getting members of our extended family to adhere to the boundaries we set forth. I thought this was brilliant and again, empowered the child but also created a structure by which I could hold my child accountable to what we’d previously agreed upon. In this year’s back to school blog, she discusses her daughter’s lists for first grade.
For lunch, we have a list of absolute ‘yeses.’ These are things my kids love, but enough of them that we have a lot of choices. They are also things we always have on hand so that I can whip up lunch in the morning and not face an argument.
LESSON: when given a choice, kids WILL choose good foods, but they need to feel like they are a part of the process, not just being dictated to.
When you are given a task, do you prefer being dictated to or collaborated with? Just because children are smaller, less experienced versions of us, doesn’t mean that they don’t require and deserve that same amount of respect.
This week, each child sat down and made their lists. Each child had 5 columns to fill:
- Main dishes (proteins) – this included things like tuna salad, beef jerky, nitrate free pepperoni, Turkey slices, grass-fed hot dogs, etc.
- Fruits – this is by far the easiest list for the child to make! This category includes organic, unsweetened apple sauce, which my kids absolutely love.
- Veggies – for this, every one of my children is different – but they all have to include a veggie they will eat. Popular choices are sliced cucumbers, kale chips, cherry tomatoes, carrot and celery sticks. They like to dunk so I also make homemade ranch dressing, guacamole, etc for them to dunk. This includes roasted seaweed, which everyone adores! My son, in particular, likes to just eat raw beets… whatever makes them eat their veggies!
- Fats – olives, coconut manna and cacao “chocolates”, cashews, almonds, guacamole, nut butter, etc.
- Treats – these are occasional things that are not necessarily on hand but that I can throw in once in a while to spice things up or give them a special treat – like my homemade ‘better than a large bar’, chocolate covered bacon, sweet potato chips fried in coconut oil, certain paleo-ish baked goods that I make very rarely, some of the few gluten-free organic snacks that we buy infrequently, etc. You get the point, they aren’t daily things but rather something to throw in for special occasions. (my daughter stresses out for standardized tests, etc. and although we don’t teach to standardized tests as the public schools do, our charter school is required to take them and submit them to the county, so I like to alleviate her stress with a surprise during test weeks, etc.) Treats don’t have to mean sugar either, don’t assume that a great treat isn’t a veggie. Homemade sweet potato chips are awesome, I just don’t have time to make them every day.
Now I have a list of things that I can grab from that my children have already decided that they like, that I can make available and rotate through to provide both variety and happiness. Important to me… it’s also well rounded! This gives me freedom and flexibility, and remember, one last time – preparedness gives everyone power!
Inclusion is everything. Discuss, Prepare, Discuss some more. Keeping communication open with educators, coaches, and our children are vital to the success not just in nutrition, but in every aspect of parenting.
Going back to school doesn’t have to be wrought with stress for parents and kids alike. I am terrible at planning ahead, really, I promise. I don’t plan meals, I grab things at the last minute. However, by having a house stocked with things that are good choices, everyone can grab and go without fear or fights!
I don’t know about you, but I’m feeling very optimistic about this year!