You cannot force children to eat healthily

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Government advisors on school food have suggesting banning packed lunches in the healthy eating drive – but child psychologist Karen Sullivan argues that this exactly the opposite of what is needed.

This week has seen reports that the government’s advisors on school food want to see packed lunches banned and school dinners to be made obligatory.

As an educationalist, I understand that school meals play an important role in ensuring kids get at least one hot meal a day, and some fruit, vegetables and good-quality protein and carbohydrates into the mix. However, I also know that the key to teaching children is not through coercion. 

In fact, as someone who has studied nutrition, I am aghast that such a measure could be suggested. For one thing, school meals may have improved in great measure across the years, but they do not suit the tastes of all children. It is far better for parents to gauge what their children will eat and fit that into a healthy lunch, than to assume that they will eat what’s on the menu.

One head claimed to be far too busy to worry about unhealthy snacks and packed lunches, but I fear this is the wrong approach. Although it is obviously more easily overseen at primary schools, my youngest son’s school provides a list of banned and acceptable items and reinforces this with daily monitoring by lunch staff and even by teachers. 

I don’t think it is a burden. A good percentage of children go home hungry because they don’t like what’s being served. Is that really an option? And are parents happy to put their faith in the products being served at school?

Educating children about healthy eating, from primary school well into secondary school, is a far more effective tool for encouraging eating habits than forcing them to eat specific foods.

The idea of teaching them to cook is a good idea; it familiarises them with new and different foods and creates scope for experimentation that can be adjusted to suit different palates. There is choice in this method; ultimately, what schools, parents and governments hope to achieve is that children learn to make the correct food choices.

As any teacher knows, telling older children and teenagers to do something is bound to achieve the opposite result. Quite right, too, frankly. We are in the business of producing young men and women who know their own minds, develop an understanding of a concept, before using the tools at their disposal to make an educated decision in the right direction.

Telling them they have to eat a school meal is not just guaranteed to put their backs up, but it fails to teach them anything. Jamie Oliver achieved a remarkable feat when he deconstructed a chicken nugget in front of horrified students. He educated them, and through that many made better decisions.

There’s plenty to teach children, too. For example, through decades of research we know there are fresh foods that have positive physical and emotional effects. 

There are foods that encourage stable blood sugar levels (ideal for the games session and essential for concentration and memory); foods that reduce anxiety (key during exam periods); foods that promote calm, encourage healthy digestion, lift mood and even ease headaches. 

If students are taught the nutritional benefits of the food they are being encouraged to eat, they will be in a position to make healthy choices, and on an individual basis. 

The government is there to make sure that children are educated, in many different areas of their lives. Taking away choice and making decisions for them undermines that process, and is much more likely to leave classrooms full of hungry children who are then forced to fill up on junk on the way home.

  • Karen Sullivan is a best-selling author, psychologist and childcare expert. Email kesullivan@aol.com


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