Setting the table for healthy eating in schools
Nutrition education should help children develop a long-lasting positive relationship with food
Schools in the region go all-out to invest in the infrastructure and provide top-notch facilities for classroom learning, science and computer labs, sports pitches, swimming pools, and state-of-the-art auditoriums. During school tours, these features weigh the most, and many parents are happy to know that school cafeterias offer snacks and lunch options.
However, nutrition education is yet to be part of the wellness agenda in many schools. Schools do provide healthy lunches and conduct yoga and mindfulness programmes. When it comes to promoting healthy eating awareness, some schools have activities like salad day or annual health carnivals, but it is not a sustainable option. Wellness education should be an ongoing activity.
The goal of healthy eating education should be to bring about transformation and help children develop a positive relationship with food that lasts a lifetime. But why is that we have a long way to go?
The number one reason is that nutrition education is yet to be taken seriously. Lack of time and resources could be among the factors. With academics taking precedence over everything, sustained activities to promote healthy eating are likely to be pushed to the background. Most schools have value education as an essential part of curriculum, so why not make use of these periods to impart nutrition education as well? After all, developing a healthy relationship with food is a value that has to be built in children.
Nutrition education has to be taught through interactive activities instead of PowerPoint presentations. The objective is to ensure that these sessions help children pick up few tips and encourage them to recreate what they learn at home. This is one way of empowering kids to become wellness ambassadors of the community.
Schools often offer cooking classes without fire lessons as part of their after-school programmes. In cases where it is an optional activity, many children, especially boys, do not sign up for this, but if it is integrated into classroom learning, all will take part. Cooking without fire should not be limited to sandwiches and salads. It is to be seen as an activity that empowers students with basic cooking skills, and introduce them to create balanced meals, healthy and easy snacks, soups and smoothies.
Now what lessons can be taught as part of healthy eating?
For primary grade children, lessons could include introduction to different dishes and food groups, and stating what is healthy and unhealthy, making simple healthy snacks and dips, etc. For middle school students, topics should include reading food labels, understanding portion sizes, creating healthy balanced meals, choosing healthy fats and kicking sugar habits.
For those in senior classes, topics should feature health-related goals and achieving them, mind-body connection, food and emotions, avoiding exposure to environmental toxins, cons of following false diet myths, importance of sleep, integrated nutrition, and how to stay energetic and focused through food choices.
The lessons offered should be related to each age group and interest. For instance, while addressing the senior grades, instead of preaching about nutrition, relate to trends and what they may be looking for. This is the age they care about looks, beauty, peer acceptance and perceptions. So play along these lines and drive home the point.
Getting children to connect with communities that bring food to the table is also an important aspect of nutrition education. School kitchen gardens, setting up farmers' markets in school premises and field trips to local farms are occasions for this.
"With fantastic culinary choices available in Dubai and easy availability of junk food (sometimes masquerading as healthy food!), parents and teachers find it increasingly difficult to ensure that students eat healthy meals in desired portions. Healthy choice programmes, therefore, are very meaningful.-Nargish Khambatta, Principal, GEMS Modern Academy
"It is all about what we offer to children. As adults, first we need to believe that healthy eating is important. As soon as we are convinced, everything will fall into place. We need to walk the talk at all times and essentially it all begins at school. For young children, the teacher's word is the last word." -Deepika Thapar Singh, CEO-Principal, Credence High School, Dubai
If schools do not have enough space for big kitchen gardens, they can grow micro greens in cafeterias and classrooms or opt for vertical gardens. Gardening helps children stay connected to nature. It has a therapeutic effect and can positively impact emotional and mental well-being.
Delivering consistent messages on healthy eating is also key. Healthy and appealing foods should be made available during all occasions such as annual sports meets, school food court days, staff meetings and other events.
What is served in canteen should resonate with classroom education. At times, school cafeterias display posters related to healthy food, but serve oily foods like samosas and pizzas. Selling white bread in canteen and talking about whole grain bread in classrooms could make children think they can compromise on healthy food.
If school cafeterias want to offer junk snacks, because they are popular, then how are things supposed to change? Remember that children are open to trying out new foods, but if we do not provide these accordingly, how we can expect them to make conscious healthy choices?
With awakening comes challenges, and these challenges have to be addressed if changes have to be brought about. Schools should make healthy eating cool and enjoyable and not to be perceived by students as a weird fad or as an exercise that imposes restrictions on them.
Priya Arjun is a certified holistic health coach and a member of the American Association of Drugless Practitioners.