In a new policy statement, the American Academy of Pediatrics says school nutrition has made incredible strides over the last two decades, but high-calorie, low quality foods are still available from informal sources like bake sales, birthday parties, and other events for which students, parents and staff bring treats from home.
“Great things have happened in terms of sweetened beverages, school meals, snacks and vended foods in schools,” said Dr. Robert Murray, professor of nutrition at The Ohio State University in Columbus and one of the two lead authors of the policy statement.
In the 92 percent of U.S. school districts that follow federal nutrition guidelines, cafeteria lunches are almost always healthier and in smaller portions than packed lunches from home, he noted.
“The problem now is (that) the foods of poor quality are the ones coming in from home from teachers and staff, used for birthday parties and for things like booster sales,” Murray told Reuters Health by phone.
These informal food sources are not regulated at the federal or state level the way lunches and other vending points are, he said.
Many parents say events like birthdays or bake sales are “special occasions” and allow kids to bring in sugary or fatty foods, since having a treat once in a while is fine.
But, Murray said, “when you have 30 kids in the class and they all have birthdays plus Halloween and holidays, and teachers who use food as reward, and you have clubs that sell food…”
At his local high school, outside the cafeteria, every day a different student club sells food, largely baked goods like brownies, cookies or cupcakes.
“Great progress has been made, but there still is a pretty steady stream of poor quality food coming in to the school,” Murray said. “We as parents and teachers are responsible for a lot of that.”
In its new policy statement, the AAP does not recommend banning these foods, or controlling daily amounts of sugar, salt or fats with an iron fist. Rather, parents should consider their child’s whole diet and use ingredients that kids enjoy to encourage them to eat nutritionally wholesome foods.
“When you ask a person what constitutes a good diet, they tell you all the foods you shouldn’t be eating instead of focusing on the food pattern of the foods that you should eat,” which is not the right attitude, especially for kids, Murray said.
“In the 90s we avoided nuts, avocados, eggs, we kicked them out because of a single nutrient,” he said, referring to saturated fats. But because of the variety of healthy nutrients they provide, in addition to saturated fats, many of these foods are now encouraged, he said.
Banning single nutrients is the wrong choice, he said.
When foods are restricted or banned, kids end up seeking out those foods or sneaking them, which creates poor eating habits, said Laura Jeffers, a registered dietitian at the Cleveland Clinic, who was not involved in the new study.
“If food is categorized as good or bad, then negative thoughts around food can occur,” she said. “Over time, negative thoughts about food may turn into negative self-image thoughts when ‘bad’ food is consumed.”
School meals have made great strides nutritionally, Jeffers told Reuters Health by email.
“This guideline goes a step further by focusing on the other food items that kids are exposed to at school and how to improve the quality and selection of food brought into schools (e.g., snacks, food during fundraisers and sporting events, etc.),” Jeffers said.
There are non-food ways to celebrate occasions like birthdays, Murray noted, but if you do send your child to school with food, “make those foods higher quality nutritionally,” he said. “Instead of making chocolate chip cookies, can I make oatmeal (cookies)?”
If oatmeal isn’t sweetened, kids won’t eat it, and they’ll miss out on the fiber and other benefits it has to offer, he said.
In some deserts, fruit can replace refined sugar, he noted. Kids may be more willing to eat fresh vegetables along with ranch dressing, which is a fair trade-off, he said.
“Parenthood is sales, it’s negotiation with your kid,” Murray said.