An Open Letter to Daycares, Preschools, Nursery Schools, and Elementary Schools

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We so appreciate the care you take of our little ones. In fact, I am sure that most parents would agree being able to send our kiddos to daycare, preschool, and/or elementary school is a huge factor in maintaining our sanity. The way that you help our children learn, grow, and adapt is amazing, and we are grateful for you. Having said all this, we need to talk about the policing of our kids’ food in school.

Lately, I have begun hearing more and more from parents whose kids are being sent back home with notes about their packed lunch. One parent received a phone call from a daycare saying that they were not going to give her daughter the 10 M&Ms that she had packed in her daughter’s lunchbox because they were “unhealthy.” Keep in mind, this mom had the forethought to pack in her daughter’s lunch The Feeding Doctor’s lunch box card stating that she did not want the staff to interfere with her daughter’s eating of lunch and that her daughter is allowed to eat any or all (or none) of the foods packed in the lunch in any order she wants. The staff overruled these directions and said that candy is “frowned upon” in their program.

Listen, I get it. In our fatphobic, diet culture world, we’ve been taught that sugar is the enemy. That if we give it to our kids, they will turn into sweets-addicted, hyperactive lunatics who will be out of control, that their bodies will balloon up like Violet Beauregarde in Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory, and that their teeth will fall out due to cavities. As a registered dietitian who has a Master of Science in Nutrition and Health Promotion with over a decade of experience in the dietetic field, I’m here to tell you that all of this is false.

Kids are naturally born intuitive eaters. Newborn babies cry when they are hungry and drink breastmilk (or formula) provided by their caregivers until they are satiated. They are perfectly in tune with their bodies’ cues and eat in response to them.  As babies grow and they start eating solids, they continue to eat intuitively. If you’ve ever tried to get a baby to eat anything they don’t want to eat (I’m looking at you, strained peas.), you know they just won’t have it. As kids reach toddlerhood, often their eating habits become erratic. Some days, it seems like my daughter barely eats anything, but on other days, she appears to eat more than a grown adult. Despite this seeming chaos, our kids’ bodies know what they are doing. While meals might seem hit-or-miss during one day, it’s best to look at our kids’ eating over a period of days as things will usually average out.   

Kids usually remain intuitive eaters until the adults in their lives start interfering with their food. Whether it be pressuring kids to take “one more bite” at dinner even if they are no longer hungry, limiting their access to sweets and other highly palatable foods because they are “unhealthy”, or expressing concern about their eating “too much,” parents and other adults can really throw a monkey wrench into their kids’ relationship with food.  Many parents worry about their kids gravitating towards foods that are high in fat, sugar, and/or salt because they themselves have a complicated relationship with those foods. In reality, if we relax around these foods and include them regularly with more “nutrient-dense” foods, we can neutralize them and take the “shine” off of them as well. In my work with kids and families, it’s the kids who are the most restricted around highly palatable foods that end up bingeing on them when they get the chance, sneak eating them in their room, or being hyperfixated on them at their friends’ houses. If we teach our kids that food has no moral value (i.e., eating vegetables doesn’t make you a “good” person and cookies aren’t the devil’s food), they will be able to make choices about what and how much to eat based on their internal hunger and fullness cues.

In addition to being natural-born intuitive eaters, young kids have very binary thinking. That is, when we present them with the idea that there are “good” foods and “bad” foods, they take this information quite literally and are unable to see the gray. So many children feel guilt or shame for enjoying “bad” foods because they feel like they are bad for eating them. This is setting our kids up to have a very charged emotional experience around these foods which can continue on into adulthood for many of them.  If we teach kids that all foods fit and that the most important thing is getting a good variety of all sorts of foods, we can help foster their relationship with food and their bodies.

Another thing to consider is the concept of helping our kids become “competent eaters.” Coined by child feeding therapist and dietitian Ellyn Satter, competent eaters are those who eat in accordance with their hunger and fullness cues while taking into consideration their bodies’ needs and preferences. Parents’ (and caregivers’) role in this process is to be in charge of certain aspects of meals and snacks. Satter’s Division of Responsibility further clarifies that parents are in charge of what food is being served, when and where this food is offered. Meanwhile, kids are responsible for whether they choose to eat the food provided and how much they want to eat of said food. Ideally, parents offer their kids a variety of foods, including both highly palatable foods and foods that are more nutrient dense, and then let their kids eat in accordance with their bodies. This model posits that interfering with kids’ eating by cajoling them to eat more vegetables, discouraging them from eating other foods, or even praising them for eating more nutrient-dense foods will lead to power struggles at the dinner table.

So what can we adults do to help our kids develop a healthy relationship with food and their bodies? Here are some strategies:

  1. Avoid categorizing some foods as “junk” or “bad” and others as “good” or “healthy.” Food is just food and does not have moral value. Food is only “bad” if you are allergic to it or it is rotten or spoiled.
  2. Parents need to provide a wide variety of foods to their kids, including regular access to highly palatable foods in order to take these foods off the pedestal and make them morally equivalent to more nutrient-dense foods.
  3. Caregivers at school should refrain from pressuring kids to eat certain parts of their lunch before letting them eat other parts (e.g., “You need to finish your sandwich before you can have your cookies.”) If a child wants to eat their cookies first, please let them.
  4. Caregivers at school should also avoid confiscating food from kids’ lunchboxes unless those foods are an allergy or choking risk. If the parents packed the lunch, please respect that they know how to feed their kids.  
  5. Finally, school caregivers, please be mindful about sharing your own food anxiety with kids. Kids should not be hearing about your latest diet or how you don’t allow yourself to eat X, Y, or Z. Children are like sponges and absorb all of this information.

Again, thank you for everything you do for our little ones. We are so grateful to have you in our kids’ lives. Let’s help our children develop a healthy relationship with food and their bodies by setting a good example and not letting diet culture into the classroom.  

4 thoughts on “An Open Letter to Daycares, Preschools, Nursery Schools, and Elementary Schools

  1. This was so helpful to read as my 2 year old is starting school this week for the first time. At home we do our best to live and breath intuitive eating aka ice cream for breakfast happens regularly. I am nervous that food at school may become a pain point for my son (not having enough of the one food he wants to eat, wanting other children’s food, not being able to eat whenever he wants etc.)

    Quick Question: What is the strategy in distinguishing between “snack” and “lunch”? The school asked that I provide both and have them clearly labeled.

    • That’s a great question. I think of snacks as having 2-3 components and meals having at least 3 components. So snacks could look like: string cheese and apple slices; or Goldfish and grapes; or yogurt with berries and some granola. Maybe packing larger portions of snacks would be best for your son to make sure he has enough?

      Lunches would be bigger in general: a sandwich, carrot chips with dip, pretzel sticks, fruit, and a cookie. I would err on packing more robust lunches, as littles can sometimes eat a lot during a growth spurt.

      Another thing to consider: could you pack one large lunch box (which would be for both snack and lunch) ask the school to just give your son access to this box at both lunch and snack?

      Navigating school food is tough and my heart goes out to you and your son. It’s hard to not have what you want when you want it. Could you also include him in some of the snack/lunch prep? Maybe if he helps to pick out some components he might be happier about what’s packed.

      Hope this helps!

  2. Great advice! It is a process, modeling healthy balanced eating for children. E. Satter is a wonderful resource!

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