This is my first year teaching in a building of solely 6th graders. In my month’s time, I’ve learned a lot about food philosophy from the 11 year old stand point.
1. If you add cheese, they will eat it.
Broccoli alone stands no chance. I watch tray after tray scrape it into the garbage. Those slightly soft little trees aren’t even given a second thought. Broccoli with cheese sauce? Golden. They actually asked for seconds. SECONDS. I’ve found that even the sandwiches served are a bigger hit when there is cheese involved. It’s not all that shocking, considering we’ve been trained to seek out that cheesy flavor by the food industry. What can we learn from this at home? If a small sprinkling of low-fat real cheese is the only way to get the veggies in that mouth, maybe it is worth doing. A little real cheese isn’t a bad thing, and you can always slowly decrease how much is added to the dish until their palate is used to the taste of straight broccoli. Nacho cheese, however, is a beast of an entirely different color. Processed cheese products cheapen the nutritional value of the veggie- skip it.
2. If you hide the veggies, they will eat it.
Last week I was drooling all morning over a heavenly cinnamon-y aroma in the hallway. Teachers and kids alike were guessing all morning- french toast? pancakes? cookies? What could the kitchen be making today that smelled so delicious? The answer was cookies indeed, cookies made with squash. If we tried serving those same kiddos straight up squash, I probably would have had a staged revolt in the cafeteria. Since our lovely lunch ladies were sneaky with their super foods, my precious 6th graders had an extra boost of nutrition. I even had to intervene in a squash-cookie-stealing situation. “Now, now folks- there’s enough squash cookies for everyone.” The take away in this situation is to make your healthiest foods look kid friendly, even disguise them as unhealthy treats. Half of the battle lies in the idea that they are eating something healthy, not necessarily in the taste. A quick google search yields sneaky recipes for carrots in meatloaf and black beans in brownies, time to get scheming.
3. If it has a theme song, they will sing it. Then eat it.
If I could start one major change in the food industry, it would be the way we market foods. The most heavily advertised foods in the US tend to be full of added sugars, salt, and fat. These kiddos have grown up being immersed in ads for sugary cereals and processed fast foods. It’s not news that kids are sponges for soaking up things around them, and they have incredible recall for theme songs/ad jingles. As I walk around the lunch room, the majority of snacks being chosen have recognizable cartoon mascots or even catch phrases. If we could somehow make healthy foods equally ‘cool’ maybe they would have a little more enthusiasm. However, I can’t remember the last time I saw a kid-friendly commercial for carrots or yogurt.
4. If it comes in a can of fizz, it is good.
My school, like many, doesn’t sell soda to students. Our cafeteria does, however, sell carbonated fruit juices. Fruit juices aren’t necessarily the best choice for kids, since they still are loaded with sugar and no fiber. This can contribute to the post recess energy spike-and-crash. Even worse are juices that add additional sugars to the natural fruit sugars. What makes these canned, fizzy, fruit drinks a hit isn’t necessarily the sugar content in my lunchroom, it’s the ‘cool factor’. Oh yes, have you already forgotten how cool life can be at 11 years old? Many of my kiddos finish their entire lunch before sitting back and popping open a fizzy cold beverage…savoring it like they are in an actual commercial for the stuff. Why not switch these kiddos to a less sugary but equally cool alternative? I’ve raved about seltzer before… but a can of seltzer can still bring the cool fake-soda factor, while saving their mood from the post-lunch sugar crash.
5. If they cannot dunk, they shall not eat.
We have a table in the front of my cafeteria where students can put carrots, milk, or fruit they are not going to eat. It’s kind of like a community table where healthy food can go to be picked up by another student who is maybe a little more hungry that day. I love this idea- but my inner health teacher feels faint when I watch the heap of carrots build. Yet some days, no carrots are put in the community fund. The difference between days erecting Mount Carrot and watching my 6th grade bunnies munch away? Ranch dressing. No ranch, no dunking, no eating. That’s just that cold hard truth for 90% of my students. Similarly to my cheese debate, I think this is a battle worth surrendering in. If it comes to ranch and carrots or no carrots at all, I’d rather they have a little ranch and actually build a taste for carrots than avoiding them altogether. I’ve even seen some success with hummus for dipping!
I won’t share some of the other lessons I’ve learned from my brief time in a lunch room full of 11 year olds, like what happens when you mix your milk with the fizzy fruit drink, but I’ll keep taking notes none the less.
Actual words I said in lunch this week: “Take the sandwich bags off your heads right now. They are not hats”