Megan Peavey didn’t think it would be a problem to send her 3-year-old son to school last month with a stack of Pringles snacks.
The school has a policy requiring “healthy snacks” for students, but Peavey didn’t consider the 100-calorie bag of chips unhealthy, especially when paired with other balanced snack options.
“Please help us make healthy choices in school!” read a message written in sharpie on the Pringles container, which was sent home to Peavey.
“They shamed my 3-year-old, (and) shamed me by passive-aggressively writing him about his trash,” Peavey said in a TikTok video.
Parents, guardians and caretakers want children to make healthy choices. But experts say the key to making that happen may be to avoid demonizing certain foods as “unhealthy.” And many parents, like Peavey, are instead promoting the anything-goes approach.
What happens when children are taught that certain foods are “good” or “bad”
“The less attention paid to junk foods, especially for preschoolers, the less they’ll be on a pedestal,” says Jennifer Anderson, registered dietitian and founder of Kids Eat in Color.
And teaching kids early on that there are “good” and “bad” foods can inadvertently lead to bigger problems, she adds.
“They may want to eat the food more, they may be afraid of it, and they may think they are bad if they eat a bad food. It is also very confusing. Is an apple ‘good’ if my friend has an allergy to Cake is ‘bad’ When does it taste so good? And if it’s bad, why do parents give it to their children for their birthdays? Is pizza bad if it’s one of the five foods my neurodivergent friend can eat?”
Peavey was following a similar approach to the one described by Anderson. He said in a TikTok series that went viral last week that she reached out to the school to say he doesn’t “label things ‘healthy’ and ‘unhealthy’, because that starts eating disorders.” Measures to label foods that suggest they are good or bad, such as legally requiring restaurants to include calories on menus, have been shown in studies to exacerbate disordered eating.
She later told the school director in person that she was disappointed the school had not contacted her directly and said the director in turn pointed out that they had previously asked her to send healthy snacks.
“I didn’t consider Pringles an unhealthy snack,” Peavey reflected. “I consider things like Cheetos, Doritos, Milky Way Bars, stuff like that as an unhealthy snack. So of course I would pack Pringles with a granola bar, yogurt, fruit. I didn’t really think it applied to me.”
Another obstacle for families: Prepackaged snacks cost less than fruits and vegetables and take much less time to prepare.
After the back-and-forth with the school, Peavey received a message that the school no longer had a space available for his son to attend the summer program he was enrolled in.
Anderson says the confusion about Pringles may have the opposite effect of what the school intended: “If Pringles are just a staple in the lunchbox along with apples, they don’t get much extra attention. But… thought the teacher it was worth writing on the Pringles container. (The child then thinks) They must be special somehow.”
How can children learn to eat healthy in a better way?
While Anderson isn’t against schools having their own wellness policies, she points out how quickly they can get complicated, because “healthy” and “unhealthy” can have many different meanings.
“This is really impossible to enforce and easily causes shame,” says Anderson. “What if a child has an allergy, a sensory processing difficulty or has an extremely fussy diet and the ‘unhealthy’ version of a food is what they need? What if a family is struggling in some way (with ) a death in the family, a miscarriage, a divorce, and a parent all relying on packaged foods? What if packaged foods from one cultural group were considered “healthy,” but not from another group?”
The old USDA food pyramid was also retired in 2011 because it was deemed “too complex” and replaced with MyPlate, a chart suggesting that half of a plate should be filled with fruits and vegetables, with about a quarter full of protein, the remaining quarter with cereal and a side of dairy.
However, most children don’t meet daily dietary guidelines of eating a variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nonfat and low-fat dairy products, proteins and oils, according to the CDC. Many do not adequately limit calories from solid fats and added sugars. More than 40 percent are overweight or obese, according to a 2020 dietary guide from the USDA and Department of Health and Human Services.
But amid a toxic diet culture where everyone has conflicting advice on the best way to eat well and companies spend big bucks marketing their food to children, many pediatric dieticians are stressing the importance of parents helping their children. children to become more careful eaters, rather than simply trying to “eat healthy”. Anderson recommends teaching kids how “different foods do different things in their bodies,” such as explaining that chicken and beans help their muscles, rather than just saying broccoli is healthier than a cookie.
He adds: “Pringles are not ‘unhealthy.’ “Eating only Pringles will make you unhealthy. Vegetables are not ‘healthy.’ Eating a diet that includes fruits and vegetables is a lifestyle activity that can help your body stay healthy.”
Read more about healthy eating
How to start eating healthy:Experts say you should start small, keep it simple
Don’t focus on “good” or “bad” food.Your lifestyle habits are critical to a heart-healthy diet.
What is a balanced diet?Knowing the answer can help you make better food choices.
Moreover:27 healthy eating habits that can change your life
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