Last year, my oldest son started school. I was excited and a little apprehensive about what the year held for him. Unfortunately, this excitement wore off pretty quickly.
On day 2, my son received a card in his lunch box – “We love your healthy lunch” and a newsletter stating the school rules around what can be eaten at each lunch break.
My bubble of food joy and peace burst right there and then as damage-control kicked in.
I ended up writing a letter to the school about my experiences as a parent and an APD. I offered actionable suggestions about how the school could support my child and the school children around food, eating and nutrition.
Here is the letter I wrote:
I am an Accredited Practising Dietitian. I am also the mother of a child attending your school.
On the second day of school my son received a card stating “We love your healthy lunch”. I also noted in a newsletter that “Only healthy food is allowed to be eaten at 1st lunch break. Treats and left-over food can be eaten at 2nd lunch break.”
Whilst I understand that “schools have an important role in promoting healthy eating and physical activity to students and providing an environment that supports a healthy lifestyle”, as noted in the Smart Choices – Healthy Food and Drink Supply Strategy for Queensland Schools, I have concerns about the approach the school is taking around educating parents and students about food and nutrition.
Judging food as ‘healthy’ and ‘treats’ is assigning morality to food, which is a typical dieting behaviour leading people to feel a sense of fear, guilt and shame, particularly around their weight, body shape or body size.  These feelings can result in individuals valuing themselves in response to what they have in their lunch box and what they have eaten.
Personally, my son was proud to receive the “We love your healthy lunch” card in his lunch box and naturally viewed his peers as less superior for not receiving a card. He now views foods as ‘healthy’ and ‘unhealthy’ and is fixated on receiving another card. As a concerned dietitian and mother, I am now working to repair the damage this school nutrition guideline has caused my son and our family. I am particularly concerned that if the next round of cards are given out and my son does not receive a card he will become distressed.
All children are worthy, regardless of the choices their parents make around food and nutrition. I feel the card system judges food and eating in attempts to educate parents through their child.
Food is neither ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Food is food with varying nutrient contents and can all nourish the body, mind and spirit. A variety of food is the key to health and happiness, as food is not purely eaten based on its nutrient content when biologically hungry. Food also serves a role socially and culturally.
I do not believe this is the way to empower parents or children to improve their nutrition.
I believe we should be supporting children to make food choices based on their appetite or internal biological signals, as we are born with an innate ability to nourish ourselves. Food guidelines like this send the message that children should not trust their bodies and should eat according to the food rules set out by the school, diets and society.
Feeding a child is complex and some parent struggle with providing a variety of food. Food shaming or shaming behaviour does not change behaviour. Feeding is affected by many determinants. For example, medical, financial, cultural, social, time and energy issues.
I do not believe that the school’s behaviour around policing lunch boxes and children’s dietary intake with a reward or punishment system targeting the parents through the child, aligns with your school’s motto.
Judging food and eating behaviours fuels dieting behaviour which is so ingrained in society today. Dieting and the dieting behaviour society is participating in does not promote health. Likewise, food shaming and dieting negatively affects health, especially mental health. The concern around dieting is that it is associated with body image dissatisfaction and distortion, the development of eating disorders and other health concerns including depression, anxiety, nutritional and metabolic problems, and an increase in weight [3, 4, 5].
As an Accredited Practising Dietitian with 10 years experience, I have seen the devastating outcomes of dieting and how it affects people of all ages, their family and their ability to be productive members of the community. My mission as an Accredited Practising Dietitian and mother is to inspire individuals and the community, including my children, to improve their relationship with food and their body and stop the struggle with food and body so they can live a happy and healthy life.
I would like to make you aware of the gold standard for feeding children as per the work of Ellyn Satter so the school as a whole can change its approach around supporting children and parents around feeding and eating. For more evidenced-based information please visit this website.
I recommend the School implement the following strategies. These strategies will have a positive impact on the nutrition and food and body relationships of children:
1. Cease the card system.
Instead, I recommend publishing in the school newsletter food, eating and nutrition tips and ideas from a Non-Diet Accredited Practising Dietitian, and also list the nutrition expert’s services in the newsletter, which would be useful for parents and carers who are concerned about their child’s eating. These strategies would be positive in that they do not judge or single out parents.
2. Cease the guideline that “Only healthy food is allowed to be eaten at 1st lunch break. Treats and left-over food can be eaten at 2nd lunch break.”
Instead, allow children to make food choices based on their appetite. Children should be given the choice of ‘how much’ to eat and ‘whether’ they eat. Parents and carers are responsible for ‘what’, ‘when’, ‘where’ the family eats.
3. Support children to eat intuitively or reconnect with their internal body signals. Instead, talk about appetite. How appetite varies throughout the day, from day to day depending on the body’s needs, and encourage children to eat when they are hungry most of the time. Encourage children to stop eating when they are comfortably full and choose foods in their lunch boxes that they feel like eating at the time.
4. Support children to appreciate and enjoy a wide variety of food without judgement.
I thank you for reading this letter and I invite you to contact me or a non-dieting Accredited Practising Dietitian like myself to assist with aligning the School’s food and nutrition guidelines with the current scientific evidence and motto, because the eating habits children develop in childhood follow them into adulthood.
I also thank you for caring and supporting my child and the children at School.
Lessons Learnt/ Thoughts
Whilst researching the Queensland School Curriculum related to nutrition, I realised that the card system and lunch rules were preferred strategies of the individual teacher and/or school for improving nutrition amongst students.
Upon further discussion I had with the School Principal and Teacher, it was clear that the Principal, Teacher and School (like most humans) do what they think is best for their students around specialised topics like nutrition.
Unfortunately, in the process of ‘helping’ the School, such strategies can do more harm than good.
The strategies mentioned in my letter were not mandatory strategies as set out in the Queensland School Curriculum. It was reassuring to know that these strategies were not required to be delivered in every school in Queensland or Australia, which makes it easier to enact change.
Schools in a way are like the general public. They’re just as confused about nutrition, which isn’t helped by the media, celebrities, wellness gurus and all the easily published, often questionable, information we have available to us.
The outcome of this letter was that the card system was ceased immediately. The school Principal and Teacher were open-minded to my messages and feedback on the topic of nutrition.
There was also talk of me providing key nutrition messages in the newsletter and delivering workshops to teachers, parent and children.
Unfortunately, nothing more has evolved due to many school and staff position changes and competing priorities with an already overflowing schedule.
Overall, I’m pleased with the outcome of the letter given how long change can take.
I look forward to further collaborating with this School when they’re ready and helping to improve the language and strategies used throughout the school to teach nutrition and improve relationships with food and bodies.
More Unhelpful Strategies in the Media
Whilst learning about the school’s perspective regarding my personal and professional nutrition concern, one teacher and nutritionist was instrumental in helping me to understand the nutrition climate in schools. CLICK HERE to read Kelly Fullerton’s thoughts on the topic.
Take Home Message
My hope is that Schools reach out to non-dieting nutrition professionals regarding local school nutrition policies and education programs. Schools are in prime situations to shape future generations, but they don’t have to do this alone.
Taking responsibility for nutrition (and other issues) outside of the School’s scope of practise leads to avoidable problems.
Share your school experience where an unhelpful nutrition message was replaced with a more helpful message.
 Szwarc, S., 2004/2005. Putting Facts Over Fears: Examining Childhood Anti-Obesity Initiatives. International Quarterly of Community Health Education; London 23.2: 97-116.
 Healy, N., Joram, E., Matvienko, O., Woolf, S., Knesting, K., 2014. Impact of an Intuitive Eating Education Program on High School Students’ Eating Attitudes. Emerald Insight.
 Skemp-Arlt, K M., 2006. Body Image Dissatisfaction and Eating Disturbances Among Children and Adolescents: Prevalence, Risk Factors, and Prevention Strategies. Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance; Reston77.1: 45-51.
 Bulik CM., Sullivan, PF., Carter FA, Joyce, PR. 1997. Initial Manifestations of Disordered Eating Behavior: Dieting Versus Binging. National Library of Medicine. The International journal of eating disorders 22.2: 195-201.
 Mann, T., Tomiyama, AJ., Westling, E., Lew, A., Samuels, B., Chatman, J. 2007. Medicare’s search for effective obesity treatments: Diets are not the answer. American Psychologist, Vol 62(3), 220-233.
Want to improve you and your child’s relationship with food? Contact me for support, or download your copy of ‘Raising Kids Who Love Food and Their Bodies’.