It’s that time of year — back to school! The end of summer brings a lot of excitement and anticipation at my house. The last few weeks have been a juggling act with new schools and new schedules. We’ve told a dear nanny goodbye and we're getting used to new childcare arrangements. I have a child who has started middle school and a very early morning schedule. We have 3 children in 3 schools and in the process of adjusting. I'm back to planning and packing lunches and have been grateful for Elizabeth's post on school lunch ideas. I find that during this time of year I get overwhelmed with the adjustment to all of the "newness." I logically tell myself we will be okay and will settle into the new routine. I know, intellectually, if I forget to send in a signed form or miss an appointment, in the process, it won’t be the end of the world. I also know emotions aren’t logical.
Let's Support Kids' Natural Abilities
Part of the beginning of the school year is getting to know new teachers, administrators, and coaches. I am so grateful to teachers. I know I don’t have the skills or patience to be a teacher and I always want to support them in making their very difficult job easier. I also know the way I approach food and nutrition in my home is often different from how others do. So, when there is a new educator or caregiver in my kids’ lives, I wonder what’s the best way to handle this potential difference. Because I am a Registered Dietitian that specializes in eating disorders and have the knowledge I do about nutrition eduction and the effect diet culture can have on children, it’s important to me that my children’s exposure to age inappropriate nutrition education and diet culture is minimized. Unfortunately, I’ve seen first hand children whose eating disorders were triggered by a nutrition lesson or school “wellness” program. Children are born with the innate ability to regulate their intake. It's heartbreaking to me that we begin to teach this out of them, as early as preschool, with "nutrition lessons" and how we talk about weight and bodies. I never want to be “that mom” complaining to teachers telling them how to do their jobs, but I also believe I have important information to share and can support teachers in not exposing kids to harmful diet culture.
Communicating with Teachers
The beginning of the school year always means introducing a new teacher to my philosophy of feeding and child nutrition. Unfortunately, it’s common place in schools for some adults to comment on what or how children are eating. In many school systems, nutrition education is based in diet culture, weight biased and not age appropriate. It’s always a debate for me whether I should explain my philosophy of feeding and nutrition upfront or if it’s best for me to wait and speak up if I’m concerned about something. I’ve handled it all different ways. There’s not a wrong or right way to approach this.
Send a Quick Email to the Teacher
To be proactive, in the past, I've sent a quick email or included a brief explanation when filling out the “get to know me” paperwork. I've written something along the lines of: “I'm a nutrition professional and approach food and nutrition differently than many. We feel strongly that food and weight are discussed in a neutral way to Miriam. We don't talk about "good" foods or "bad" foods. We allow her to decide how much she eats of the food we offer and work hard to avoid diet talk. She can eat her lunch in any order she would like. I’d love to talk to you more about how we approach food and I'm happy to help with any nutrition lessons this year.” Other times, if a school policy, comment, or lesson comes up that is not supportive of kids' intuitive eating abilities, I've sent an email, met with the teacher or administrator, or, oftentimes, both.
5 Resources to Give to Schools
Whether it’s a preemptive conversation or a conversation in response to something I’m concerned about, when I do talk to a teacher, I reach for the resources that I’ve gathered over the years. As the school year kicks off, I'm already getting inquiries about resources for schools and teachers about weight-neutral approaches to nutrition education. So, I thought it would be helpful to pull together some resources for parents that I’ve used in the past to help support and educate teachers and coaches.
- The Feeding Doctor’s Lunch Box Card: This is one of my favorite resources. Many schools have implemented rules about what can go in a lunch or how the lunch should be eaten. Or, concerned teachers or cafeteria monitors, because of their own beliefs about kids and nutrition, want to encourage a child to eat their lunch items in a certain order. This note takes the onus off of the child if they are asked to eat their carrots before their cookie. The child can hand the card to the lunchroom monitor. My friend and colleague Katherine Zavodni, RD, a Utah based dietitian, always reminds me that we are asking teachers to do less when we ask them not to comment on children's eating. That's a great point to focus on. We are not asking teachers to do something extra in their already demanding workload. Katja Rowell, MD, "The Feeding Doctor" has other great school nutrition resources.
- Optimizing Healthy Eating Habits in the Classroom, created by Elisheva Dorfman, MS, LMFT & Dina Cohen, MS, RDN, CEDRD This handout is a fabulous resource that provides a summary of both children’s natural feeding abilities and how adults can talk about these topics to kids. This one page handout summarizes a lot of important information. It's great to share with a teacher to get the conversation started.
- Ellyn Satter Institute - There are many wonderful resources from the Ellyn Satter Institute. For information about school nutrition education, look to her book Secrets of Feeding a Healthy Family - Appendix H: Nutrition education in the schools. Other great resources can be found in her Resource page under Preschool, School and Childcare.
- Academy of Eating Disorders Guidelines to Child Obesity Prevention Programs: This position statement from the Academy of Eating Disorders can be a nice resource to provide a school who may be implementing wellness programing that’s often not research based. (Side note: I don't use the term "child obesity," but including it here because it's the title of this overall well-done resource.) These programs are often fear based and focus on weight, with the potential of making children in larger bodies feel unwelcome and flawed.
- Let’s Make Our Classrooms and Schools Free of Diet Talk: This summer, I wrote a blog post to my daughter’s camp counselor about diet talk around adolescents. I’ve pulled out the main points of the post and made a one page handout that you can download that summarizes why diet talk can be harmful. I hope this is helpful to you to share with schools and coaches.
If you are concerned about the messages or potential messages in your kids school, these resources may be helpful to start a conversation with educators and coaches. Remember, there’s not a wrong or right way to approach these things. I’ve had to learn, I must pick my battles. If I wrote an email every time I am concerned about what was said about food or weight at school, I’d definitely lose my credence and I’d have no energy left. I do know for sure, that the messages in our home about weight and food have a much greater impact on our kids than what they hear at school. When I remember this, I feel much better and can focus on what feels the most important.