Should Kids Learn About Healthy Eating At School?

The teacher told my daughter that the yogurt she didn’t want to eat was “healthy”, and she would not be allowed to go out for recess until she ate it. When my daughter explained, “My mom says I don’t have to eat anything I don’t want to,” the teacher retorted, “Well, if you want to get sick, suit yourself.”

Fortunately, this story ends well. My daughter did not eat her yogurt, she did go out for recess, and the school apologized for the teacher’s comments. On the same day I was accepting the school’s apology, I learned that another teacher had insisted my daughter finish all the food I had packed for her. My daughter simply handed her lunchbox card to the teacher, who returned it without further comment.

Is this how our school defines “healthy eating?” I fail to see the health benefits in threatening a child with the loss of outdoor play time or insisting that she eats more than she wants to.

Healthy Eating

What is “healthy eating”? Is it a balance of fruit/vegetables, dairy, grain and meat? Is it following a vegetarian diet that includes alternatives to meat, fish, and/or dairy? Is it avoiding dairy and gluten? Is it choosing a diet free of artificial dyes and preservatives? Is it eating only raw foods? Is healthy eating best described in terms of balance or alternatives?

Perhaps a more important question is what does healthy eating mean to you personally? Your personal beliefs on what healthy means is influenced by many factors – time, income, gender, marital status, etc… – that may or may not be relevant to anybody else. Perhaps a better question is do you believe that most of what you eat is “healthy”? Better yet, is healthy eating something you personally think you can achieve or are already successful at?


Image source

In any community setting, there is a wide variance in the description of healthy eating. As parents, of course we strive to provide healthy (as best as possible) food for our families. What about in a school environment, where this wide variance of healthy eating definition collides and sometimes conflicts with culture, economics, and attitudes influenced by policy and media?

Healthy School Policy 

The Ontario Ministry of Education is my local governing body for schools and licensed daycares. The OME mentions “healthy eating” several times throughout their website, but skilfully avoids defining it specifically. In all fairness, the OME is in charge of education, not eating, and suggests Eat Right Ontario, a site maintained by the Dietitians of Canada, as a resource.

Eat Right Ontario states how important it is to give children the chance to make healthy food choices at school. This is not necessarily a bad thing. But does creating a healthy learning environment require teachers to teach nutrition?

And what training do teachers have to teach nutrition to children?

Will the teacher also factor in each individual child’s eating ability, as well as their medical history? Do they consider the child’s existing mental and physical health? After providing their understanding of healthy eating, does the teacher also accept liability when their lessons are taken to extremes?

For example…

The Dietitians of Canada suggest promoting early childhood mental health through “interventions that combine nutrition (e.g., food supplementation) with counselling and psychosocial care (e.g., attentive listening), and preschool interventions to promote healthy eating.”

Sounds harmless enough, right?

“Studies have reported consistent associations between dietary patterns and the symptoms of anxiety and depression. Cross-sectional and prospective, longitudinal studies that compared “healthy” and “unhealthy” diets based on food frequency questionnaires have shown that increased adherence to unhealthy diets (e.g., non-Mediterranean style diets) is associated with new diagnoses of depression, dysthymia, or anxiety disorders, or high depression scores. Mediterranean-style diets are characterized by an abundance of plant foods and include vegetables, fresh and dried fruits, whole-grain cereals, nuts and legumes, and a moderate amount of red wine.” (pg14, Promoting Mental Health Through Healthy Eating and Nutritional Care, Dietitians of Canada, Dec 2012)

This is from Canada’s most regarded nutrition experts. Fruits and veggies are in. Meat and milk are out. And it looks like I’ll be packing some new juice in the kids’ lunches.


This is just one example of taking broad sweeping and vague directives for “healthy eating” too literally, something elementary school-age children are notoriously good at doing. As parents, we like to believe that our child’s school takes an active interest in their educational success, but where should we draw the line on the school’s responsibility to educate children about what they should eat?

How Healthy Are School Based “Healthy Living” Programs? 

School based “healthy living” programs that promote diet and exercise do come with good intentions, but so does the road that leads to Hell.

Nutrition is a tricky subject, which is probably why the average RD in Canada studies their craft for 5 years before becoming licensed to practice. My school food education involved explaining how foods fit into the categories of meat, grain, dairy and fruit/vegetable. There may have been some discussion on the difference between a fruit and a vegetable. I recall how a balanced meal meant getting equal portions from each food group. Nutrition is an evolving science- meaning the definition of healthy, unlike reading and arithmetic, is not yet fixed. The four-equal-portion food-group meal-model is no longer considered “balanced” by Canada Food Guide standards. 

Teachers are an incredibly valuable part of our child’s lives. Educating children is a demanding and equally rewarding job. It’s challenging enough to meet the needs of all students in a classroom of different learning styles, abilities and cultural differences. Teaching is, in its own right, an expertise all its own. What would be wrong with respecting teachers for the skilled educators that they are, and not expecting teachers to replace equally skilled professionals that know a great deal more about nutrition and mental health?

Can we also expect teachers to accept liability for the repercussions that result from teaching ambiguously defined “healthy eating” theorem?

“Healthy eating and weight initiatives have been incorporated into many schools to combat the growing obesity problem,” researchers from Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto and the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario in Ottawa report.

“There is little research, however, on the effectiveness of these programs or any inadvertent harmful effects on children’s mental health.”

The researchers describe the cases of four children referred to hospital-based eating disorders programs after being exposed to “healthy eating curricula.”

The media argues that children need to learn about healthy eating habits so that we can win the war on obesity.  Of course, we can’t say obesity without mentioning diabetes. The American Diabetes Association describes Type II diabetes in children as a “new epidemic.” What are we to make of Canadian data that indicates  “the incidence of restrictive eating disorders among children is 2 times greater than the incidence of type 2 diabetes mellitus among all children younger than 18 years.” ?

“If we crunch the available data on eating disorders (with data from the National Institute of Mental Health) versus the number of children who have Type II Diabetes (the most common ailment associated with childhood obesity — data comes from the Center for Disease Control) we find that the average child today is somewhere between 222 and 1,097 times more likely to have an eating disorder than Type II Diabetes.” (The “Childhood Obesity Epidemic” What is The Real Problem and What Can We Do About It? Dr. Jon Robison

eating disorder

Education works best when an unbiased curriculum applies equally to all students. All children eat, and if we stop at this fact, perhaps we can agree that it’s not necessarily taboo to learn about food at school. The devil, however, is in the details. If we hope to win a war based on what individuals weigh, the battles will be won teaching individuals how to eat, not what.

Where Is The Line on Food Education at School?

While it’s commendable that schools want to create healthy learning environments, the question that never seems to get answered is “What, exactly, does healthy mean?” 

Perhaps where the education system could do the greatest service to parents is to expose children to food without tainting the experience with healthy-speak. Nutrition research is ongoing and the results change as more information becomes available, different correlations are examined,  and the study’s source of funding. Trying to force “healthy eating” into one broad-sweeping, all-inclusive definition only succeeds in creating confusion, guilt, worry and stress for both parents and students, none of which are conducive to building a positive feeding relationship – at home or at school.

Telling children what they should and shouldn’t be eating puts a teacher’s head in another professional’s toque. There are plenty of positive, neutral ways to expose children to a wide variety of food using subjects that educators are truly the best qualified to teach.

Food has names. Let’s learn how to recognize the words we use for different foods. Apple. Banana. Cookie. Drink. Egg. Fruit. Grape. Havarti. Ice Cream. Jellybean. Kebob. Lemon. Meat. Nuts. Oatmeal. Pancakes. Quiche. Rhubarb. Sandwich. Toast. Upside-down cake. Vegetable. Watermelon. Xmas cake. Yam. Zucchini. 

Let’s learn how to write out the names of the foods we like to eat.

How many slices are in the loaf of bread? If you share some with your friend, how many do you have left? Sort food into food groups. Why can’t we compare apples to oranges?

Did you know carrots were not always orange? How did we learn wheat could be milled into flour? Where did the first potato come from?

In Canada, for about 6 months of the year, the only thing we grow locally is snow. Where does our winter produce come from and where is this place on a map?

How do we say different foods in different languages? Bon appétit!

Art and Music
Remember gluing macaroni to paper plates? Threading penne on a string? Here’s how to make a rice rain stick, a shekere, maracas

Tired of watching plants grow? Turn a lemon into a battery, build a volcano, or try something from this long list of food science projects.

All of these are fun and educational ways to interact with food without any discussion on eating or healthy. Teachers are much more qualified to come up with creative ideas to add to this list, and I welcome suggestions. Although I work with children, and have a few of my own, and have much experience successfully teaching kids how to play nicely together, tie their shoes, operate a zipper, a toilet, and the alphabet, I am not qualified call myself a teacher. Teachers are not qualified to advise children on the quality of their diets.  Parents, educators and dietitians each have a unique skill set, and there is no reason why we can’t collaborate to help children develop healthy attitudes toward food. We just need to make sure we each wear the right hat.

What has your experience been with your school and the lunch you pack for your child? How do you feel about your school’s approach to teaching healthy eating ?


10 responses to “Should Kids Learn About Healthy Eating At School?

  1. At 2 different schools in England in the 70’s I was the child kept alone in the dining room for the whole lunch hour refusing to eat – first time was (plums and) custard, second time was liver. I have never eaten custard or liver since. Didn’t exactly teach me a useful lesson..except that I could be damn stubborn!

  2. Pingback: Judging, Blaming and Shaming the Picky Eater |·

  3. This is the sole reason why my daughter’s school has not instilled a stricter “healthy eating policy” into its bylaws – different kids require different foods in order to be healthy. While nuts are a protein staple in my daughter’s lunchbox (due to her egg/meat allergy), they’d be deadly to her pal down the hall who’s allergic to cashews. Lou’s school is wonderfully flexible regarding the food needs of its students. (It doesn’t hurt that her mom teaches here, too.) 😉

    As much as I’d like to make a blanket ban on wheat products in my own classroom, to do so would border on indoctrination. Not everybody feels the way I do about grains – and that’s fine! It makes me bristle to think of your sweet daughter being made to feel bad by the teacher because she wouldn’t eat her yogurt. Kudos to you for following up with the school.

    Love the butter pic, too, by the way. 🙂

  4. I agree SO much. I’m in Ontario too, and my daughter is in senior kindergarten. My lunch note (which I started sending when she was told she needs to choose a “healthy snack” for first break) was essentially rejected. The teacher emailed me and told me that her eating/feeding philosophy is much like mine, but that it isn’t fair to the other kids if they see my daughter having whatever treat she wants first. I also mentioned that we try not to demonize certain foods as unhealthy or praise other foods as healthy, and she simply said it’s part of the curriculum and they have to use those labels. I wish the board of education realized what kind of value judgments they are placing on kids by doing this! Almost every day my daughter and I at some point come across something she’s been told at school regarding food. Like she’ll tell me she only wants water instead of juice, since juice isn’t healthy, or she’ll ask for a “healthy snack”. It is VERY frustrating. She knows my stance on it before I even say it, but that doesn’t take away the messaging she’s getting constantly. One day she actually came home with an activity of food words circled on a piece of paper, broken down by healthy and unhealthy. Cake didn’t make the cut. I threw it out, so I can’t remember what else was on there!

    • Ugh!! Please feel free to share this with your school board, their FB site (if they have one), your school’s principal, parent committee…
      It’s irresponsible for Eat Right Ontario and the Dietitians of Canada to preach the DOR, but not follow it. As Ellyn Satter puts it, clean tools in dirty hands.

    • You should keep going up the administrative chain until you get a positive response. In Ontario that’s teacher, then principal, then superintendent, then trustee. It sounds like your daughter is getting pretty intense messaging that is very problematic. You have a right to not want your daughter to get messaging that fosters eating disorders.

  5. “If we crunch the available data on eating disorders (with data from the National Institute of Mental Health) versus the number of children who have Type II Diabetes (the most common ailment associated with childhood obesity data comes from the Center for Disease Control) we find that the average child today is somewhere between 222 and 1,097 times more likely to have an eating disorder than Type II Diabetes.” Radley Balko

  6. Brilliant! I love that my lunchbox card came in handy. How brave of your daughter to actually use it!!! This is a great post. Than you for writing it! My only question, is that I believe that feeding disorders are many hundreds of times more common than Type II DM in children. I’ll try to find the resource, but I remember Dr Jon Robison saying eating disorders are 2000 times more common than type II DM…

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