Last week I had a reality check. I had the dubious honor of chaperoning six 11- year olds (my son included), at the McCall Outdoor Science School, which is sponsored by the University of Idaho.
Children who attend this “hands on” science event learn about scientific inquiry and setting up experiments. Food for the week was typical “camp food,” complete with S’mores and campfires. But the menu had something new and different to offer this year—vegetarian and gluten free selections at every meal, and a salad bar, available even at breakfast.
Always inquisitive of how children think and feel about food, I thought I might engage in a little scientific inquiry myself, this time as a mother. My hypothesis: When children are truly hungry and offered healthful choices, they will eat well.
Here are my findings:
When children are physically active, hiking and conducting experiments in the woods they get hungry! Eleven year olds are still in touch with their hunger and satiety signals. Much of the conversation in the late afternoon focused on what time dinner was being served and what was on the menu. Children looked forward to dinner because they weren’t filling up on junky snack foods in-between meals and they weren’t inactive. Conclusion: Children need to be physically active to experience normal and healthful appetites.
Offering choice is a good thing. Our responsibility as adults is to prepare healthful meals; our children are responsible for how much and “if” they eat the food. However, they need to know that this is it: no short order cooking or snacks will be available to replace the meal. The kids at camp knew that this was their only chance to eat and they made wise selections—some ate several servings and some ate tiny servings. Conclusion: Children LOVE to serve themselves and be in charge of how much and whether they eat at all.
Children can survive without soda! When children were ONLY offered the choice of milk, water or juice, they didn’t complain and they drank it. One day almond milk (vanilla) was offered as a drink choice. To my amusement, I saw that the “trickle down” effect is alive and well---give one child the milk, have him loudly rave about it, and all children are trying it! Conclusion: If you don’t want your children drinking soda……don’t buy it!
Children with special dietary needs such as allergies, intolerances and vegetarians, still needed help making decisions about what to eat. There was uncertainty as to whether peanuts were in some trail mixes and some difficulty identifying good protein sources for vegetarians. Conclusion: Adults need to provide continued guidance and education for children with special dietary needs to make safe and healthy choices.
So for me, spending time with children camping in the wilderness, fresh air, and a night sky filled with bright stars just confirmed what I already knew: whether at camp or at home, as parents we are responsible for establishing environments for our children that are conducive to health, that promote physical activity and good eating habits, and that ultimately empower our kids to make good choices.