Helping kids buy from the school cafeteria – will ‘Big Brother’ tactics work?

A new computer system telling parents what their child has bought in the school cafeteria that day is being used in some American schools. The idea is that parents can make sure their children are making appropriate choices and spending their money wisely.

In principle it sounds like a great idea but on the other hand, are we not depriving them of an opportunity to use their own decision making skills, in what would surely be a somewhat controlled environment?

As with most things I guess it depends on how we put it into practice.  Food police parents are likely to be pretty vigilant at home and will aim to encourage the same at school.  Many would argue that the school cafeterias should not be offering ‘inappropriate’ food choices anyway.  But those children who want to beat the system will always find a way, whether it’s at school or elsewhere.

At the other end of the scale there are the permissive parents who, given their more relaxed attitude are probably not going to worry too much anyway – at school or home.  And somewhere in the middle – my personal favourite – one hopes that common sense prevails.

For younger children I am sure that it could be a useful tool to help them learn about making healthy food choices.  But as they get older surely we need to offer them the chance to make their own decisions?  Yes there will be some downsides but with a good foundation they will eventually realise that eating only treat foods isn’t all that fulfilling.

I often wonder if parents of children who are growing rapidly are in fact offering sufficient high energy density foods to meet their needs.  A teenage boy for example can burn twice the energy of a sedentary adult male.  A desire for high energy snacks is just as likely to be due to a genuine need for energy in some as it is due to poor decision making in others.

On the other hand we know from the national nutrition surveys that as children get older and begin to exercise more free will, the overall nutrient intake changes – and not usually for the good. In particular consumption of dairy, fruit and vegetables goes down.

So what is the best way to encourage children to choose the right food and beverages at school?  Should we not be putting our energy into making sure what is on offer is appealing, tasty and good quality – nutritionally and aesthetically?

Categories: Food Trends, Nutrition and Health

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3 replies »

  1. I live not far from a primary school. Near the entrance to the school is a strip of shops, including 2 dairies, a bakery and a couple of takeaway stores.
    On school mornings the bakery is full of kids, both with and without their parents, buying their school lunches. No fruit here, no nuts, carrot sticks or anything healthy.
    I think its time to get real and acknowledge that yet again the ‘food police’ are preaching to the converted, the so called worried well who actually care about the issues of teaching their kids to eat well, and have sufficient control to enforce their own beliefs, a minority.
    Long term health issues are of absolutely no interest to kids. My own eighteen year old has, over the last few months, realised that he feels better and has more energy if he makes good choices and exercises. Kids have to learn for themselves and are much more open to advice from their peers. This is why I think using sportsmen and women as role models is a useful option for encouraging kids to make good food choices. Issuing edicts, insisting on certain behaviours are counter productive. Perhaps schools could appoint ‘healthy choice monitors’ from amongst the high achievers among their own seniors, the kids, usually those active in sports, who are looked-up to by juniors.

  2. Another benefit of being born and raised in the dark ages! My parents would have been horrified at what I bought at the tuckshop, and in turn I suspect I would have been horrified knowing what my son purchased. From here it is a short step to a computer system that refuses some attempted purchases, and ultimately stripping people of all responsibilies for self, and blaming others for all our woes. But aren’t many of us doing that already?

  3. Hmm – this is interesting. The real question is what behaviour do you really want to drive? My experience of teenagers (and adults, actually) is that many will find ways around a system that doesn’t suit their personal preferences. So, kids whose parents don’t give a toss about the reporting on food purchase will simply become the ‘middle men’ for students who are under their parents’ scrutiny. (And it will probably just reinforce their teenage angst at their parents about lack of independence and all that sturm und drang.) I’d say high school is certainly the place where teens should be left to make their own eating-decisions. If you haven’t modelled healthy eating yourself by then, its too late and they’ll have to work it out for themselves.

    At a personal level, I hate the idea – we want our kids to know that we trust them and have an expectation that they can make good decisions for themselves. I’d rather they ate a pie and chippies from time to time, than felt that we didn’t have confidence in them. My diabetic (from birth) nephew understood (and could be trusted to choose) what he could and couldn’t eat from the age of 4. Its do-able.

    At a community level – kids who don’t make good food choices are going to benefit more from education and encouragement of personal responsibility than ‘big brother’ (which is the opposite of personal responsibility). The concept is focussed on the parents and not the kids.