August 29, 2008

A Nutrition Minute: Dora's Deception

You know, some kids can explore without a sugar addiction.

by Sharon Gruber, Nutrition Consultant.

I was reading my four-year-old daughter a few Dora the Explorer books the other day, and there was talk of cookies, cake, and ice cream many times, but not a single mention of a bunch of grapes, a pint of strawberries, or any other fun, tasty fruit. Discovering a strawberry patch or a grape vine at the end of one story instead of an ice cream truck could have also been a great surprise for Dora, but it seems modeling healthy choices isn’t among Nickelodeon’s goals for their young explorer. After four stories, and only a reinforcement of “treats,” as we tend to call them, it was snack time. I put down the books and offered her some fruit, which thankfully she was happy to have, but it sure would have been nice if Dora had just had some fruit, too.

Dora and her love for all things sweet is not unique. Nutrition education is a piece of the education puzzle often overlooked. I am often amazed at how many times a day we reinforce poor nutrition decisions during otherwise positive educational opportunities. Making healthy choices should not be rendered to one class a few times a week, but needs to be integrated into all the teach-able moments children encounter.

For example, I was naively surprised at the offerings at my child’s athletic camp this summer, a place of learning about physical dexterity and strengthening the body. My mouth dropped the first day of camp when I realized that they offered the kids 16-ounce sodas. For four-year-olds? In an educational setting? As if that weren’t challenging enough, the soda was an option for the children every day, five days a week.

But even the “just this once” mentality is difficult to swallow for parents and child care providers who try to make the best decisions they can for their kids’ growing bodies. If at religious school on Tuesday there is a variety of pastries, Wednesday’s gymnastics lesson comes with cookies, Thursday’s after-school care provides more cookies, Friday features a birthday celebration in school, Saturday soccer games mean the standard pizza and ice cream, and then the birthday party on Sunday afternoon definitely calls for cake, “just this once” easily adds up to “treats” every day, sometimes multiple times a day.

Among the many things that our country needs to do to reclaim the health – and future – of our children, is to take every opportunity to educate them about nutrition. This means books, videos, and other media must choose to feature slices of watermelon as a summer treat instead of the obligatory ice cream sundae. It means characters should visit farms and talk about where food comes from. And they should help prepare unprocessed food at home with their older loved ones. A holistic approach like this is a must. Health cannot be relegated to a scheduled classroom discussion.

Further, when sweets are offered, it should not be in an educational setting. If my daughter is playing at another child’s home, and the parent wants to give her a couple of cookies, I’m genuinely fine with it. But that is not the same as teachers, camp counselors, coaches, and the like offering her store-bought sweets made of who-knows-what day after day in the context of whatever activity she’s participating in. The latter are her educators, and kids seek to follow their lead. In all learning settings – not just the classroom -- the standards must be higher. We must start to look at every moment as an opportunity to model the choices that will best serve our kids.

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