By Liz Bergren
At times, an elementary classroom teacher is responsible for overseeing the distribution of food in the lunchroom or classroom. More than likely, discussions around food and what kids are eating will come up in these circumstances. The words you use to describe food can be critical. In the United States, we are a society obsessed with thinness, and food is at the epicenter of our social lives. Statistically, obesity rates are at their highest in history, and Americans currently are the heaviest people in the world.
There seems to be a disconnect here: How are we obsessed with thinness yet extraordinarily overweight? Why has there been unprecedented growth of eating disorders and disordered eating in the past two decades?
One of the most important relationships we will ever have is the one we have with food. This relationship develops very early. How does what you think about food relate to what you learned about food as a child? Think about how food was discussed in your household. Were you told never to eat sugar or that certain foods are considered “junk”? Were there “good” foods and “bad” foods? Were you told that you had to eat everything on your plate before you could leave the table? Were you told that certain foods make you fat while others do not?
When working with students, it is very important to leave your opinions and personal experiences with food out of the classroom. If food conversations happen, model healthy food talk. Here are some thoughts on how to approach this sometimes sensitive subject:
- Food is fuel for our bodies. This is one of the most important messages to convey. Talk with children about how food works in our bodies and how certain foods can make us feel energized and alert while others can make us feel tired and sluggish. Other conversations can focus on how we need food to help us jump, run, climb, play an instrument, and so on.
- Avoid using scare tactics. Statements such as “If you eat this, then this will happen to you” only increase anxiety around food. My mom used to tell me that too much sugar would cause all my teeth to fall out. You can see how comments like this can increase anxiety for some young children who have a higher tendency to take these types of comments seriously. Avoid labeling food with words and phrases such as “junk,” “good,” and “bad” food. All foods can fit into a healthy diet.
- The key words to use are balance and moderation. Foods that most of us know aren’t healthy for us should be consumed in moderation. I used to tell my students that they can eat desserts every day as long as they know how to portion sweets. Depriving ourselves of foods that are enjoyable can lead to potential bingeing down the road.
- Refrain from comments about a child’s body shape and size. Complimenting a child’s outfit, accessories, or accomplishments is appropriate, but keep the focus away from physical features. I have heard adults say things to children like, “Oh, you’re so skinny. You’ll appreciate that when you’re older.” Or, “Boys need to grow up to be big and strong.” Those comments only send the message that your body should look a certain way for you to be happy.
- Eat with your students from time to time. This will give you a chance to model healthy eating and answer any questions that come up.
- Watch what you say with other adults. Try to avoid getting into conversations about dieting or body shaming with other staff or faculty. This is particularly important when you are around students. Avoid saying things like, “She’s so skinny—she’s so lucky,” “I feel fat today” (fat is not a feeling), or “I need to go on a diet.” Changing the subject to take the conversation in a different direction can be helpful in these situations.
- Intervene when necessary. Step in if you hear students having conversations using negative food talk or body shaming. For example, if one student tells another that the food she is eating will make her fat, remind both students that anything we eat has a nutrient that can be valuable to our bodies and that it is rude to comment on or to judge what other people are eating. Look for teachable moments to reinforce safe and healthy food and body talk.
- Be mindful of cultural differences around food and body shape and size. This post addresses issues identified with Western culture, which may not be relevant to all the students you work with. For example, students may be fasting for religious purposes. Or, not all cultures idealize thinness, so discussions that come up regarding being “skinny,” “fit,” or “thin” will not resonate with all students.
Liz Bergren is Free Spirit’s education resource specialist. She is a former teacher with 15 years of classroom experience. In addition to being a teacher, she spent five years working for Park Nicollet’s Melrose Institute where she counseled and taught classes to patients who struggled with eating disorders. She has a B.A. in health and secondary education from the University of St. Thomas and an M.Ed. in family education from the University of Minnesota.
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