“Kids’ Choice” is Not the Healthiest Choice

msheldrake/ iStock / Getty Images Plus
msheldrake/ iStock / Getty Images Plus

This summer my children are joining a new summer camp that just opened across the street. The camp boasts a program of swimming, field sports, trips to parks and museums, and – the best part for me – a varied and balanced lunch…provided by Whole Foods, no less. I cannot say that a healthy lunch menu was the main reason we picked the camp, though I will admit that I was looking forward to a well deserved break from packing school lunches. In the meanwhile, I was admiring the daily lunch menu provided to us by the camp staff. Just look at these options:

  • tuna salad brioche buns with Caesar salad, bananas Foster and grapes
  • grilled chicken skewers, green bean salad, cottage cheese and fruit
  • salmon with farfalle pasta, tomato and mozzarella sticks, brownie square, and pears
  • assorted whole wheat sandwiches, house salad and veggies with hummus

My girls loved the idea of eating the same lunch as their friends, although they were a little nervous about some unfamiliar items on the menu (tomato tartlette, anyone?). I was fantasizing about the sheer power of positive peer pressure helping less adventurous kids tentatively explore the more challenging menu options while nibbling on the “safe food” — bagels, wisely provided by the thoughtful camp staff.

The Less-Pleasant Surprise

My joy in the adventurous menu was short lived, as I found out during our parent orientation meeting that the mentioned bagels would be served daily with cream cheese and jelly. Of course, it is no big deal if your child hates bagels with cream cheese and jelly. But, from my personal and professional experience, most kids love this stuff. So what will be a very probable scenario for lunch hour? I think that when pizza or macaroni and cheese are served, the bagels will be ignored. But on all other days — when salmon with farfalle pasta is served — those bagels will get the undivided attention of most of the campers.

This reminds me of my experience as a dietetic intern in a cafeteria of a private school. An amazing menu of farm-fresh salads, mains and soups prepared by restaurant-level kitchen staff was served alongside a deli station churning out old plain ham-and-cheese sandwiches on white bread. Guess where the kids were lining up?

How Do You Like Your Bagels?

What is the difference between serving plain bagels or other bread alongside a meal or offering them with kids’ favorite toppings?

Plain bread is a safe food kids can fill up on if other food is too difficult to handle.  Whenever I plan meals for the family, I take into account my children’s preferences and make sure there is at least one item on the table they typically eat. Sometimes it is chicken, other days it can be fruit, vegetable or rice. To feel safe and positive at mealtimes, children need to know that there will always be something on the table they are capable of eating.

Bagels with topping are a meal substitute or a product of short order cooking – a practice that leads to entrenched picky eating habits. Short order cooking robs kids of an opportunity to learn to like new foods and puts enormous pressure on parents who may need to cook two or three separate meals to make all family members happy. Offering kids alternatives is frowned upon by many feeding experts, including Ellyn Satter, who recommends bread as a safe food — but discourages parents to add even “healthy” extras like peanut butter or breakfast cereal. Maryann Jacobsen, RD, of Raise Healthy Eaters, also says that it is ok to keep child’s preferences in mind when planning meals, but catering and offering substitutions crosses the division of responsibility in feeding.

Encouraged by the positive change in camp snacks policy  brought about by other dietitian moms like Sally Kuzemchak, I am planning to contact the camp manager with the suggestion to serve the bagels without sweet “enhancements.”

I hope to get my message through by enlisting help of other like-minded parents and will post the results of my campaign on my blog.

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Natalia Stasenko
Natalia Stasenko, MS, RD, is a U.S.-credentialed pediatric dietitian based in London and New York and the owner of Feeding Bytes. She blogs at feedingbytes.com. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook.