As our service to the community, we conduct camps for kids during school holidays (and more recently for parents as well) and one thing that strike us is how little children these days know or care about basic knowledge about the food they eat everyday, or why they need to eat healthily. Adopting a more holistic approach, we adopted a rule of thumb to provide only meatless food meals during our camps. The main reason being that we do not wish to have additional lives sacrificed for our sake, and we believe it is a healthier option for children. We have always adopt holistic approach to engage the kids with the world and not just a selfish perspective to life according to the kids’ worldview. Our offering of meatless diet of course, comes with balanced servings of fruits and vegetables. This would invariably effect a reaction from kids (and adults) who seem to think that vegetables are only meant for farm animals! Remarks like, “I hate vegetables!” and “Vegies are yucky!” are quite commonly heard at the beginning of our camps. But the good news is that after a weekend of healthy camp with us, these kids go back home quite transformed!
The “trick” is really to “detoxify” them of their conscious and unconscious cravings and hunger for sugar-laden and sodium-packed garbage that kids load into their systems, by letting them develop a real taste of real food – foods that are organically grown and cultivated (preferably), minus all the artificially enhanced elements like MSG and food colouring. When it comes to inculcating good eating habits, starting them young is the best solution.
To eat or not to eat?
Our daughters, Amrita and Samanta (14 & 13) remember growing up on a bland diet of plain oats and porridge, and mainly non-meat, home-cooked meals, hence getting used to the taste of simple yet healthy food. Today, they still prefer simple foods like salads, sandwiches and home-cooked pasta, and enjoy eating healthier alternatives like brown bread and brown rice, and even organic multi-grained fare!
However, they are an exception as most children rather opt for fast food and the like. Why? Because they are not taught good eating habits or healthy food choices, children eat according to their taste preferences or emotional dispensation.We even know of schools of reward children (upon getting good results and stars) to the nearby fast food joint and allow them indulge. This school also claims they have food nutritionist to oversee it’s canteen food! You can imagine what message they are trying to tell – “normal” kids eat (so-called) healthy food in canteen and “high performance” kids get to enjoy free fast food – sponsored by the school. Their values needs to be re-examined!
Most kids of course, go for meat because it is tasty – fried chicken, steak and chicken chop are some of kids’ favourite but they are not necessarily healthy choices. Some teenagers tend to view eating as a burden rather than a pleasure because they do not see it as a means to keep the body healthy and strong. Eating can be seen as a power struggle between parents and children.
Saying “YES” to greens
Jimmy (14 years old) has an aversion to anything green because his parents nag him too much about his studies, homework and his refusal to eat vegetables. At our camp, we tell him that vegetables are not as bad as he thinks and he could learn to like them if he gave veggies a chance. With gentle encouragement and outward praise, he eventually got around to it and ate his vegetables happily. However, the problem recurred when he got back home! So we had to educate his parents on how to talk to him without stressing him out. Hugging was what we recommended and in time, with a more positive relationship between Jim and his parents, his aversion subsided and he ate more healthily.
Kate (12 years old) hated greens too as she was a meat-eater. When she first came for our camp she had a really tough time getting used to a non-meat diet. She would take very small portions just to avoid having to eat the vegetables! Our approach is to make meal time an opportunity to talk about the food that they eat and what their names are. Surprisingly, not many adults talk about it and expect children to know the different names of vegetables. Or perhaps, they do not think that it is important for them to know. Foods like tapioca and sweet potato are not as popular as say a cheese burger or pizza! Eating with other kids who have no issues with vegetables help tremendously.
Today some of the kids decided to make salad for lunch. So we took them to the supermarket and let them choose the vegetables they wanted. They were really excited about the prospect of having to prepare lunch for everybody! When lunch was finally ready, the meal table was a feast to the eyes with its brightly colored vegetables! Everyone ate their vegetables raw and the only thing that was cooked was the pasta!
It was not that bad and children (and adults) can change!
The Bigger Issue: The problem of consumption
If we examine very carefully why the culture of a less healthy heating existing, we found two main reasons. Firstly, it is media and advertising. We are constantly bombarded with the message that fast food, junk food is cool and good. From the many sources on the internet, we believe children from the ages of 6 years to 16 years watch anywhere from 2 – 6 hours of television a day. Imagine how much advertisement is in at that time? If you add banners, billboards and of course the Internet – the impact can be very strong. This in turn get people to influence people – this is called peer pressure. This is driving us and our children to consume without thinking through, media and advertisements tell us we need to consume to feel good. This is true for fast food, and other sugar-laden, chemical-laced and sodium-packed food.
Secondly, in the urban lifestyle of fast-paced and hectic schedules make the consumption of such unhealthy food very convenient , at times too convenient. We need to stop and watch our lives as it passes by. That is why in our camps we not only teach the kids to eat right, we try to educate them to the fact that they at times need to stop and relax. It is okay to relax.
Therefore, to address the issue of bad food choices, we have to address the issue of consumption in children and examining our lifestyles – a subject so vital to the survival of our planet yet it is conspicuously missing from our school curriculum! Many of the problems our world is facing, like global warming and the world financial crisis, is due to over-consumption and greed. When we do not stem it at the source, all our effort at trying to solve the problems would be in vain. When children are not taught how to eat to live healthily, then they would learn to live to eat without a care for the world. Eating right is the key to a healthy and meaningful life. Not understanding this basic knowledge would lead to a whole lot of problems, from the way we consume without thinking, to the way we waste without a care. It may sound ridiculous, but it may not be too far-fetched to say that to change the world, we need to change the way we eat!
But the most important change must come from the family. When families do not change their eating habits, neither would the kids! So make the effort to eat together at home and learn to appreciate simple but healthy meals.
Wai Leng & KV Soon
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