A national emphasis on childhood obesity has prompted many parent groups to seek out ways to promote healthy eating. From labor-of-love pursuits such as a school garden to the subtle inclusion of healthy options at school events, parents are making smart food choices fun and educational.
“Parents are a critical and willing force to improving children’s health,” according to a report from Action for Healthy Kids, a national nonprofit organization that promotes better nutrition and more physical activity in schools. While teachers can teach children about food and nutrition, parents can put what kids learn in the classroom into action at home and at school.
Here are some ideas to jump-start your parent organization’s healthy eating program:
Plant a vegetable garden. It seems obvious, but some parents assume it will be too labor intensive. Yes, a garden requires planning, maintenance, and close communication with the school administration and custodial staff. But it pays off in the variety of learning activities it creates, says Michele Israel, who led a gardening initiative at P.S. 107 John W. Kimball Learning Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., in 2008-09. Even though the school has no green space, students enjoyed fresh kale, heirloom potatoes, peas, and other vegetables grown in raised beds. “It’s not just a garden,” Israel says. “It’s a whole study in the origin of food.”
Take a field trip to a farm or a farmer’s market. Many farmers are thrilled to share their passion and livelihood with students. A farmer’s market can be a learning adventure and a scavenger hunt.
Hold a food pyramid potluck. Host a family luncheon or dinner with all the food groups represented. Ask each grade or class to bring something representing a different component of the food pyramid. Challenge students and their parents to come up with creative, colorful, and healthy offerings using in-season foods when possible.
Turn healthy snacks into a learning experience. At Maria Montessori Magnet School in Rockford, Ill., parent group members helped the school secure a grant for fresh, wholesome snacks. Teachers buy in-season fruits and vegetables. Kids help prepare the foods in the classroom and then get to sample them. Parents help out in the classroom.
Celebrate fall with a harvest festival. A school festival doesn’t have to revolve around junk food and a mile-long dessert table. Shift the theme to a celebration of locally harvested produce and demonstrate how tasty and versatile items like apples and pumpkins can be.
Sponsor an educational puppet show. Scour local resources for age-appropriate programming with a nutritional theme. At Avery Elementary in Canton, Ga., students enjoyed a puppet show called “Give Peas a Chance.” Each child also got a recipe book. “It was a cute, fun-filled learning experience,” says PTA president Pamela Pfitzner. “My kids came home and were very excited about it.”
Encourage kids to keep food logs. Some parent groups purchase food and exercise journals for students. Consider offering journals to other family members, making the food log concept a whole-family activity. The process of calculating calories burned and calories consumed can double as a math lesson.
Host a nutrition night for parents, with activities for kids. Eating well helps children do better in school. Hold an informational seminar for parents on how food choices affect learning. Plan games and crafts for kids that teach about healthy food choices. Round out the event with a healthy supper.
Start an after-school cooking club. Enlist a local chef, culinary student, or parent to teach students basic cooking skills. Children are more likely to eat healthy foods if the presentation is appetizing and if they have a hand in preparation.
Offer healthy alternatives at events. Kids love pizza night, but encourage them to try pizza with vegetable toppings and a whole-wheat crust. Try letting kids top their own pizza. At Clairemont Elementary in Decatur, Ga., a homemade monastery lentil soup is served at the PTA’s signature event, a communitywide artist marketplace. The vegetarian soup is served alongside bacon corn chowder and a commercially prepared chicken noodle soup, serving as a healthy option available for everyone.
Your healthy eating program doesn’t have to be complicated or expensive. Nor does your message have to be that it’s never OK to enjoy a treat. By making healthy food choices a part of your programming, you’ll help students make eating well a habit that comes as naturally as brushing their teeth.