I’m sure that many of you have children either hoarding bags of Halloween candy in their bedrooms, or—to your horror—they’ve consumed it all in much haste over the last few days. Halloween marks the beginning of a nutritional downfall in the school calendar year for many students just as Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas, and Kwanzaa feasts all vie for attention soon after trick-or-treating time. Teachers often see the repercussions of the holidays on students’ performance and their reduced attention spans. It is important that educators and parents work together to ensure that nutrition, which is a key component in a child’s success at school, remains consistent. Here are some tips:
*Considerable planning goes into holiday feasts; just a little foresight with regard to daily or weekly meal planning can yield great dividends, too. Take 20 minutes over the weekend to plan well-balanced menus for the upcoming week, which streamlines grocery shopping while also providing you with an opportunity to talk meaningfully about nutrition with your children. They can help you shop for the week ahead and feel proactive in the decision-making process while learning healthy eating habits.
*I am a big proponent of keeping students on meal schedules. Establish regularly set times for breakfast and dinner, while also preferably sitting down together as a family and talking around the table.
*Set food boundaries for your children and help them understand that there are things that should always be eaten in moderation. Some parents make it very clear that only healthy foods should be consumed during the school week; Friday nights or one day over the weekend can become the time for a treat. Personally, I grew up in a household (in Australia) with seven family members and we all adhered to strict food guidelines set by our parents. Friday night was fish and chips night—something we all looked forward to with great excitement! Every other day, meals were structured to include all the necessary food groups, while fried foods and sweets were kept to a minimum and only rationed out during the weekend, if at all. As a child, it was tough to see my friends have much more “food freedom,” as I rationalized it. In retrospect though, my siblings and I were very focused at school and never suffered from sugar downfalls. Now as an educator, I see this dilemma on a regular basis. High sugar content, food coloring, white refined foods, etc.—all eaten to excess— can greatly impact sleep patterns and behaviors. As tough as it may be for a parent to limit cookies, candy, French fries, and other highly desired foods that children want, setting boundaries early on will help your child avoid short attention spans, mood swings, and fatigue.
*Finally, though and this can sometimes be the hardest food lesson for children, ration the amount of candy they eat. After Halloween and the upcoming holidays, children can amass quite a booty of sugar-laced goodies! I am always impressed with parents who instill in their children the understanding that sweets should be eaten over time or even better, shared with others. It’s great when I see parents encourage their children to donate their collected treats to local food pantries, highlighting the importance of giving to others while instilling great eating habits at the same time.
So as the weather gets cooler and the holidays get closer, I hope that I have given you some food for thought! The payoff for helping our kids learn about nutrition and develop healthy eating habits early on will not only be found in their focus and success at school, but also for their well-being for many years to come.
Dianne Drew is Head of School at Dwight School, a 141-year-old independent school in New York City. A native of Melbourne, Australia, she is an internationally recognized educator with over 20 years of experience in teaching, curriculum development, and educational consulting in both public and private schools in Australia, Asia, and New York City. Also serving as Vice President of the Middle Years Program for the Guild of International Baccalaureate Schools in North America, Dianne recently gave birth to her first child.