Friday, August 21, 2015

Kids+Food: My Small Success

(This is the third post in a series - scroll down to see the first two posts.)
Swim Buddies.
In my first two posts, I shared my passionate appeal to face the issue of our kids and junk food. I may sound negative at this juncture, but be assured that I will end with positives and interject some happy notes at the end. You CAN be successful without being the total party pooper. And you CAN make change. So, lets jump right in with an example of how it's possible...

My two oldest boys (age 7 and 5) swim on our neighborhood swim team in the months of May and June. It is fun way to be involved in our immediate community and the boys love swimming daily. They are becoming better swimmers, keeping fit, and sleeping well at night - all good things! 

This year, the position of Concessions Coordinator was open for the team. This involved coordinating the home meet concession stand - figuring out what food items to offer, price them and set it up each meet. I emailed the person in charge - another mom who takes her kids' nutrition seriously - and told her I would volunteer for the job ONLY IF I was allowed to make changes from last year's fare. Last year, the food offerings were canned chili, hot dogs, canned cheese nachos, candy, and soda. I proposed a candy-free and soda-free concession stand. She agreed and gave me the title. (No one else volunteered either, I am guessing!) 

I did not immediately brand the concession stand as "healthy", nor did I talk it up to other parents. I simply made the change and sort of "unveiled it" at the first meet. There are a few things that made this project successful:

- I have observed that parents do not appreciate other parents telling them what is "healthy" and what is not. There are many differing opinions and food practices in people's homes. Better to focus on what everyone can agree on at a baseline: Soda and Candy are unhealthy and we can do better - everyone knows this. You will probably find that most parents will be extremely supportive.

- I only made bottled water and coffee (swim meets get started at 6am) available to drink. Bottled water had an optional powder drink packet that could be added to the water to flavor it (i.e. lemonade or fruit punch).  Each team parent is required to donate items to be sold each year. Last year, it was a case of soda of their choice. This year, it was a case of water. Simple switch!

- I recruited a couple of other businesses to support the effort. My local Trader Joe's donated a case of bananas and a gift card to buy snack packs of nuts and trail mix and fresh fruit. Another local business bought breakfast tacos to sell in the early morning hours. Tacos made with real eggs, meat, and fresh tortillas. That's the ONLY breakfast option we offered - no giant muffins or donuts. You know what? They sold like hotcakes! We also offered a small selection of bagels with cream cheese, honey, or peanut butter. Honestly, they didn't sell well. But they were at least an alternative to sugary breakfast junk.

- I went to Costco and found plenty of snack options that were just plain better than candy. Annie's organic snack packs of crackers, granola bars, peanut butter crackers, and baked chips were easy to swap for candy and other nutrient-bare items. 

- THE MOST SUCCESSFUL part of the concessions centered around two items: Fresh Cut Watermelon and Home Baked Goods. I recruited other parent volunteers to cut watermelon, bag it in sandwich bags, and bring it with them to the meets. I also recruited mommies to bake cookies out of real stuff (butter! sugar! and no ingredients no one can pronounce!) to sell. These items were the most successful sellers and the most profitable. 

- The last thing I did was to create an appealing food environment. This comes from my hospitality background - I firmly believe that if food looks appetizing, people are excited about eating it! We arranged the fresh items in baskets on tables (instead of boxes from the big box store) with table clothes and a bistro-style chalkboard for our menu. Small changes that required some work from me - I bought the wood, cut and painted it myself - but made big impact. 

(thanks to another Mommy, Renee Matos, I have a few photos of the stand.)

Now, some may ask two important questions: Can a "healthy" concession stand make money? and Is all that work really worth it?

Here are the answers:
The typical profit from a summer of Swim Team concessions has ranged from $200-900 each year. This year we made close to $1600. So, YES. It can make money. Donations from parents of fresh cut watermelon, baked goods, and local businesses helped. But I also think that many parents supported the concept and bought more of the food they were happy to see their kids eating, instead of avoiding the concession stand like the Plague because their kid begged over and over for a candy bar.

The last thing to touch on is, YES, this is worth it. It is worth it to me as a mom to spend my own time and money trying to create a better food environment for my kids and others in my community. It really is not that difficult. It does take work on your part, but the results are truly worth it.

Maybe an opportunity like this doesn't exist in your community, but perhaps you can consider how something similar might be a chance for you to do something. We simply must stop waiting around for other people to do the something we need to be doing as parents to help drastically reduce the amount of junk food in our kids' environment.

Next: Food+Kids - Final Thoughts. I have some closing thoughts/encouragement in the final post up next. As promised, ending on a positive note. =)

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Kids+Food: What can you DO?

(This is the second post in a short series - scroll down to the elephant if you want to read the first post!)
In my previous post, I ranted about how I am tired of the cultural norm of feeding junk food to kids at school, sports events, and parties. If you are still with me and haven't written me off as a Crazy Overboard Health Nut Mommy, I hope to offer some suggestions of what you can DO to make this cultural problem better.

Some Ideas:

1. Does your kid play soccer/baseball/basketball on a team where players take turns bringing snacks? Forget sugary juice boxes/Gatorade/Soda and choose water instead. That's exactly what their little bodies need after a good game! Consider a home baked treat or a small snack bag of cheese crackers and fruit. It's a much better alternative to a sugary drink and a sugary snack. At the very least, it's a step in the right direction to choose water and add a piece of fruit. I realize that you may get labeled as the Health Nut if you decline to offer the kids a huge cupcake, bag of cheese crackers, and a juice box. (And, yes, this is an actual example of a post-soccer game "team snack") But, I ask you, what matters more to you? Affirmation from 7-year-olds? Or the long term health of kids around you, including your own?  Now, there is a fine line here. My encouragement is to start with swapping out water and offering fresh fruit. Let's be honest - you will be labeled a complete Moonbat if you offer ONLY these items - even though they are a perfectly acceptable snack. Fine to add a small bag of cheese crackers or pretzels or other packaged snack. After all, some could argue that social acceptance for your kid and your family is also fairly important to their health. I get that.

My encouragement is to try to make small changes and refuse the "oh well it's easier and the kids love it" processed snacks and sugary drinks. This is about long-term cultural change. So be in for the long haul!

Need healthy team snack ideas? Google it. You don't have to be wildly creative here. The goal is to offer something that qualifies as real food. I've also actually found that sending bottled waters, bananas, and packages of peanut butter crackers are cheaper than most of the other snack alternatives. And 8 out of 10 kids will gladly accept and gobble up the snack. Once or twice a kid has looked at me and said, "I don't like peanut butter crackers". Tough. I say this is actually more of a manners issue than something I take personally. I walk away feeling like I have been a responsible parent. That means more to me.

2. Does your kid attend school where there are holiday parties or class birthday parties? Be the mom in your kid's room who volunteers to coordinate the parties, which naturally includes the party food. Make the menu and ask for moms to volunteer to bring them. Instead of having juice boxes, cookies, cupcakes, and fruit on the menu, switch to 8 oz. waters, fruit, veggies with dip, and ONE small treat. Be amazed that kids ACTUALLY eat the fruit and veggies when they are offered. Ditch the candy filled pinatas (hello, South Texas!=) or candy goodie bags to go home. Just ditch them. Or, if a piƱata is an important part of the culture, seriously think about to eliminate the other treats, or at least downsize them. Kindly redirect the efforts of other parents who want to help or donate sweets for parties into things like crafts, keepsake projects, or other things the kids can take home. It doesn't have to be a sweet treat! And, yes, you have to say it: Let's focus on a craft or other holiday take home instead of candy or treats. I have learned you have to be direct, yet kind. If you have to, chat with the teacher in advance and make it a partnership. Most teachers would probably enjoy kid's holiday parties more if they didn't have to deal with the sugar crazy that comes afterwards. Then if parents question the lack of sugary/junky party food on the menu, say the teacher and you have discussed it and she agrees it will be best for the kids. End of discussion!

3. Be the example when you host your own parties. Instead of offering juice to kids (Yes, it seems like I am continually swiping at juice, doesn't it? That's because it has basically NO nutritional value and generally lots of sugar. A piece of fruit is way better!), offer small bottled waters. Kids get excited about having their OWN drink. I've actually found that they could care less if it's water or juice. They just want to have their own. Grab a sharpie and let them write their own name. They care less than you think and probably won't notice the juice or soda isn't there. Also, who says you can't have fresh fruit and veggies as the main option for party food? Cheese cubes? Hummus? Whole grain crackers? Why does it have to be cheese puffs and cookies? I say it doesn't! Save the ONE treat for the birthday treat - that's it! Worried about looking cheap or not generous when you host a party? Splurge on organic fruit, offer cheese and real whole grain crackers. These things are not cheap. Think of adding these items to your menu instead of the fancy cupcakes, decorated cookies, AND donuts. Some people believe it's better to offer more treats because it's a big celebration. But, really, offer less treats and more real food. I think you'll find that parents will actually be happy to find food they can eat themselves and feel good about feeding their kids. You might also see less of the cranky/sugar obsessed/embarrassing tantrums that follow these kid celebrations. More than once I have left a party with my head hung because my three year old thought I was the Meanest Mom in the World for allowing him to choose only one treat. This is not a good scene for ANYone.

Still with me? Good.

Next up: Food+Kids - My Small Success in Changing the Culture

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Kids+Food: It's Time to Face It.

There's a big elephant in the room and I'd like to talk about it. In my observation, many parents in my area of the country are unwilling to face it.

Here it is:
WHY do we continually feed our children JUNK at school, sporting events, and social gatherings?

Michelle Obama, Katie Couric, Jamie Oliver, many celebrities and tons of mommies have been pushing this "issue" for years. There are plenty of books about it. Tons of blog posts. A plethora of Pins called "healthy snacks" and such. Yet, in my experience, it seems so little has changed!

We think we are providing our kids with fun, rewards, and/or culturally "normal" food when we are really destroying their health. Donuts and juice boxes now become Type II Diabetes and heart disease later.

Am I exaggerating? I don't think so.

Check out these statistics, courtesy of Dr. Reynolds at Smart Parents, Healthy Kids:

These are FACTS:
  1. Childhood Obesity has tripled in the last 30 years.  In 2008, one out of every 5 kids is the U.S. was Obese.  This is not overweight – this is obese – FAT.
  2. Of these obese kids, about 70% of them have one or more risk factors for Heart disease.  Seriously… 5 year old kids with risk factors for a heart attack.
  3. It is projected that the “baby-boomers” (people currently retiring) will be the first generation with a shorter life-expectancy that their parents (because of Obesity).  This is especially concerning for the current generation of  kids.
  4. Obese kids are much more likely to be obese adults.  Obese adults are more likely to have the Diseases of Affluence – cancer, heart disease, and diabetes.  All three of these shorten both the duration and more importantly quality of life.

Dr. Reynolds has reported in this article about how kids think about being fat and sick. Pardon me for not being politically correct. You may find the article’s contents shocking. I hope you at least find it thought-provoking. Because, if my kid thinks it’s better to lose a limb than be obese, that’s a huge problem.

The question is: What do we do?

Some say we overhaul the lunch programs and get government involved at every level. Some say we focus on giving our kids organic produce and grass-fed meat in BPA free containers. Some say we offer better 100-calorie snack packs as a more "portion controlled" option. Some say we offer these junk items in moderation, helping kids to see that it's okay to have a big slice of birthday cake & ice cream and a cookie once in a while.

None of these are terrible ideas, but...Who is right?

The real question we need to ask is What can I do to make it better?

It's a given that we have to start with thinking about what we are feeding own kids at home. Starting at home is key. Some of you are there already - eating tons of fruit and veggies at home and thinking seriously about what you feed your kids. Some of you feel like you'll never eat perfectly at home and/or be healthy so why even try outside the walls? And many of us feel like it's not our job to worry about what other people eat because we simply can't resist the temptation to eat Cheetos or Oreos now and then. It feels hypocritical to worry about what seven-year-olds eat after the soccer game. I get it. Believe me, I totally get it.

But, honestly. It's time. I have observed this cultural phenomenon for years as my kids have been in church programs, preschool, elementary school, and team sports.  Lately, I have been moved from annoyance to action. My question has become What can I do to make it better?  There's no easy answer. Trust me, I long for one as the beginning of a new school year rolls around. I start to get anxious as the class celebrations, birthday parties with new friends, and Fall team sports begin, I will have to be on guard against the junk food being offered to my kids at every turn.

I have a few suggestions and experiences to share in an upcoming series of blog posts. Maybe you are interested in this kind of thing, maybe not. At the very least, perhaps it will encourage you to think seriously about this issue and America’s kids. If you are a parent, you can think about it in relation to your own kids. If you are not a parent, maybe it will challenge you think about about how you can also be part of the solution, not the problem.

Next up: What can you DO?