My family's turn to provide afternoon snacks for my daughter’s 1st-grade class comes up next week, and I'm anxiously awaiting the backlash. When you make dietary choices for 23 New York City kids, only one of whom is yours, some other parent will often take exception.
It's easy to frame the classroom snack debate in broad terms such as cupcakes vs. carrot sticks. The prevalence of sugary cupcakes in elementary classrooms received so much attention that one school district banned them outright. But cupcakes are (forgive me for mixing food terms) a red herring. You don't give a kid a cupcake and kid yourself you're serving health food.
The problem occurs when the little kids are served food that appears healthy but is actually more dessert than snack.
A leading offender is Yoplait’s Go-Gurt, a yogurt-in-a-tube concoction that is loaded with sugar and comes in flavors such as Cotton Candy. Thanks to the generosity of other parents, my daughter now loves Go-Gurt. My health-conscious wife hates it. To her, Go-Gurt is a presweetened dose of false advertising that gives kids a taste for processed junk and contributes to the epidemic of childhood obesity. (And that epidemic is quite real. Last week's New York Times article on kids "double-dipping" breakfast noted 40 percent of the city's elementary and middle school students were overweight or obese.)
Kids regularly fed sugary yogurt are less likely to eat healthy yogurt — or even an apple. But no parent sends Go-Gurt into a classroom with a hidden agenda to turn little kids away from healthy food. Quite the opposite. The average Go-Gurt pusher sincerely believes he is providing a snack option that is better than, say, Gummi Bears. Yet a sizable number of parents would disagree. At least Gummi Bears don't pretend to be something they're not.
Consensus is always difficult, and even my wife and I often disagree over our only child’s diet. Our arguments are comparable to the mental scuffling that takes place between dueling economists. My wife favors a classical, Adam Smith-ish approach: Follow sound rules, avoid deviation based on short-term instability, and things will turn out best in the long run. A child's complaints about being served healthy food are mere bumps in the road toward positive nutritional outcomes. Follow good guidelines, set out healthy options, and ultimately a gastronomic invisible hand will knock some healthy sense into the kid.
I’m more Keynesian. In my view, there's no nutritional value in the uneaten whole-grain bread, the unsipped carrot juice or the untouched raw kale. Strict obedience to established nutritional rules is not always preferable to short-term remedies for particular mealtime crises. Often, a wise alternative is precise, informed intervention based on situational necessities caused by a child’s ever-changing tastes.
We could follow either philosophy to troubling extremes. The flexibility I endorse could lead to another McNugget Girl, the British teen whose diet has consisted of chicken nuggets (and virtually nothing else) since she was 2. Go too far in my wife’s direction, and you become Dara-Lynn Weiss, the calorie-counting Diet Enforcer who leveraged her 7-year-old daughter’s strict weight-loss regimen into a Vogue article and a book deal.
The wiser option is to seek some middle ground. And it’s not difficult. These days, healthy snacks are just a Google search away.
But if snacktime compromise proves elusive, consider the choice made by Scott Parker, principal at Manhattan’s PS 452. Parker’s new elementary skips the daily snack altogether — largely because lunch comes squarely in the middle of the school day, and Parker doesn’t see a reason to interrupt the morning or afternoon lessons to let kids nosh.
“I find it difficult to understand how a child needs a snack in that 3 1/2-hour window,” Parker told me. “Nobody has passed out.”