On my son’s first day of 3rd grade last month, I stayed to watch in the morning with the other parents, as the kids met their new teacher and over breakfast, he gave us an overview of what the kids would be learning throughout the year.
I was standing next to my friend Eve, whose daughter is in the class.
Our eyes met for a brief moment, as we watched our children dive into their school breakfast. Both of us, without even having to speak, knew what each was thinking: how many grams of sugar do you think are in this one, little, breakfast? I calculated in my head about 70 grams, if my son was to eat all of it.
There was the chocolate milk one could choose.
There was the flavored yogurt.
The graham crackers (that were actually cookies).
And the cereal.
Thankfully my son chose the white milk, and didn’t eat all his breakfast because he’s a very slow eater, but that’s another story…
Eve spent a full year avoiding sugar, along with her family, blogged about it, and wrote a book about it that will be published soon. I have an interest in sugar because over the past 5 years, I have become an evangelist about my own diet. Constantly monitoring what I eat, weeding out the bad, and adding foods I think will benefit my health. Also, I continually assess whether my current diet works well alongside my fitness goals. I wrote a post earlier this year called My Food Evolution, about how my current philosophy towards food originated.
I read a ton of labels.
Avoid added sugar and sodium.
And if I can make something myself, I will. The less processed, the better.
My son has a food allergy, as many of you know, I just wrote a long post about it. It’s really difficult for him to eat out, we always bring our own food to ensure his safety, and I know that gets a little boring for him. But at school, the cafeteria is nut-free and finally offers him a chance to eat something other than what I give him. He feels included. And can eat safely. He often will try a new food at school, let me know about it, and I can try to recreate my own version at home. Because of the positives, I didn’t get too hung up on the fact that the foods he ate at school might not be the same quality as what we have at home, because it was only 5 meals a week. It seemed like a good compromise.
I am ashamed to admit since making this decision as a parent, allowing him to have school lunch, rather than make it at home, I never really re-evaluated the fact that since kindergarten, he’s been eating breakfast there too. No longer 5 meals a week, now 10.
And I never really looked at the menu consistently. I recall glancing once or twice thinking: fruit, cereal, milk…sounds healthy enough, right?
But until I saw that breakfast at school in person, the realities of this decision, or non-decision, became more clear. My child is not one of those kids who sits nicely at his desk and raises his hand to be called. He’s the one who is hanging off his chair. He’s the one blurting out answers to every question. He’s the one swaying back and forth into everyone’s space. And last year, he complained often about how tough it was to stay focused in math, right after breakfast.
He is a powerful little force, on the move…
It didn’t once occur to me that the food he ate prior to his lessons might be an issue.
When I learned about this sit-still-during-math problem, we started to do “jump around” time in the mornings, before school, and we have kept it going this year. Some days when it’s nice out we take a few laps up and down our steep driveway. Sometimes we will run down to the river and back. If the weather is bad, we throw all the couch pillows on the floor and do a few rounds of “pillow hopping”. We do a few squats. Stretches. Waking up the arms and legs. Sometimes we only have 10 minutes, but it appears to help.
I read a book earlier this year by John Ratey called: Spark, about exercise and the effects on the brain, because of my own interest in exercise and fitness. I know the fact that I incorporate formal exercise and lots of movement into my own day, I feel so much better. I’m less anxious. I’m more calm. After a session, I’m centered on the task at hand, no questions asked; where I’m jumpy and always feel the need to stretch or move around if I wait until later in the day. But my takeaway, aha moment, after reading the book, centered around what I need to do with my son. The book described a fitness experiment in a school in Naperville, Illinois, clearly proving, in the form of measured grade improvements, how much better kids are able to focus and learn when they participate in “fitness” time first thing in the morning.
I hadn’t thought much about school food or his fidgety tendencies for a week or so, he came home happy everyday and said he loved school. And I was elated to finally have a few moments to myself to breathe, to enjoy some late summer hikes, and to have some moments to myself to figure out my personal goals.
But about a week after school started, Brett came home and mentioned he didn’t really like school lunch anymore. The Sunbutter at school tastes different, and he didn’t like it as much. My guess is that the school serves the sweetened kind, whereas he is used to the unsweetened version we have at home. And lately, he has been choosing sandwiches more often than the hot lunch. I told him I’d be happy to make his lunch on days he would opt for a sandwich.
I hung the lunch menu on the cabinet so he could check it out and decide each morning.
And every day since, he has opted for home lunch; I don’t bother asking anymore…
On Monday, as we were driving home from school, Brett mentioned he had a breakfast cereal that he didn’t like; it was too sweet. It made his stomach hurt. I asked him what it was called.
Hmm, I remember Trix is one of those sugary cereals I used to see commercials for when I was a kid. Why in the world would that be a choice at school?
The first thing we did when we came home that afternoon was look up Trix on the web, I wanted to see what the nutrition label looked like. Once I did, yup….lots of sugar (13 g). I asked Brett what other choices he had, that he could remember. He named 4 or 5 different brands. I looked them up and we decided, for breakfast at school, your best bets are Kix (3 g), or Rice Krispies (4 g).
But as we discussed it further, we thought, this is silly, let’s just bring in our own cereal (Erewhon Brown Rice (0g) mixed with Enjoy Life Flax (2 g)) So he has done this for the last few days and is perfectly happy.
With so much media play on the need to lower obesity rates in children. And so much documentation about how sugars make kids unable to sit still, to focus, along with the fact they do not get enough active movement during the day, you just have to wonder, why do they even let these sugary options through the door?
Whether this breakfast change will make a difference in his focus, or his need to move around so much, who knows. But at least we can be confident now that the foods he eats each day are not contributing to the problem.
I still am mad at myself for being so complacent for the last few years. Maybe it’s because I am so “on it” with the foods stocked in my kitchen, for both health and allergy reasons, it felt good to take a deep breath, and delegate, just for a few meals each week.
But if someone swapped out my plain yogurt with a super-fake-sugary one. Or gave me graham cracker cookies instead of my typical seedy low-sugar brand, I certainly would not let it happen.
I’d feel like a blob all day.
And so do our kids.
My son knew this stuff didn’t taste good. His stomach felt odd. He could tell he needed something different and we worked together to make better choices.
I hope you all don’t think I’m some scrooge, never allowing my kid treats, making him eat Brown Rice & Flax cereal. Believe me, when sugar is necessary, I’m all for it. I have this one espresso brownie recipe I’m embarrassed to say I make more often than I should. It calls for 3 1/2 cups of sugar! And we have chocolate in the house. And I make cookies. Maple syrup and honey are everyday staples.
I like sugar for dessert, but not hidden in basic meals.
Brett and I had a specific conversation about the terms: Appropriate and Not appropriate yesterday. He wanted to wear a pig mask he made at school during recess. I had to explain, it wasn’t that the mask was in itself bad, it was just clearly not appropriate to wear at that time. These same terms came up again later in the afternoon when he wanted to bounce on the cool adjustable chair at his dentist appointment. By the horrified look on the hygienist’s face when she saw that chair wobble, we clearly know bouncing is ok outside, but at the dentist, we can file under: Not Appropriate.
He understood quickly. Not appropriate is when the timing is wrong.
And the terms apply perfectly in the case for sugar.
Too much of it during the school day? Not appropriate.
After school? Appropriate.
On the weekends after lunch or dinner? Depends on what we are doing, but mostly: Appropriate.
For adults at work? Judging by how many of us eat poorly and want to fall asleep at our desks in the afternoon after a big lunch, then need a 3 pm coffee pick-me-up? I’m going going to say sugar isn’t really all that appropriate here for adults.
Sugar before bedtime? For kids; Not appropriate.
And for me? I have started getting insomnia on nights I have a late dessert. File under: Not appropriate.
Timing makes all the difference.
I used to have a few minutes to myself in the mornings. To write. To think.
To drink coffee and think about the day ahead.
I didn’t have to make Brett’s lunch for the last few years; but now I do.
Apparently, I’ll now be making him two breakfasts each day too, one for home, one for school.
And that’s ok.
I’m proud of him for speaking up. He has proven he has a strong instinct regarding his own health; an instinct as good or better than my own.
He reminded me we should never become complacent with our own nutritional needs.
If something isn’t working, we can stop, think, ask questions and reevaluate to make positive changes.
And that sometimes a compromise is just not worth it.
How do you approach sugar, for you, or your family?
Are there foods you notice help or adversely affect your moods or focus? How about exercise and movement? Would love to hear your thoughts!