Parents, Schools and Children’s Nutrition

In an in-depth interview Prue Leith, internationally known food expert and chair of the United Kingdom’s School Food Trust, discussed subjects ranging from current health news to family relationships and even what she would ban if she were “the Czar.”

Leith feels that fighting the problem of obesity, which often begins in childhood, is “quite difficult to do, but it is really worth doing.”

Discussing the role of family relationships in nutrition, the South African native emphasizes that children are not eating healthily, “because their parents were not taught anything about food, and a lot of them were not taught to cook.” She laments the emerging “snacking culture,” saying, “Family meals have gone right out the window,” and chides parents who give their children pocket money instead of making sure they eat a good breakfast. “Forty percent of children buy a chocolate bar and a fizzy drink on their way to school by way of breakfast—which is not a good breakfast!”

Parents need to be unrelenting in helping their children develop a taste for healthy foods. “We now know that most foods are an acquired taste, so it’s no good giving a child a piece of broccoli and leaving it at that, because the child won’t like it,” says Leith. “You have to have—there’s research on this—something like nine 2-oz. portions of broccoli, and you love it.” She urges parents not to give up if children don’t like spinach the first time, assuring them that “children have to be persuaded to eat, and little ones are easy to persuade.”

When Vision asked Leith which methods of teaching nutrition work best in schools, she recommended teaching about food in school “so that children get taught in nutrition and science—that they get taught to cook. If possible—not every school can do this—they can grow food or go and visit farms. As soon as children become interested in food, they are more likely to care about what goes into their bodies.”

Leith attributes Finland’s success in reducing their obesity rate, which went from 35 percent to 2 percent in 15 years, to radical changes in the school system, including creating a pleasant atmosphere for eating, teaching children about food, and getting them actively involved in serving and cleaning up. “They all work for a week in the kitchen, so they get to know the process,” she says.

Leith also discusses the role of peer pressure, both positive and negative, in the schools and talks of the importance of parents, the family and relationships with the teachers in the fight against obesity in children.

Referring to the findings of recent studies on additives and proper nutrition as reported in current health news articles, Leith asserts that “concentration and behavior are largely helped by a good diet,” and then relates examples where improved diets resulted in improved behavior among toddlers and even among young offenders in prisons.

She decries the pressure put on parents by manufacturers to buy brand names for their children and blames those manufacturers for the “snacking culture.”

If I was—not just the food czar but the Czar, I would ban advertising to children at all.” She continues, “It’s all very well to say, ‘Well why don’t the parents just say no?’ but the truth is that parents have lost it, and largely, children rule. I’ve seen parents living on toast so their children can go to school in Nike trainers and not be bullied. Nobody wants their children to be bullied, and children can be bullied at school just because they’ve got the wrong brand on their feet. That’s ridiculous, but that’s where we’ve got to.”

Leith encourages parents to get involved by setting an example for good nutrition and eating habits in the family. Relationships with caring teachers, catering staff and school officials are also important. “I think this is perfectly fixable,” she declares. “It can be done, and we need everybody to help us do it. It really matters; let’s do it.”