Life Time founder and CEO Bahram Akradi sits down with kids at Deephaven Elementary to talk about their healthy school lunches
Today, nearly 32 million kids a day eat school food. In a society where bread sticks and burgers dominate the cafeteria landscape, changing the school diet may raise a few eyebrows. In April 2010, we partnered with a Minnesota elementary school to bring food back to the basics. One parent shares with us how the school lunch program has impacted her daughter's attitude toward food.
Life Time: What do you feel is the biggest challenge to getting kids to eat healthy?
CK: I think it’s overcoming their perception that they aren’t going to like it. Healthy foods sometimes smell or look a little different, so kids have to be more daring to try it. From what I’ve learned as a parent, it takes kids up to seven times before they develop a taste for a new food.
It’s also interesting how other kids can get your kid to try something. I noticed that with Ingrid, my seven-year-old. She sees other kids trying foods at school, so she tries things that she wouldn’t necessarily try herself.
Life Time: How has your child’s perception of food shifted since the program launched?
CK: She asks a lot more questions about healthy foods: “Is this healthy? Why is it healthy, and why is it not healthy?” Her horizons are being opened. She'd previously tend to gravitate towards the “kids' stuff" but now tries new foods she considered too different before. We’ve also done a lot of reinforcement at home. The key is to reinforce what she is learning at school and apply it to home.
Life Time: How has it sidestepped the pitfalls of introducing healthy foods to kids?
CK: By starting slowly with a narrow focus of food. The food wasn’t that different from the school's main items--they still serve hot dogs and pizzas. Not introducing the kids to a bunch of foreign, different types of food really helped make the program work. The menu looks very much the same but the actual ingredients are so much better.
Life Time: Can you walk me through a typical lunch week?
CK: Minnesota-grown hot dogs, cheese/pepperoni pizza, chicken tacos, chicken quesadillas, power ham pita, spaghetti and meatballs, salads, BBQ chicken, egg and sausage/cheese wrap, and turkey with mashed potatoes. There are always two entrees, milk and a whole bunch of sides (apples, oranges, carrots, root veggies). We didn’t make it a choice to NOT get the school lunch--we made it mandatory. Often she realized that she happily liked the foods.
There’s no longer a desert item every day but they do have cookies a couple times a month. Ingrid noticed but now it's more of a happy surprise when she gets it.
Life Time: So what's been the biggest hit with your daughter?
CK: One day Ingrid was in the last line for the new chicken BBQ and she missed out. Now she rushes to wash hands fast and get in line before it's gone.
Life Time: The home/school relationship is a key factor in the program's success. What has your family done to bring healthy eating into the home?
CK: Often our kids will come to the grocery store with us. Ingrid is a lot more interested in trying new foods: typically fruits and vegetables. Basically if she says she’s interested in something, I’ll get it. Yesterday she saw Brussels Sprouts at the store. She didn’t love them but she tried it. She introduced us to a food that I typically wouldn’t have gotten myself. It's important to let your kids be part of that choice.
Another way is having Ingrid and my five-year-old be part of the cooking process. They help with food preparation like learning how to peel carrots. That’s been kind of fun because then we have conversations about foods and they feel like they're helping.
There’s been a cool program at Deephaven where a woman comes in and makes fresh food in the class. My daughter tried fresh salsa and was adamant about getting ingredients and making it at home. It was really fun for her to make something new and share it with us.
Life Time: How do the parents and schools engage on the hot button topic of school lunches?
CK: For us, the whole rollout has involved really good communication. There are lots of opportunities to come in and hear about the program from the Life Time Foundation and the school principal. They offer free grocery store tours for families. For me, I've found lot of ways to engage and figure out how to implement all of this at home. It's still going to take more time and effort because so many of these habits are ingrained. It's hard to overtake and overcome the quick-and-easy foods that are highly processed.
Life Time: What areas of healthier eating at schools do you wish to be expanded?
CK: The school has classroom parties a few times a year. All the parents come in for an hour and enjoy fun activities with the kids. There’s always a food-related activity (decorating cookies, cupcakes, etc). It's really hard to think of a healthy snack that’s (sort-of) still a treat and special for the kids.
I’ve thought up a few healthy food ideas but you need more than one or two parents on board with something like this. I think it would be really helpful to just come up with ideas on healthy (but still fun) snacks. If we’re trying to live it in the cafeteria and at home, we need to figure out other places as well. Even sporting events--it has to be rolled out in a lot of different areas.
Life Time: Do you feel there's been a paradigm shift in conscious eating?
CK: From what I’ve talked to other parents, they are really supportive and happy that the school and Life Time is providing better food for the kids. You feel like you're not in it alone. As a parent, you struggle against everything out there. If you feel like you are getting the support, you aren’t fighting as much about what kids want and fighting against the unhealthy foods. It's nice to have a partner in this battle.
From talking to kids, they have really liked the food. They have things they like and things they don’t like...you’ll get that with any food. I think they are becoming part of the solution and becoming healthier as we offer them more food options. It's great for building foundations once they move into middle school and high school.
Life Time: As a health-conscious parent, how are you spreading the word?
CK: I talk about it a lot with my friends and family. It definitely comes up in conversation with other parents. People get really excited about it; especially people with small kids. It is a battle every parent has to deal with... finding healthy food that kids like. The more I talk about it with friends, they more want to roll it out at their schools. I definitely feel like it’s a grassroots movement that’s taking hold; slowly and surely.
Life Time: How can other parents incorporate healthy eating into family life?
CK: This seems super obvious, but try removing the food you don't want your kids to have in the house. You just need to start eliminating the stuff (slowly) that isn’t good for you. If you have it, they will find it. If you don’t have it, they won’t eat it.
Replace it with healthy things that make them feel full and they can have anytime they want. For us, it's full fat yogurt, fruits and vegetables. We also have cheese and crackers as an option. It's all about detoxing your pantry!