Tuesday, October 10, 2023

Let Them Play With Their Food

Our preschool, like most, is equipped with pots and pans, plates and cutlery, cups and saucers, not to mention toy food, which the children use to play meal time. At any given moment someone is baking play dough cupcakes or mud pies that they then eagerly serve to others. What is notable about these pretend meals is that there is so much joy, so much connection, yet there is no actual food involved.

I don't think it's possible to doubt that Americans, as a population, have a broken relationship with food. I'm not a nutrition expert, but the very fact that we need to turn to experts of any kind to know what, how, how much, and even when to eat, should be a sign that this most fundamental thing, consuming food, confuses us. 

As a species we evolved for hundreds of thousands of years to eat the food that was available, and when food wasn't available, we moved to where the food was. This meant that humans living in places that provided year-round bounty, like the Pacific Northwest, more or less remained in the same place, eating a variety of foods throughout the year, while those that found themselves in less fruitful places, became more nomadic as they sought the foods of place and season. 

Whatever the specific case, Homo sapiens were for 99 percent of our existence very closely connected to our food because disconnection meant we didn't survive. Knowing how to identify, locate, track, and prepare food was a kind of well-rounded genius that few of us have today. We tend to think of ourselves as intellectually superior to our distant ancestors, but that's pure arrogance. Most of us, if left to our own devices on a savanna or in a forest would simply die of starvation, or of eating something toxic out of desperation . . . if a predator didn't make a meal of us first.

Modern humans tend to be more specialized in our knowledge. It's no longer necessary to know how to perform every step in the process of feeding ourselves. Indeed, most of us spend our days doing things completely unrelated to food in order to earn money that we then exchange for food. This is certainly one of the sources of our disconnection and it's why, I believe, we are currently plagued with the results of poor eating habits: diabetes, heart disease, high cholesterol, obesity, cancer, autoimmune disorders . . . Not to mention related mental illnesses like anorexia and body dysmorphia.

The solution, of course, is education. When I was a boy, we were introduced to the food pyramid and the instruction to eat so many servings of this and so many servings of that per day. Today, most schools still offer some sort of "healthy eating" curriculum to children, but according to parent coach and family mentor with the Equip eating disorder program, Oona Hanson, "Nutrition lessons -- largely driven by state education standards -- can be damaging because they unintentionally convey the same messages as an eating disorder: cut out certain foods, limit calories and fear weight gain."

"When we give kids too much nutrition information, it really takes them away from their body cues and being able to listen to their internal signals," says registered dietitian Nicole Cruz.

The more effective alternative, according to health educator Christopher Pepper is "Moving towards lessons that emphasize the joy of eating, the pleasure of sharing food with others, and learning how to prepare food as a way to connect with other people." In other words, let them play with their food.

This is always the lesson of education. No matter what it is, humans learn best through joy, connection, and doing things for themselves. At the end of the day, we each have our own unique dietary requirements. Pyramids, charts, and lists of "sometimes" or "every day" foods are a dangerous form of standardization, akin to the myth of ideal body types or neurotypes or the so-call "science of reading". Standardization may be the most efficient way to build washing machines, but it will always be the enemy of learning. 

If we really wanted to address nutrition in our schools, we would start by ending the cruel practice of 20 minute and silent lunch times. We would drop the standardized approaches and remember the joyful and connecting lessons of our earliest ancestors, or even the children playing meal time in preschool, who gather around the "fire" each day to share their stories, songs, and companionship because they know that this is the essential component of every healthy meal. 


"Teacher Tom, our caped hero of all things righteous in the early childhood world, inspires us to be heroic in our own work with young children, and reminds us that it is the children who are the heroes of the story as they embark on adventures of discovery, wonder, democracy, and play." ~Rusty Keeler
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