Yesterday was a snow day here in Rhode Island (surprise, surprise!  Hello, Winter of 2011), and I was home with the boys all day.  After digging us out from another 8-10 inches of snow, J. had to go in to the office for a day of important meetings, but I had the luxury of staying warm and snug with L. and P., whose school was canceled.  We did all the typical snow day things — movies, art projects, freeze dance, stories, and strewing the house with every imaginable small toy that came out of hiding to occupy the children.  We even tried to go outside and play, but the snow in the yard was so deep that I spent most of the 20 minutes we were out there desperately trying to extract one child or the other from the drifts.

With all that activity, the boys were in need of serious sustenance; they’ve both been unusually hungry as of late anyway (probable growth spurts on both fronts), but somehow they seemed particularly ravenous yesterday.  After breakfast, I decided to give us all a healthy food advantage for the day by making up a “Please Enjoy” plate.  I loaded a medium-sized platter with kale chips, homemade broccoli nuggets, steamed carrots, applesauce cups, orange slices, and bananas and set it in the middle of the dining table.  For the rest of the day, the boys were free to eat from the plate at will — as snacks or lunchtime sides, whatever they wanted.  I considered it an experiment in two areas: 1) Their ability to self-regulate; and 2) Their willingness to eat the healthy stuff and resist asking for other choices.

It went well.  Better than well.  I’d half-suspected that they might graze all day, but the two of them still only went for the food at their usual meal and snack times.  And though they did ask for crackers at their afternoon snack time, they wanted a small dish of crackers in ADDITION to the fruits and veggies, not as a replacement.  By dinnertime, more than half the platter was gone; between the three of us, we’d eaten everything but a banana, some of the oranges, and a few kale chips.

Musing on the empty platter, it occurred to me that I’d do this every day if I were a stay-at-home mom.  J. and I, like most of the people we know, don’t have the luxury of living on a single income; our kids have had to be in day care since infancy, and while we’ve had some luck with slightly flexible schedules and help from family, the boys still spend the majority of their weekdays in a school environment.  I send as much healthy food as I can in their lunchboxes, but I realized yesterday that they had a far more well-rounded day with the “Please Enjoy” plate than they do on even the best lunch-packing day at school.

L.’s best lunch of the week, I think, was Wednesday’s lentil stew, cauliflower, applesauce, and spinach salad.  Can’t argue with the nutritional value of that plate.  But if he’d been home on Wednesday, he would likely have had the same lunch; and his snacks would have been of the orange-slice, kale-chip variety, with probably some popcorn or a few crackers thrown in alongside.  At school, he got a morning snack of sweetened cereal and a few raisins; the afternoon snack was cheese-flavored crackers and juice.

Are they the WORST snacks in the world?  Not by a long shot.  The pairing of raisins with the cereal is the kind of thing we’d do at home.  And the portion sizes at school snack are really pretty small — I’ve seen them — so the handful of cheese-flavored crackers or the 1/2 cup or so of sweetened cereal hardly represents a nutritional disaster for my kid.  However.  That’s MY kid.  Whose overall diet is better than average.  What about the rest of the kids?

Oh, it’s not really about P. and L.’s classmates; while a lot of the kids may eat a relatively typical American kid-diet of processed food options and stuff with additives, there are also a lot of families who do what they can to provide good fruits and veggies and things like oatmeal and yogurt and whole-grain bread.  I’m thinking more about the larger picture and the scale of things.  L. and P.’s school is nationally accredited, which is a rare and wonderful thing; educationally, socially, and in all possible ways, their school environment is held to a higher standard than many.  So naturally, I looked at the website of the accrediting agency to see what they have to say about nutrition and health and snacks at schools across the country.

Unsurprisingly, the bit that I was able to read (there were quite a number of position statements and studies cited) came down to this nutshell: They’re concerned about the health and well-being of kids, they are particularly worried about low-income children who get their meals and snacks primarily at their day care centers, and they want schools to be adhering to USDA nutritional standards in providing those meals and snacks.  It all sounds pretty much right on target.

Except…we all know by now that the USDA nutritional standards are, again, a matter of interpretation and degree.  And that most of us who want to feed our kids really well at home don’t follow the Food Pyramid; we follow common sense and make meals and snacks primarily from real food ingredients.  Hence, I created a “Please Enjoy” platter that contained few, if any whole grains or protein sources or anything like that, because I knew my kids would easily fill out their diets with those types of foods without me having to encourage them.  But if I’d been feeding a bunch of kids at a day care center and trying to follow USDA guidelines and Food Pyramid standards, I’d have likely felt obligated to add cheese sticks, yogurt, whole-grain crackers or pretzels, toast, and probably a whole bunch of other things to the equation.  Except that would be expensive, so I could only choose a few things.  And probably cut back on the abundance of the servings.  And get the varieties of those items that have fillers and additives and junk added to them, because they’re cheaper than the higher-quality versions.  And not have scratch-made things on there at all, due to lack of kitchen, lack of resources, and allergy restrictions.

And lunch wouldn’t be lentil stew and cauliflower and spinach salad, either.  If I had to provide the meals (which our school does not), if I had to feed a group of low-income toddlers who depended on me and my school to give them their sustenance for the day, I’d be doling out things that I could reasonably handle reheating and serving, that I could store easily, and that matched those USDA standards exactly.  Oh, and things that would be easy on my budget.  Also, things that my staff and I wouldn’t have to work hard to get the kids to eat.  I’d probably be checking out something like this list, which I’ve pulled from an excellent post over at The Lunch Tray — this is a list of foods the government thinks we should be ENCOURAGING kids to eat because they are “Better For You” choices than most processed food options.  I’ve read the list, and I know what I think about it.  You be the judge.

It’s heartbreaking to me to realize that while we’d all like to put the health and nutrition of kids on the backs of parents — and I’m all for personal responsibility, believe me — we’re also tying the hands of the people who are actually feeding so many of our very young children by offering well-meaning “guidelines” that, in practice, amount to disadvantages for the centers and for the kids.  Our school does the best they can do, and they comply with the standards better than most places, I’m sure.  But when even under the best of circumstances, we can only achieve “Better For You” nutrition for our kids, what does that say about our priorities as a nation?  “Better For You” than WHAT?  And why shouldn’t we be demanding that “Better” become “Best?”

There’s not an item on this “Better” list that I’d want to put on a “Please Enjoy” plate for my kids.  Shouldn’t that be our standard, as parents and educators and concerned legislators?  Shouldn’t we be pushing the foods that we would allow any child to consume as freely as they might choose?  Or have we simply given up and decided that “better” is somehow good enough for our kids?