Preventive Medicine Column
Dr. David L. Katz
My own recollection of school lunch, albeit prehistoric, raises some questions about the overall culinary merits of institutional food in the setting of public education. It may be, at least in some of the cafeterias some of the time, no matter the nutritional merit of the fare, Michelin stars will be hard to come by!
That is not always the case, however. Some school food service directors are innovative chefs, who have managed to work some genuine dining pleasure onto the menu. Ideally, we’ll see more of that. Food should be a source of pleasure, and it would be good for our kids to have that lesson reinforced in school- particularly if they can learn there to love food that loves them back.
That is possible for all of us, and the best recipe for a long, vital lifetime of good eating. There is pleasure in good food and good health alike, and no reason we can’t learn to use the one to fuel the other.
But leaving aside the issue of culinary merit, the recent news about school food drew our collective attention to the challenge of providing our kids better nutrition. In this instance, the lunchroom still holds some lessons for us all.
First, if kids reject the very notion of ‘healthy’ food out-of-hand because they simply assume it won’t taste good, we are doing something very wrong at home. This is not an attitude that cafeterias can readily fix. It’s an attitude culture has instilled, and only culture can revise. Fortunately for us all, the basic functional unit of culture is the family- so we can fix this one household at a time.
When you consider that food is the one and only construction material for the growing body of a child you love, do you truly want your child to reject good nutrition? When you consider that dietary pattern, along with tobacco and physical activity, counts as a major determinant of chronic disease risk, of the likelihood of premature death, and of the expression of our very genes- do you really want your child constitutionally opposed to eating well?
Of course we all want food to taste good- but the famous merits of the Mediterranean diet demonstrate handily that we can, indeed, love food that loves us back: food that tastes good, while cultivating good health. We can, and I believe should, work toward that perspective as our prevailing cultural norm. That transformation can gain traction one household at a time. If health is a family value, it will exert some influence when our kids are choosing what to chew.
And second, we need to give our taste buds time to acclimate to any change. Having gone through dietary changes with innumerable patients over a span of 20 years, I can say with confidence, born of experience: taste buds are malleable little fellas, and when they can’t be with the foods they love, they learn to love the foods they are with- for good, or for ill.
There is enormous opportunity to improve health while preserving the pleasure of eating just by giving taste buds a bit of time. Even incremental improvements in diet can add up to enormous benefits for health.
In as little as a couple of weeks, our tastes can adjust to new foods, so that they become the familiar choices we prefer. But the benefits of trading up nutritionally extend well beyond a few new selections in a cafeteria line. Taste can be fully rehabilitated. If the dietary content of salt is drawn down, taste buds become more sensitive to salt- and you (and your child) can actually come to PREFER less. Ditto for sugar. And the same is true for chemical additives to food. When diet is cleaned up and taste buds detoxed, a whole array of food processing mischief tends to become, in a word, distasteful.
Eating food, not too much, mostly plants is a whole lot easier when that is actually what you like better.
We really can raise kids who love foods that love them back. Since dietary choices will exert a profound influence on the health of our children across their lifespans, we all have literal skin in this game: theirs.
Cafeterias do need to be part of this solution, helping to improve our kids’ daily food supply- for the only other option is for them to be part of the problem. But schools were never more than a part of our prevailing problem, and can never be more than part of the solution.
Changing our kids’ food demand is a matter of culture. It’s a task that resides not with our schools, but with ourselves.
Dr. David L. Katz; www.davidkatzmd.com