Your child’s snack box: what’s in and what’s out

Advice from a Hong Kong teacher on how to pack healthy treats to enjoy at school

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 08 December, 2015, 5:30am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 08 December, 2015, 5:30am

I try to give my son healthy snacks for school but he always wants what his friends have, which is often junk food such as sweets and crisps. Sometimes I give him home-made cookies, but he prefers the commercial varieties. It is very frustrating. Shouldn’t his school ban junk food?

I have been horrified at the snacks some children bring to school. I always wonder who packs their snack boxes and whether the parents actually know what is in there.

Peer pressure is strong at this age. It makes it difficult to insist that your son eats healthily when he is surrounded by friends who consistently eat junk food. Without guidance or monitoring from parents, most children would choose this type of food as often as they could get away with it. I remember being upset when my parents gave me fruit when most of my friends had sweets or crisps. However, when I got older I appreciated their persistence as many of my peers developed mouths full of fillings by the time they were teenagers.

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The media is full of information about the dangers of child obesity, so there is no excuse for parents not knowing the facts. Research shows that consistently eating junk food significantly increases the risk of obesity, cancer and other diseases. Fizzy drinks have a horrendous amount of sugar and yet some parents continue to allow their children to consume these on a daily basis and some schools even sell them.

Junk food can also have a negative impact on a child’s learning and behaviour. Additives, preservatives and food colourings found in these foods can lead to hyperactivity in some children, which affects their ability to concentrate in the classroom.

You are right to stick to your beliefs despite the difficulties. It is important that your son understands the reasons why you give him healthy snacks and that he doesn’t feel deprived as this could backfire. Allow him to have small amounts of junk food on occasions, at the weekend for example, but do not use this type of food as a reward. Set a good example by eating healthily yourself and stocking very little junk food at home. If your son knows it is there he is likely to crave it more.

Give him some responsibility for packing his own lunch box as children tend to be more compliant when given some choice. Vary his snacks to make them more interesting and make the food look attractive. Putting different foods into small compartments is often appealing to children – this works well with healthy finger food such as fruit and chopped raw vegetables with tasty home-made dips. For sweeter alternatives home-made cookies and cereal bars are a good option as you know they are not laden with colourings and preservatives.

Make sure your son has a good breakfast before he goes to school as this will raise his blood sugar, kick-start his brain and improve his performance. Research has shown that children who eat a balanced breakfast are able to work faster, concentrate better and have more energy.

If you feel that your son’s school is not being explicit in encouraging a healthy eating policy speak to the principal or join the PTA and get other parents on board

Health and nutrition is an important part of the primary school curriculum, but may not be covered every year and needs constant reinforcing. Children are often willing to listen to their teachers more than their parents and some schools could do more to encourage and monitor healthy eating.

If you feel that your son’s school is not being explicit in encouraging a healthy eating policy speak to the principal or join the PTA and get other parents on board. Try to come up with some inventive ideas and be willing to carry them out. For example, as part of fundraising for the school the PTA could organise healthy food stalls after school, selling attractive options such as fruit skewers.

Older students such as your son, could take the lead in encouraging and advertising these ideas, talking to the younger classes and educating them about healthy eating. House points could be given to children with healthy snacks and lunches. There could be a day each week when no packets or wrapping is allowed in school and food has to be brought in reusable snack boxes – this not only encourages healthy food, as most junk food is pre-packaged, but also helps the environment.

However, in the end schools can only do so much. It is down to parents to guide and monitor what their children eat, and a wise parent will not give in to their child’s every whim.

Your son will gain more independence when he moves to secondary school. Giving him good eating habits now will hopefully help him to make good choices as he gets older.

Julie McGuire teaches at a Hong Kong primary school