Cafeteria learning

When you become a parent you realize the power of your example. Even as young six months babies want to eat what their parents are eating. As the authority figure in a classroom, the teacher takes up where the parent left off: he/she is looked up to as the leader. Most kids respect school staff. In general school is a big deal to kids and they enjoy it. Just ask one.

Children know that they come to school to “learn how to read and write,” but they are learning more than just the material taught in the classroom. Many important things are learned implicitly, which means that many concepts are not taught to students directly. For example, social learning is learned implicitly (aside from parental advice). There isn’t any real instruction on how to behave socially; students are expected to learn these skills by watching, interacting, and behaving socially with their peers. I view “character education” as a social skills curriculum. There is wide variation in “character education,” but I believe it has value if implemented in a constructive way for students (not just posters, but interactive instruction with modeling, peer-to-peer groups, etc).

Nutrition is largely ignored by elementary schools because it has been expected that parents teach kids at home. I don’t think that is happening. I believe that school districts will be charged with adding nutritional curriculum as childhood health and obesity become a core issue in the US. But the kids do get instruction on nutrition: they eat school lunch. Whether or not we acknowledge it, kids “learn” which foods they should be eating in the cafeteria. If the school serves them hot dogs or chicken nuggets, kids think that hot dogs and chicken nuggets are good for them. If they eat fruit “icees” in the cafeteria, then fruit icees must be healthy. When given only 20 minutes for lunch, they learn that eating fast is what’s done. If they don’t get real silverware, they learn that it’s better to eat with their hands. If they don’t get recess, they learn that free play has no value. These are the messages that kids absorb, even if teachers and school districts don’t realize they are sending them. We to wise up already about what is “not” being taught.
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24 thoughts on “Cafeteria learning

  1. I completely agree with this post, and at a time when educational funds are being cut to make room for "more important" issues, it's difficult to imagine a change in the system happening. As citizens I really think the only way we're going to see a change is to rally for it ourselves.

  2. Great point Mrs. Q! Every minute of the day is a teachable moment whether planned that way or not.

  3. I just wanted to say that I love this post and truly believe what you're saying.

    I have a friend who had kids a few years ago and she used to go out of her way to feed them organic baby food. I was surprised because this particular friend was not an organic-nut and loved to eat out often and didn't always make healthy choices for herself. So, I asked her why she served her babies organic food.

    She explained to me that typically brands (like Gerber) are pretty bland and the organic versions tend to have more flavor–simply because of the way they're prepared. She was doing it not just for the health benefits of eating organic, but also so that the flavors would expand her child's palate.

    The minute her two girls started eating "adult food," the results were obvious. I've never seen a toddler in my life wolf-down pasta with pesto and other very flavorful foods. To this day, her kids will eat just about anything and I'm sure it really helps with meal planning.

    My wife and I don't have kids yet, but I plan to use this same general approach when we do–maybe even make my own baby food when I can. It's no wonder that many kids eat nothing but frozen foods (nuggets, tater tots, etc.) or that they're "picky eaters." We teach them from their first pureed foods that food should be bland and uninteresting and ultimately, not very nutritious. Then, when they won't eat what's on the table, many parents substitute heat-and-serve "fried" items just to get them to eat something. That's before they even see a school hot lunch line.

  4. Our district does have work sheets on the site I sent you in another post for elementary aged kids. Have you seen the deck of cards for teachers to use in class?

    So in 2011, are you going to take your lunch everyday and compare it to the school lunch?
    Just to model a good healthy lunch for your class?

  5. Fantastic post! Children are giant sponges and they just absorb everything from their environment, I think more so from the actions of those around them than what is explicitly taught. We need to be mindful of all those extra lessons they are getting.

  6. Well said! In a word, the whole thing is ridiculous. Kids don't know any better… and it's up to the ADULTS to set examples! We must break the cycle.

  7. This is so right on…. and makes so much sense. Great post… schools, and the "powers that be" within the school system, as well as parents in the home need this as a reminder. Thanks!!!!

  8. Great post. I also think we are teaching them how little they are worth by offering such poor quality food and not enough time to eat it. I loved the post a while back on lunches in Japan served on tablecloths with real dishes and served by the other children. What I most got out of that is how they are making the children feel important and valued while we are just tossing them pitiful lunches on throw-away trays. Ugh. So yes, I think many things are being implied to our kiddos.

  9. I don't think people realize what an impact having only 20 minutes to eat lunch really has on students. My husband will be 33 years old this year and he still wolfs his food down like someone is going to take it from him because of his school years. Where he grew up in rural MO, all of the students from the middle school and high school had to walk to the elementary school because that's where the only cafeteria was. Their 20 minutes for lunch included walking to the elementary school, getting their food, eating it, and walking back to the middle or high school.

    The students had to be bussed in from miles around, so some of them had to be at the bus stop by 6am, but many of them didn't get lunch until 1:30pm or later. They also weren't allowed to bring lunch from home because the schools had a rodent problem and the school administrators didn't want any food left in the lockers.

    No matter how much I try to get him to slow down, he just can't break the habit.

  10. They are always watching, listening, and picking up on everything we do/ say and don't do and say. I teach high school and this still applies. We are all models all of the time, even in our nutrition choices.

  11. Great points, Mrs. Q.

    I do think the tides are changing though. The message is getting out there, awareness is growing. Slowly, but I do think things are moving in a positive direction.

  12. Raise of hands – How many people would be willing to pay higher taxes to fund more nutritious and better quality meals? Same for extending the school day and paying teachers more money to account for the longer lunch period?

  13. Mrs. Q, I worry about public schools' unspoken messages all the time. It's my biggest stumbling block to staying enrolled in our local school district. Our school makes them eat lunch while wearing their coats in the winter because it's too much bother to have them carry the coats along or go back to lockers for recess. I learned this after trying to figure out why my son's coat smelled like maple syrup (another kid spilled his "breakfast for lunch" on my son). The image in my mind's eye of hundreds of little kids wolfing down lunch in 15 min while wearing heavy winter coats broke my heart. Why even let them sit at tables? Couldn't we save lots of time if we made them stand and shovel the food into their mouths off the trays? While wearing their coats of course. Because it takes so much time to eat lunch like a human being instead of an animal. I know many of the teachers through relationships outside the school and they are decent, kind people so I don't understand how these kinds of policies get established. Sometimes I feel like the humanity has been sucked out of our public school system. Very sad.

  14. Anonymous 6:52, you are quite correct that everyone here would likely be in favor of improving the school meals with extra funding. The thing is, if we look elsewhere, we're likely to find others who are just as interested in more money for the arts, sports, and many more excellent programs.

    And, there are also those who honestly don't feel more funding should be put to the food programs. I haven't seen as many comments lately, but it is true that not everyone is goign to feel the same as those who comment here.

  15. Amen to everything you said Mrs. Q.

    Also I would pay a little more to fund better school lunches and health education (although fear for what teachers would be forced to teach as "healthy" once the lobbies influenced the politicians making the rules)

    My district is fortunate enough to have the money, but we seem to spend it on so many things that don't directly benefit the kids. We have way too many administrators making way too much money. This year they said we would have to increase class sizes to lay off teachers to balance the budget, yet they also added 2 new assistant superintendents who each make over $100 grand. My district is probably out of the norm in this fact, but I'm sure most do waste quite a bit.

  16. Great post Mrs. Q.!
    As a teacher, I know schools set an example. Most parents think…if the school is doing this, then it must be OK. They assume what the school is doing has to be what is best for their children. And lets face it, many parents are in survival mode with their kids. They feel like they are doing a great job if they get their kids to school each day. I don't condone this attitude, but I see it every day (and I don't teach in a low income district).
    Schools have got to take the lead. The research is there – kids feel better, perform better, and behave better if they are well fed and get to move! Health education and a healthy school environment should be required in all schools.
    "Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored."

  17. I completely agree, Mrs. Q! Children learn from the examples set before them. What the family and the school teach is what they will eat. My husband and I have a pact to feed our son exactly what we're eating. He's only 18 months old, and he'll already eat things like raw spinach, roasted lamb, unsweetened oatmeal, calamari, asparagus, whole wheat bread with flaxseed, and every kind of fruit imaginable. When he doesn't eat a particular food, we don't say a word, just try it again in a few days, perhaps served in a different way.

    We have noticed, as well, that Nick seems particularly susceptible to what we call "baby crack." French fries seem to be so addictive that Nick will refuse all other foods if he sees that fries are available. So we try to keep him away from fried, highly addictive foods.

    I also am a teacher an elementary school, and I wish that health education could be made a part of the lunch experience. I find it unnerving to teach 2nd graders about the importance of whole grains and how to avoid fried foods, only to have them walk down to the cafeteria for a lunch of white bread and popcorn chicken.

  18. I love this blog; when I was in school (I'm 39) we had wonderful lunches. Now that we know that children are being fed terrible meals at school, why not make the commitment as parents to send a nutritious home-packed lunch instead of exposing kids to these terrible school lunches? I realize that some kids have to eat school lunch because they receive aid or free lunch vouchers but not every child needs a school lunch. What am I missing? Thanks to all.

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