Teaching Social Norms, Part 4.5

I’m not counting this as a full entry in the “Teaching Social Norms” series primarily because it will function more of a bleg than an expository piece.  The question is:

Do food norms matter?  If so, should they be taught in schools?

At my school, we provide all the food for the students.  The students eat family style, with a daily hot entree complimented with salad and deli bars and homemade soup.  In my classroom, I teach and emphasize healthy eating habits, discussing the ways different foods help the children’s bodies to grow and develop and encouraging balanced meals.  Older students have considerable more autonomy over their food choices, though school-wide we seek to balance our role in ensuring healthy eating habits with the children’s control over their own bodies.

Left to their own devices, children come up with innumerable combinations of food that most adults find off-putting.  Given the 20+ choices available to them each and every day (not including the bevy of condiments), I’m confident nearly every permutation and combination of ingredients has been tried.  Peanut butter and cheese?  Check.  Carrot sandwiches?  A favorite among some.  Bologna over pasta?  More please.  On and on it goes.

Some teachers bristle at this, insisting that there are proper food combinations.  As a food snob myself, I can appreciate their perspective (there are few, if any, things bologna should be over).  However, I also know that some of the most amazing food experiences I’ve had have been with combinations outside my comfort zone, those that have indulged either a different set of food norms or which have openly flouted them.

So, again, I ask… is there a value to teaching the more common food norms of our society? Is there a cost imposed upon people who eat uncommonly?  Or is food simply a matter of taste and personal preference that should be respected?

(Note: I realize there is a fine line between experimentation and play for children when it comes to food.  I do prohibit the children from indulging in wasteful play with their food.  This question speaks to more genuine exploration aimed at arriving at something tasty.)

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46 thoughts on “Teaching Social Norms, Part 4.5

  1. In school, kids should be free to explore whatever food combination they want (or their pocket money/diet will allow) Food norms are intensely personal. At most it is taught and enforced between family members.
    • I should note that the school at our free is free. Or, more accurately, folded into tuition. So students take as they please.
  2. Good Lord, let ‘em make any combination they want. If there’s a rule about this sort of experimental gastronomy, it’s this: you have to eat what you make. That was our rule, probably the only rule I had about food with my kids: wasting food is wrong.

    Other’n that, heh, they’re kids, folks. Childhood is short. I sure wish we had a different collection of words for what kids do: “play” always comes across as a waste of time and it’s not. It’s an important part of learning.

    • I read an interesting study once on young children’s perception of “work” and how even they devalued play, or things described as play, because of a broader tendency to see it as a waste. “Play” was what they did; “work” was what teachers required them to do. The latter was more important than the former. I’ve made a conscious effort since then to explicitly tell the children that play IS their work… even going so far as requiring play… “Yes, I’m telling you that you have to play. I know, I know, I’m a mean ol’ teacher.” I now call our activity time “Work Time” instead of “Choice Time”, attempting to emphasize that blocks, painting, art, board games, and puzzles are just as much work as writing, reading, and math.

      I’ll see if I can dig it up and share it and/or write it up. I think you’d appreciate it.

      • I’ve thought about getting in contact with you offline, to work through a collective something-r-other about the Marshmallow Experiment and its implications. It’s my opinion we learn strategic reasoning through play. It’s not a teachable skill, but the context for such learning can be created.
      • I agree. And would be happy to collaborate with you. One of the great harms many education schools do is posit Piaget and Vygotsky as opponents. They are not mutually exclusive. Stage theory is real but the process can be facilitated through real-world experiences.
  3. That’s some fancy school you teach at for providing that kind of food.

    To answer the question, schools should teach about nutrition, proper exercise, and stuff. They should just let the kids eat as they please though. The kids will grow out of it.

  4. I think the one area that schools can help with is ensuring that kids try things. One of the worst habits you can get into is deciding you don’t like something at a young age, and then avoiding it as an adult. I still regret the years I spent not eating black beans.
  5. Nutrition should be a class.

    Schools should stop taking hand-outs from “food” companies.

    Other than that, I think we should consider treating childhood obesity as a form of abuse. Children are not informed enough to be making their own food choices.

    • We work a third-party food service company that specializes in school lunch. They emphasize healthy eating… Balanced entrees, minimal processed foods, lots of veggies, most things made in-house.

      My students don’t eat in the dining hall so I bring down a sampling of foods each day in addition to the entree. I give daily food challenges, such as everyone must eat a protein or a green food or something with dairy in it, and then offer a variety of choices within that. This balances giving them control with teaching healthy habits. If a child has loaded up on one type of food (most often carbs), I’ll say they need to have two other foods before I give them more of that.

      I get the sense that the dining hall is no holds barred. Lip service is paid to healthy eating but otherwise the kids eat what they want. I think this should be better scaffolded, gradually giving kids more choice as they develop the agency.

      While obesity is an issue, calling it abuse ignores the myriad of factors that contribute to it.

      • “I’m not calling it abuse, just that we should consider treating it as such.”

        what’s the diff?

      • That we stop saying eating candy for every meal is Jessica’s choice (or Jessica’s parents’ choice) if Jessica develops a life-shortening disease at age 7.

        Really, would certain death from avoidable cardiovascular causes in their thirties and disability up until that point not qualify as abuse? Should we not be having that conversation?

      • For me, “treating it as abuse” can imply (although your clarification suggests you disagree) that the state has the right to visit the parents and threaten to take the child away.
      • I think the state can intervene, and I’m aware of the slippery slope arguments – but commonly cases of abuse are treated in cooperative fashion and emphasize therapy.
      • I think we’d have to be careful to identify which parents are deliberately complicit in the abuse (the “Eat whatever you want, even candy” folks) and which themselves are victims of broader, more systemic abuse.

        Something I’ve been paying attention to as we inch closer to being parents is the gap that exists in parenting styles between privileged members of our society and marginalized groups, with the former group often employing the methods du jour in much greater numbers than the latter. Just yesterday at lamaze class, there was an article on the wall highlighting the differing rates of breastfeeding (which is recommended by just about anyone who matters) at local hospitals. The results were staggering: the rates at the hospital in poorer communities with large black and Latino populations (including the town I grew up in) ranged from 15%-30%; the hospital we were attending, in a more wealthy and predominantly white area was at 75%.

        Now, it’d be easy to say these poor/black/brown folks are bad parents… or are less good parents than their wealthier, white counterparts. But I think the issue is much deeper than that. For a long time, breastfeeding was not the recommend path; formula was. In fact, you were seen as being a bad parent if you didn’t use formula. This idea eventually became mainstream until the science and/or cultural trends shift. Well, who drives the science and the cultural trends? Wealthy white folks. And the message is often communicate that only bad parents ignore science and cultural trends.

        This leads to a lot of resentment amongst members of the marginalized groups. “What do you mean what we’ve been doing, what you’ve been telling us to do for decades, is wrong?” The shift happens slower, if at all, because of a feeling of being the tip of the tail getting jerked around by the wagging of the dog.

        The same thing is true with food: the food pyramid in the 80′s and 90′s emphasized grains and carbs, so that is what people fed their kids. We now know this is not ideal for children, but the change is going to be slower in those communities that are not the driving force behind them.

        So, responses that include education, support, and therapy sound great. But if we’re going to further demonize and already marginalized group of people who are doing what they were told to do just a few years ago… we’re just furthering the cycle of abuse.

      • And I do not mean to imply that you are advocating for demonizing etc…. but this is where my mind goes when I hear people advocate intervening in circumstances of abuse.
      • You know, unless someone is practicing geophagy, or eating paint, I say leave there food choices alone. They might not be eating the most healthy diet, and it may lead to bad outcomes, such as diabetes etc., but you really start to hit cultural boundaries super quick, not to mention issues of privilege.
        As white culture does everything in its power to solve for all problems culturally, I feel that we are pushing out the necessary parts of each groups cultural cohesion, and in the process creating worse second and third order effects.
      • Chris,

        Yes, but, again, let’s be sure to treat differently the folks who eat McDonalds every week because Junior can’t live without the new Happy Meal toy and folks who eat McDonalds every week because it is quick, easy, cheap, and calorie dense, important factors for folks with food insecurity. Neither group should simply be left to their own devices (at least not when children are involved), but the way in which ‘interventions’ are offered should reflect the circumstances under which that came to be the case. Judging from your comment below, I assume we are likely in full agreement on this as well.

        For the record, I’m not really much for cultural relativism; if there is objective evidence that a given diet leads to better health outcomes than another, there is no harm in acknowledging that (and arguably there is harm in denying or refusing to acknowledge it). Where I start to get squishy is when people leap from a provable fact such as that to a presumption of moral superiority that spills over into other areas.

        There is a big difference between saying, “That parent is not offering his child an appropriately healthy diet,” and, “That parent is abusing their child by feeding them a stupid diet.” I realize that is a bit of a false dichotomy and that haven’t necessarily argued that eating McDonalds regularly universally requires just one of those response; I’m speaking more broadly about the issue at hand and the complexity of schools or other arms of the state involving themselves in family’s food decisions.

      • “I think we’d have to be careful to identify which parents are deliberately complicit in the abuse (the “Eat whatever you want, even candy” folks) and which themselves are victims of broader, more systemic abuse.”

        Of course! That’s been my point the whole time.

        Sorry if I was oblique.

      • yeah i see where you’re going with this and all that, but my question was about your phrasing. why stop from calling it abuse if you’re going to treat it as such?

        “That we stop saying eating candy for every meal is Jessica’s choice”

        as a side note, who says this?

      • There are a fringe of people who say this or something similar. I don’t know if they’re big enough to justify any real policy change, but they do exist. Just as their exist people who say that children shouldn’t eat anything that every touched anything made out of plastic. Their loudness belies the smallness of their numbers.
      • That was more of a snarky response to our general response to both abuse and obesity, because that is sort of what we do now with both. Sorry if it seemed aimed at your position.
    • My anecdata suggests that methods commonly employed by parents to fight childhood obesity (often when a child isn’t even clinically obese in the first place) are more likely to harm children (and lead to adult obesity) than childhood obesity is.
      • My experience is that, if you force anyone to do something, they may violently react; but if you cultivate an appreciation of food and nutrition (through, for example, a nutrition curriculum), they learn to freely make the choices that will have the best outcomes for them, like eating a well-balanced diet.
    • Nutrition was an elective offered at my high school. I graduated in 2005 in CA, so take that for what it’s worth.
  6. What an opportunity!

    Experimentation should be encouraged. Food is life and different cultures have different norms about food. “Why isn’t Moishe eating bacon like the rest of us?” Moishe probably doesn’t mind a bit that his friends from Christian families eat bacon even if his parents want him to stay kosher. For the teacher: a chance to celebrate cultural differences, and teach a lesson about tolerance and people of different identity groups getting along in a common society.

    There’s also opportunity to provide nutrition and health information. Adults interacting with students can provide guidance about preferred ways to construct meals (e.g., “You have a fat already on the plate with [fat X, e.g., cheese]. Let’s finish making the plate — are you curious about how [vegetable Y] might taste with [protein Z]?”). It’s an opportunity to teach beneficial diet habits, to demonstrate that the occasional indulgence is perfectly fine, that there is no such thing as bad food but there is such a thing as a good choice, and where food comes from (cow = hamburger, spaghetti sauce = tomato, and so on). Students with interest in the food ought to be provided with opportunities to help with its preparation and service (and cleanup, which is an important part of cooking!) and they can learn even more. Lay the foundation to good health and to avoid disorders and complexes about food later — especially for the young girls, who later in life seem particularly susceptible to social pressure about body image and food choices.

    And who knows? Maybe the adult will find that the non-traditional combinations actually taste good, too. I don’t see anything at all wrong with a carrot sandwich and in fact carrot salad sandwiches are quite tasty and a favorite at fancy-schmantzy places that serve high tea. (Shred the raw carrots, mix with some mayo and raisins, maybe a little brown sugar, salt, and cayenne pepper.) Not every meal needs a protein. I’ve some pretty steep doubts about bologna on pasta, but I admit I’ve never tried it. Maybe it’s fantastic. (Maybe if you julienne it and sautee it before it goes in the sauce?)

    • I can add literally nothing to this. I do some of these ad hoc but could definitely do a more deliberate program. Your point on moderation is a key one… For some dolks the pendulum has swung so far that sweets are verboten, setting the kids up for gorging when the opportunity does present itself. People must also recognize that kids have different dietary needs: young kids need healthy fats… Cheese, milk, nuts, etc. Childhood obesity is more a function of HFCS and other highly processed carbs. The food pyramid has thankfully be adjusted/abandoned.
    • Shredded carrots and hummus sandwiches are a standard. I can imagine no hummus on that.

      Fried bologne or even regular bologne isn’t that different than salty, fatty bacon, or a kind of poor quality sausages ofsome sort, amd sausage and bacon go well over pasta with a bit of butter, so balogna over pasta could work.

      Cheese and peanut butter is a new one to me, but my guess is that the cheese these kids eat in general is virtually taseteless, not some sharp cheddar or tangy goat cheese, so it probably just tasted like peanut butter over a chewey delivery mechanism.

      I would tell the kids (I mean at certain age, not sure when) that salty, sour, sweet, and bitter work in combinations to make good tastes and bad tastes, and see if they can make tasty combinations that are the best and the worst. That’s all cooking really is, along with technique, and balancing soft, crispy, and other textures. I swear to God, I didn’t get this business about balancing and combining the tastes until I was 30, cuz no one ever explained it. I just knew what I liked. Once you have this skill, cooking is a breeze. Just taste and add more salt or more sweet or more bitter or whatever.

  7. I think your kind of norms (playful experiments) are fun and harmless. I would be wary of ever fighting with a kid over food. (Parents can’t always help doing this, but I think it’s too intrusive for parents to do it.)

    Perhaps the teachers who are willing to be strict weirdos about not letting kids play with food could be framed for kids as “you will find there are many different rules people have about food. some of them are useful or smart. some of them, it’s best to just be polite about and then ignore when that person isn’t around.” in kid language? I had a couple of grown-ups do that for me when I was a kid and it REALLY helped….

    • This is how I feel about many (but not all) non-food norms as well, e.g., clothing, hair, body modification.
  8. Sort of related but years ago when my young niece and nephew lived with us, when i would make them sandwichs, i’d always cut them in odd shapes. At first they looked at me like i was weird, until they knew the answer was, of course, yes. But i would tell them since we could cut them anyway we wanted why was two half’s correct? I was trying to instil a bit of thinking outside the box and mostly aimed at them questioning all the harmful things they saw their mom do which had led them coming to live with us. It was more of a teaching metaphor but how we intact with kids and all the various messages we send do have deeper meanings.
  9. There’s certainly value in instilling healthy eating habits, in terms of nutrition and quantity (though how one does so isn’t necessarily and an easy question). There might be value in teach kids to sometimes go out of their comfort zone, in food among many other things. It’s even possible that there’s value in teaching the “you eat what’s available as part of appreciating hospitality” norm. But condemning creative choices with the options that are available, simply because they’re outside the teacher’s comfort zone? That’s a norm we don’t need.
  10. When I was a kid, I liked to eat peanut butter and bologna sandwiches. Now I won’t touch bologna; people’s tastes change (thank goodness). I don’t see how allowing children to be creative with their food could be a bad thing. People all over the world eat all sorts of things. That carrot sandwich sounds good to me.

    P.S. these posts always leave me imagining you as the guy who plays Steve on Blue’s Clues.

    • “[T]hese posts always leave me imagining you as the guy who plays Steve on Blue’s Clues.”

      Dem’s fighting words.

  11. It’s good to feed kids health foods at school, but they should be allowed to combine them however they please. If it ends up being disgusting, they’ll learn those two things don’t go together; if it’s tasty, maybe society should try it.

    School’s a restrictive enough environment as it is; let them be creative where they can.

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