A couple of weeks ago, we were sent home with a note from vegbaby’s daycare that every Friday throughout the summer, the teachers would be taking the toddlers to the ice cream truck that makes weekly stops at the facility. The cost was $1.50 and we could choose from a variety of ice cream flavors for our child.
This was of course optional and, while I can appreciate an occasional well-intentioned treat, I couldn’t help but cringe a little when I read that note. You may be surprised the my reason had little to do with our being vegan– although I won’t pretend as if my first thought wasn’t “Damnit, another snack I’m going to have to find a plant substitute for and hope he doesn’t steal the other kids’.”
My larger gripe was that the daycare had completely missed a pivotal opportunity to help instill healthy habits in the kids outside the home.
Every Friday, these kids are going to follow authority figures to an ice cream truck with their classmates. Every Friday, the kids will observe that eating this way on a weekly basis, and indulging in dairy-rich and sugar-laden foods as part of their regular day to day, is normal and therefore expected of them. Everyone else is doing it, and they’re not old enough to question much of anything, so why would they object to this yummy snack with friends?
Remember that these are barely two-year olds, who are still learning how to speak at appropriate decibel levels, not eat rocks off the ground, and are busy growing brains to fit their melon-proportioned skulls. They are still a blank slate. What on Earth are we doing conditioning them to adopt habits of the Standard American Diet before they can even say their own name or understand that snowboots are not meant to be worn in July?
A 2014 study out of Brown University concluded that children form solid, difficult-to-change habits and routines by the age of nine. However, it was focused on household habits and related responsibilities, not dietary routines. I would actually hypothesize that dietary habits and preferences form much earlier than this — within the first 1-2 years of life, as kids start to express likes and dislikes of certain flavors and textures and can ask for them by name. I can see these things forming in my own child.
This study confirms my assumption, suggesting that “prenatal and the first years of a child’s life may be the optimal window for promoting the development of healthy eating behaviours in children…experiences with food and food preferences begin in infancy and continue to develop as children transition to solid foods…if children are to learn to prefer and select healthy foods, they need early, positive, repeated experiences with those foods.”
How we set up our children to eat is how we set them up to eat as adults. Heck, vegbaby knows he likes lentil snaps (“pschnaps”) and non-dairy yogurt (“goger”) and will ask for those things by name. If I fed him cupcakes and soda all day, he’d ask for those no question – because he would develop a preference for them and think it was normal to eat those all the time. But we’ve chosen to limit our sweets to sporadic occasions, and instead surround him with a variety of healthy foods to expand his palate and set him up to eat well (and prevent obesity, chronic disease, etc.) later in life. Because we don’t feed him sugary foods often, he hasn’t developed an addiction for them. Instead? He loves oranges, strawberries, hummus, and beans. Does he like chocolate? Of course he does, he’s my offspring. But he doesn’t have it so often that he even knows what it’s called, has normalized it as a routine food in his life, or expects it on a regular basis.
I know that some will argue that the daycare doesn’t have a responsibility to instill healthy habits in kids, because this should start at home. Okay- but by implementing this simple routine into the kids’ lives, aren’t they making a pretty key impact on their development regardless? Is this not the same as normalizing frozen pizzas and chocolate chip muffins as daily a la carte lunch options in middle school? I know they don’t mean harm, but schools can certainly do better in the fight for healthy kids (as can parents).
More conversations about nutrition in early educational institutions should be happening between educators and parents, where kids do not yet have the ability to make informed decisions about their diet.
Instead of the weekly ice cream truck routine, daycares could have bowls of colorful fruit and talk about their shapes, textures and flavors. They could talk about how yummy fruit is and how good it is for growing bodies. I don’t think any parent would have a gripe about their kid eating more fruit.
Or if cost was an issue, they could do a fun Friday-only game that isn’t food-related.
I’m so proud to be raising my son as a vegan. But I’m also really proud that we are prioritizing healthy living in our household, so that he will grow up with an understanding of basic nutrition, be involved in making meals, and – most importantly – be forming healthy habits from a very young age. Even when much of the rest of the outside world works against those habits that parents work so hard to cultivate.
It is unfortunate that vegbaby will be a minority in this sense, not just being a vegan, but because of the healthy habits and food preferences he will have solidified by the time he goes to public school. He (and we) will face many obstacles, especially when it comes to handling social situations and answering questions he may get from his friends or classmates. But I know that he will eventually be equipped with the knowledge and information to feel a growing confidence in his lifestyle, and even become a role model to his peers who are interested in going vegan, too (because we know there will be many as time goes on!).
Habits do begin in the home. Kids mimic their parents or caregivers. But as we know, living in a time where convenience foods for busy lifestyles have taken priority over nutritious homemade meals, and childhood obesity has skyrocketed (kids are now to be getting a cholesterol screen between the ages of 9-11 years), the importance of helping kids adopt healthy habits outside the home is equally important today. We have to teach kids how to cope with challenges they come across outside of their home.
There was a time when dessert was saved for special events only, or when we had a little extra money to spend on something sweet. Now? We can find dessert in grab-and-go boxes in the breakfast aisle, in cans of sugary beverages with lunches followed by cookies and brownies in crinkly packaging, and after dinner with tubs of ice cream as we watch television. And apparently, at the weekly ice cream truck that serves sugarsicles to children under the age of two every Friday afternoon in our communities.
You don’t have to go vegan to help cultivate healthy habits in your kids and set them up for success later in life. Parents simply have to prioritize whatever healthy eating habits resonate best in their household – and defend them for their children, even outside the home where healthy eating is unfortunately not always the norm.
What can parents do right now?
Determine what is most important to you about your family’s diet and make it a priority everywhere. This means at home, at school, and at events outside the home. If it’s a priority to you, that means there are little to no exceptions made – even if not everyone in the world agrees with you (family and friends included).
Plan ahead, because life. Pack healthy snacks when on to go, and look at menus beforehand if traveling, so you know what options you may have to choose from. Know what substitutes may need to be requested. This cuts down on stress in the moment and can prevent last-minute straying from your values.
Maintain open communication with your kids about why your family eats a certain way and why it is so important. Kids love to learn and share knowledge with others. Give them the tools to do so, while allowing them a supportive place to come when they have questions.
Be a role model in your community and empower your kids to do the same. Simply by prioritizing healthy eating in your home, you are creating ripples in the habits and consideration of those around you, whether they are friends, family, your child’s teachers or peers. As Ghandi said, many people will first ignore you, then many will laugh at you, then they may fight you. Then, they will start asking questions because they’re interested in how they, too, can make changes in their own life.