At Community Nursery School in Lexington, 3- and 4-year-olds cracked raw eggs into cups. They also cut up chunks of red pepper with plastic knives and bathed kale in olive oil before mixing the leaves into a salad. As they gathered around a griddle while their teacher poured the eggs into holes they had cut into bread, they listened to the sizzle, smelled the aromas, and watched their food cook.
In Lawrence, fifth- and sixth-graders from Guilmette Middle School attend a weekly cooking class at the Boys & Girls Club, where they learn to make orange oatmeal pancakes, Monster Smoothies, and other healthy recipes easily repeated at home.
On Opening Day at Fenway Park, the cafeteria at Plymouth River Elementary School in Hingham served corn dogs, onion rings, corn on the cob, and Hoodsies while classroom teachers talked about teamwork and always doing your best.
“We have a consistent message: It’s all right to have a treat, but you need balance,” said Kimberly Smyth, food service director for Hingham’s public schools.
Smyth’s mission is to encourage kids to eat more fruits and vegetables. Students who buy a school lunch can return to the line for seconds on both, at no extra charge. She’s also constantly switching up menus to provide a variety of whole foods every day.
“It’s not too late any point to make healthy changes,” she said. “The kids in elementary school get the fundamentals. At the high school, we’re reminding them.”
Research on nutrition has influenced what comes out of the kitchens. When Smyth was growing up, you could fill your tray on the school lunch line with fries and ice cream sandwiches, which she did.
Today, there’s an emphasis on unprocessed foods. Cooks have eased up on the sugar and salt.
“It’s personal. I was the fat kid,” said Smyth, who makes sure the school cafeteria offers apples, bananas, Craisins (dried cranberries), bagged carrots, and plenty of other fruits and vegetables.
Eventually, children will try new foods. But she advises parents not to rush the process.
“My biggest advice is ‘Don’t give up.’ You have to present a new item to a child at least 15 to 20 times before they are ready to accept it.”
If school and home were the only influences, healthy eating would be as easy as pie. But advertising, peer pressure, and public policies conspire against children’s health, as do busy family schedules, ubiquitous fast food restaurants, and the shrinking number of families who sit down to a meal together every day.
Research shows that children from low-income communities are more vulnerable to poor nutrition and its effects. But the rarity of family meals across the socioeconomic divide may be just as damaging.
In Lexington, for example, where the median household income was $152,872 in 2016, children are as unlikely to have a sit-down meal with their family as those in Lawrence, where the median household income was $36,754 the same year.
“Everything is so fast. People eat in their car,” said Lori Deliso, cofounder and owner of Lexington-based Kids Cooking Green, which runs an after-school program at the Community Nursery School. “There are no sit-down dinners where people can appreciate being together as a family.”
Maria Natera, Healthy Living program manager for Groundwork Lawrence, a nonprofit dedicated to improving community health, said some working parents mistakenly believe that if they provide their children with food, clothing, and shelter, that’s enough.
“We live so busy we forget to see the little things,” said Natera, who urges parents in her community to skip McDonald’s, let their kids help in the kitchen, and sit down together for a family meal.
“Take time for the kids. If not every day, then once a week have a family dinner,” she said.
In the cooking classes Natera teaches at the Boys and Girls Club of Lawrence, she tells middle schoolers, “We are sweet enough. We don’t need sugar.”
Then she shows the fifth and six graders how to make a healthy soda with sparkling water and a bit of 100 percent fruit juice, helps them follow a recipe for orange oatmeal pancakes, and introduces them to other recipes they can prepare at home.
“A lot of families don’t know they can buy healthy food on a budget,” Natera said. “People don’t even try. They just assume kids won’t eat it.”
Lawrence sixth grader Katherine Solis said learning to cook has changed her eating habits. Occasionally, she indulges a craving for junk food with a small bag of chips. But she’s more likely to make a healthier choice.
“My mindset is different,” says the 12-year-old who wants to be a doctor when she grows up. “If I have a choice between pizza and fruit and vegetables, I take the fruit and vegetables instead.”
But getting kids to eat healthy requires a concerted effort.
“We need a national strategy,” said Christina Economos, professor at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University. “It’s not just parents and children making particular choices. It’s also the environment, what our society values.”
Changing what kids eat is complicated, added Haylee Dussault, a graduate student in public health at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, who has been working as student nutrition coordinator for the Waltham School District this year and ticks off a list of challenges to children’s health that includes “commercials on TV, excitement about fast food, and a lack of outdoor play.”
Still, there are strategies to move families forward.
“Evaluate your behavior. Kids are watching everything,” said Economos, the Tufts professor. “There’s room for discretionary calories, to have something pleasurable like ice cream or cake. But if you don’t bring home large amounts of food, you won’t consume them. . . . If your house is 50-50 [healthful and junk], that’s what will be consumed.”
In Lexington, registered dietitian Liz Weiss urges parents to get their kids involved.
“Take kids grocery shopping and don’t let them hold the cellphone to distract them,” said Weiss, who works with Kids Cooking Green.
“Use the whole supermarket. Frozen, canned, dry, fresh, organic, or conventionally grown. Eat more fruits and vegetables. Think color. Introduce a variety. . . .”
But don’t expect overnight success. Like learning to read and write or ride a bike, healthy eating is a process that takes time.
“When kids get involved in the cooking, they’re not necessarily going to try it the first time,” said Weiss, an advocate of family-style meals. “But be patient.”