Pigs & Plates: A Lesson in Health for Kids
My children keep coming home with paper-plate collages.
I know this sounds like “Wednesday” in the home of anyone with a kid under the age of eight. Plate collages, macaroni necklaces, and toilet-roll animals are the hallmarks of a satisfyingly artistic early childhood education, after all. (And figuring out which ones to keep, and which to sneak into the trash after bedtime while mentally preparing for the moment you’ll have to say “I’m not sure where your Play-Doh monster snowbeast ended up, honey,” is a parenting skill for which no child-rearing book has adequately prepared any of us.) But I’m talking about a particular type of paper-plate collage, the “Healthy Plate” model.
My boys, now seasoned household goods artists after six and three years of life, respectively, have been bringing me home Healthy Plate collages since the oldest made his first (featuring, if I recall correctly, beautiful glossy magazine images of food items he had no intention of ever, ever, EVER allowing to pass his lips), about three years ago now. This is part of nutrition education in preschool and Kindergarten, and I’m okay with it, but when I ask my sons about what it represents they appear to be kind of fuzzy on the details.
“Why are there different sections?” I ask the three-year-old.
“Umm…” He sucks on his teeth, my least favorite of his new habits. “I fink because I could only put dat many pictures dere.”
“So what does this show us?” I ask the six-year-old, a child with such good recall of information that he can recite every minor fact about the Beatles, including their wives’ names and hair colors, and he knows Dean Martin’s birthday as well as his own.
“It…” he pauses and fidgets. “It shows you how to eat healthy.”
“How does it do that?”
“Because these are healthy foods you can eat. Like, they’re ‘EAT MORE’ foods.” He has filled his plate with many things that do, indeed, fall into that category – but the chicken leg is fried, the bread looks like Wonder Bread, and the milk is chocolate.
Following on the appearance of the plate collages, I’ve noticed a trend in the kids’ conversations. There are arguments such as:
“You shouldn’t eat cookies, wight? ‘Cuz dey are tweat food, wight?”
“Well, yeah, but SOME cookies are okay, because SOME cookies have GOOD GRAINS.”
“Muffins are good for you because they are part of the GRAINS GROUP. Those are EAT MORE foods.”
“Juice was on my heawfy pwate where da fwoot goes, Mom.”
On and on it goes. We talk, simply and often, about food and the way food affects our bodies. We don’t ever talk about “food groups” or the government’s pyramid/plate/trapezoid/infographic/tree of life/whatever of the moment. But obviously, the way we talk about food and the way other people talk about food is not the same.
I tried to help clear up the confusion as much as I could, whenever I heard it happening, but I realized that the more confused the kids got, the worse my answers made it. (“Well, uh, SOME muffins are okay, but really, I mean, what kind of muffin do you mean? Because I think muffins are kind of a sometimes food…Do you want to watch Harry Potter?”)
I needed to get back to basics. I needed a way to remind the kids that food isn’t a bunch of isolated, classified, labeled items that you eat in x proportion to achieve y result. It’s a part of us. In our house, it’s not just fuel – it’s what I’m using to BUILD these children. It’s brick and mortar for their DNA.
“Let me tell you guys something,” I said, after dinner one night. “You know how Mommy and Daddy always say our number one job is to keep you healthy and safe? And we tell you that the food we serve you at home and the food we put in your lunchboxes is part of keeping you healthy? Well, food builds your body. And it builds you either strong, or weak. It’s like when the Three Little Pigs were building their houses. Remember that?”
The pigs bit got their attention. “Wike da bwick house and da stwaw house and da stick house?” asked my wide-eyed three-year-old.
“Yes.” I plunged ahead. “Some foods are like bricks. They build you up nice and strong, and when the Big Bad Wolf comes to try to knock you down –“
“The wolf is bad guys and bullies,” my six-year-old interrupted.
“It COULD be,” I said. “But it’s also germs and colds and sicknesses. When there are cold germs everywhere, they’re like the Big Bad Wolf trying to blow you down. And if you’re made of bricks, you can stand up better than if you’re made of straw or of sticks.”
The kindergartener stared at his plate. “Chicken’s a brick house food,” he said. “And quinoa. And salad.”
“Yes,” I said. “Those are all brick house foods.”
“And bananas?” asked his quinoa-averse brother.
“I get it,” said the six-year-old. “And other stuff that you and Daddy don’t like us to have as much of, all those things are straw house or stick house food.”
“Right. And can you build a strong house with straws or sticks?”
“Nooooo,” they chorused obediently, shaking their heads.
“Acuz da wolf will come and knock you down!” cried the three-year-old, demonstrating with panache.
“Right,” I said.
Ever since then, the debates over “healthier” cookies and “good grains” have ended. The boys have enthusiastically taken to evaluating things on the Straw-Stick-Brick scale. If they’ve eaten their dinners, they’ll say,“We’re full of brick house food now, Mom!” Angling for dessert has become, “Since we’re so strong and built with bricks, can we have just a little straw house food?” And the moment of revelation over Annie’s Cheddar Bunnies, a rarely seen item in our house: “Oh, those are probably STICK house food, right? We can have some of them sometimes, but not too many all the time?”
In the weeks since developing the Three Little Pigs scale, I’ve seen their practical understanding of concepts like proportion and variety increase. They’re willingly and knowingly making better choices. I’ve been forced to recall, watching events unfold, that children don’t respond to complicated rules and exceptions and qualifiers any better than most adults do – what they want is information they can USE, information that’s presented in a way that’s vivid and empowering. They want us to include them in the conversation, but in a way that speaks to their imaginations and experiences. And honestly, the next time some grown person asks me about my philosophy of feeding children, I may just give them the Three Little Pigs spiel, too. There’s no need to complicate the matter, after all. We’re just building children.
How do you discuss nutrition and healthy eating with your kids?
Photo Credit: etsy
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