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Lessons From a Box of Goldfish (Even the Whole Grain Kind)

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I recently received an email from a parent of a Falls Church, VA preschool who was frustrated with the snacks her school was serving. They included: Goldfish, Teddy Grahams, pretzels, graham crackers, Cheerios, Chex Mix and applesauce. Fresh fruit was offered about once every two weeks and vegetables were not on the menu at all. Sound familiar? This is typical American food among the preschool set, both in and out of the classroom. In many cases, preschool teachers (and families) open bulk-size bags and put a handful (or spoonful) on each child's plate. These snacks are quick and easy, relatively cheap and generally well-liked by kids across the country. The children are happy, munching on their Goldfish, and the teachers are happy to serve an easy and quick snack to their students.

Nutrition aside, what are we teaching our children by tearing open bags of highly-processed, oftentimes nutritionally void food at snack time? Are we teaching them life skills, like a basic understanding of food preparation? Are we giving them a chance to work on their fine and gross motor skills by peeling, cutting, stirring and pouring food? Or creating real life opportunities to work on basic math and language skills?

Rather, we are teaching them that food is a commodity that doesn't take time to prepare. In fact, we are teaching them that it's not important enough to spend time preparing. It's available regardless of season and doesn't require any care or attention -- just throw it in a closet and keep it till you are ready to eat it. We are teaching them that caring for and fueling our bodies doesn't require much planning or work; instead, we are teaching them to just keep their bellies full, regardless of what they eat or how they fill up.

We are raising a generation of children who can use their parents' iPhones but not peel a carrot. And who prefer to quickly squeeze applesauce into their mouths through a pouch versus actually biting into and chewing a crisp apple. Food, which should activate and excite all of the senses, has become as flat and one dimensional as a pretzel. We have set the bar so low for children that we aren't even surprised when they only eat plain pasta with butter or defrosted nuggets, day after day.

What if our preschools instead made cooking education an organic part of the curriculum, like they teach colors and letters? And our children helped make their own snacks, not just eat whatever was served to them? Children could help decide what snacks to make (and learn how to negotiate and take turns), prepare the snacks themselves (and learn how to follow a recipe, measure and count ingredients and practice their gross and fine motor skills) and eat together (and learn how to serve themselves, judge their own hunger levels and share with their friends).

Instead of the standard fare, children could make simple dishes with minimal equipment and widely available, affordable ingredients. (Check out this recent report from the Center for Science in the Public Interest that dispels the myth that fruit and vegetables are more expensive than other snacks). That said, preschool teachers will need more support in the classroom. It takes more time and requires a person devoted to the task to cut up a cucumber, versus open a bag of pretzels. But, if we think about food preparation as an educational and integral part of a preschool curriculum, where children are involved in the process, it becomes less of a burdensome task, and more an organic part of the day.

Families too could learn from this basic cooking education. Many families may lack the skills to move from Goldfish to real fish. Preschools act as partners in toilet training and socializing our children. Supporting and encouraging families to do some basic cooking, and finding ways for children to help with meal time preparation, can result in changes at the kitchen table, as well.

Here are a few simple snack suggestions to make in the classroom and home:

- Homemade hummus dip, made with garbanzo beans, lemon, olive oil and salt, served with cut up carrots, cucumber, peppers or other raw veggies.

- Yogurt dip, made with plain yogurt, cinnamon and applesauce, for slices of fruit, or as a topping for a fruit salad, which they could prepare in the class.

- Smoothies made with fresh or frozen fruit and leafy greens. Yogurt or milk are optional.

Ultimately, we'd teach our children that food is not fast. Rather, good food that fuels and nourishes takes a bit more time but, like most things, it's time well spent. We'd give them increased opportunities to interact and taste real food, which research confirms is a key method to encouraging children to eat more fruits and vegetables. And we'd prepare them for life with basic cooking skills that set them up to make smart decisions for their future.

Visit First Bites and join the First Bites community on Facebook and Twitter for more information about kids' health habits, nutrition and preschool programs.

Teachers can also visit The Hub to find resources that support healthy snacks, beverages and ideas for promoting physical activity.