We all want kids to be healthy and happy in body and mind. Sometimes, actions don’t quite meet intentions.
If you are a person who either has kids, teaches children, or hosts events for families with children in Jewish schools or synagogues- you probably offer food and/or drinks to children and families on a regular basis.
You might not realize the scope of your power of influence here.
As a parent and a professional, I often observe a dissonance between what the recommendations that data-driven experts offer to guide the ways we raise our children and what families actually choose to do with that information. The largest gap between what research suggests and what families seem to actually do that I observe probably relates to food and nutrition (with screen time and/or proper use of car seats being a close neighbor to this rank- but those are topics for a different day).
If you are in a leadership position in your Jewish school or synagogue, or talk to any decision makers in your Jewish community, please prioritize addressing the ways that you attempt to nourish kids and families in body and mind. Read these suggestions as a jumping-off point for your conversations and considerations.
It is not our job to police the choices that parents make for their children- but it IS our job, as educators and community leaders in Jewish schools and synagogues, to model healthy, inclusive, safe choices.
I know we can do a better job, collectively, in the choices we make when we offer food and host meals for children and young families- and I think it is our sacred responsibility to do so. Please consider these suggestions and share them with the other members of your community who serve this population.
1) Do NOT serve nuts.
I know we all love our Bamba and peanut butter crackers are a popular and cheap snack, but more than half of the deaths caused by allergies each year are peanut related. Talmud says that if you have saved a single life, then you have saved the world- so take this seriously.
Don’t claim to be nut-free, either- because you can’t control what a parent brings with them, so claiming to be nut free can provide a false sense of security. You might call yourself ‘nut friendly’ but you can most certainly find a local parent who deals with allergies who can help create appropriate guidelines.
2) Do NOT offer choking hazards.
Grapes, Hot Dogs, Popcorn and candy are the most frequent offenders I see, but you can google yourself a complete list and at least make more informed decisions. This grape cutter is a favorite tool of mine, if fruit platters are offered- set this up next to it with a little note about why you’ve offered it.
PS: Don’t let little kids play with balloons, either. If they pop and a piece of latex gets stuck in a child’s throat, it can be a fatal accident. I KNOW they are so much fun, but all the fun in the world doesn’t justify risking a life.
If you want to step up your game and possibly impress families:
3) Reduce sugar.
Some families serve lots and others strictly limit it- but most children in the U.S. are consuming far greater amounts than recommended, and Jewish communal institutions can make some small changes to stop contributing to the epidemic. Offer water and a water-ed down juice beverage with no added sugars. Babies should not drink juice and children 1-3 should have less than 4 ounces a day (that is a limit, not a recommendation- no juice is fine, too). Consider the options you are providing and make certain that they are not all sweet.
4) Keep booster seats/high chairs handy.
If you are ever serving food to families with young children (which happens in most Jewish schools and synagogues) invest in some seating options that will allow babies to safely sit and join their families. This is great for the grown-ups, who now don’t have to hold a baby while they are trying to eat. This is great for the kids, who can now participate in eating with the community. My favorites are this portable, adjustable high chair that also can be used as a small table/chair combo and I also like this booster seat because it can be used on the floor or a regular chair (and the tray pops off easily so it can be washed).
5) Offer accommodations, ask about food sensitivities.
Add a question to the registration form that asks about any food allergies, sensitivities or preferences, or add a note to a flyer or event page that demonstrates your willingness to accommodate. Keep some packaged snacks on hand that are gluten free, free of the top 8 allergens, and/or are designed for infants so that you can be prepared if it is discovered that a child who needs one of these things is participating in your program.
6) Let each family decide what to offer their own kids- do NOT hand other people’s (young) children food.
If you don’t know the child well- you have no idea what/why/when they can or can’t have whatever you are offering. Also avoid approaching a child and saying things like “if your mommy says its okay, you can have this candy/balloon/pony” as it only sets the caregiver up for failure.
7) Serve nutritionally balanced meals and snacks.
I know this one seems radical. The budget! The children! The tradition! I’m not arguing that we eliminate treats as we enjoy one another’s company and celebrate with Shavuot with ice cream or Chanukah with latkes or Purim with Hamentaschen cookies. Truly- I’m all in for those. But the ‘norm’ doesn’t need to be handing out candy every Shabbat or serving Pizza or Chicken nuggets for every meal. Here is a super simple guideline- offer multiple food groups, fresh fruits and vegetables, and be intentional as you plan your menu. Show parents and children that you want and can offer what is best for them by nourishing their bellies with some of the resources (thought, time, money, expertise) that you use when planning and preparing your school curriculum, parties, or prayer services.
Jewish schools and synagogues are typically designed to teach children- but we are teaching their families, too.
These are a few first steps towards developing a healthier communal norm as it relates to food. If you are looking for additional information regarding children’s nutrition, www.HealthyChildren.org is a great resource. In some communities, these might already be established- if so, great! Consider if some members of your community have other concerns or priorities that could reflect in your food offerings: foods that are GMO free, organic, sustainably sourced or minimally processed are ideal in the perspective of many families. It is a wonderful thing that in 2018, most congregations will say that they want to welcome and young children and families- but we can take steps to ensure that our actions send the same message as our lips.