When schools began serving more fruits, vegetables and whole grains in meals as part of improved national nutritional standards last year, some critics argued that the effort was futile. You can serve kids all the veggies in the world, but it doesn’t mean youngsters will actually eat them, the critics said.
Dr. Jane Pentz knows better. Children will eat their vegetables, she says — but children also need to understand that the responsibility to eat healthy rests with them.
The PreventObesity.net Leader and nutrition educator is the founder of the American Academy of Sports Dietitians and Nutritionists, a nonprofit group working to reduce childhood obesity rates. The organization’s National School Lunch Awareness Initiative has helped more than 3,000 students across the country make healthier meal choices through the use of placemats that help kids track what they eat.
Titled “My Health is My Responsibility,” the placemats guides kids to eat nutritious food by awarding them with gold stars when they make positive choices. For example, kids earn five stars for eating fresh fruits and vegetables, three for eating canned produce and zero for french fries.
There are three types of placemats, allowing schools to help kids “Shoot for 20 Stars” at a single meal, track fruits and vegetable intake over five days or track all five food groups and snacks. Motivated to earn gold stars, the kids try out new, healthy food — and hopefully pick up a few healthy habits in the process.
The program kicked off on a single day in November. “It worked out well, and we had kind of anecdotal data suggesting the kids were eating more fruits and vegetables to obtain their gold stars,” Pentz says.
Following up on that success, Pentz worked with researchers at the University of South Florida bring the placemats to second-graders at a local elementary school. Over five days in March, children used the placemats to document their daily fruits and vegetable intake, with researchers monitoring the kids to see if the mats inspired changes in eating habits. Researchers plan to conduct similar research this May.
“I try to concentrate on the positive,” Pentz says of the program. “Working with the second-graders and seeing the smiles on their faces when they get a gold star, it’s very exciting.”
Pentz says she was inspired to create the placemat program after releasing her novel No: Book One of the 8th Day Series, a tween-targeted mystery designed to get young people thinking about the food they eat. Throughout the book, the characters work to improve the nutritional quality of their school lunches.
After the book received a positive response, Pentz began looking at ways to educate real-life students about the food they consume. Around the same time, the U.S. Department of Agriculture was implementing improved nutritional standards for school meals, providing a perfect opportunity for Pentz and her team to help. With the program showing early signs of success, Pentz is now hoping to find grants for schools to implement the program.
“My dream is to expand it to other schools,” she adds. “I would be so excited to see that students are eating more fruits and vegetables.”
Pentz’s efforts aren’t just limited to second-graders. She also introduced the placemats to neighbors living in her retirement community.
“They’re coming back, just like the kids, saying, ‘We’re eating more fruits and veggies,’” Pentz says.