Planning key to combating unhealthy eating for students, say Brock researchers

Rising food costs combined with busy back-to-school schedules can make eating well challenging. However, a little planning goes a long way, say Brock researchers.

Wendy Ward, Professor in the Department of Kinesiology, William Gittings, Assistant Professor in the Department of Kinesiology, and Michelle Vine, Assistant Professor in the Department of Health Sciences, agree that while elementary, secondary and post-secondary students all face slightly different barriers to eating well, good information and planning can make positive differences.

“When people are out of the house, they have far less control than when they are at home,” says Ward. “Having some planning in place, including bringing food with you and knowing what services are available and where, can help students transition back to school and campus.”

Gittings, who packs lunches for his two young children, is all too familiar with foods restrictions in classrooms, such as nuts and products containing allergens.

“As parents, we need to make sure our children are getting nutritious options even with restrictions in place,” he says. “However, food alternatives are not necessarily nutritionally equal.”

Gittings prefers whole foods as opposed to processed, opting for fruits and vegetables that contribute to hydration.

“Whole foods provide me with a way of knowing what ingredients my children are eating and controlling what is entering the classroom,” says Gittings.

According to Vine, secondary school environments pose separate challenges because once students get there, they are often limited in terms of what they can do to support healthy eating.

“Even if a parent makes their teenager’s lunch, they aren’t necessarily eating it,” says Vine, whose research looks at the relationship between health and the implementation of Ontario’s school food and beverage policy, which applies to the food for sale in schools.

Cafeterias and vending machines are a source of revenue for schools. Vine’s research found that school cafeterias aligned with the policy of providing healthy food were closing because students were not buying due to limited resources to spend on lunch. Instead, they go off school property to buy from nearby fast food or convenience stores.

“The intentions are there but schools are constrained,” says Vine. “Unless the school has a food and nutrition teacher who can work with the cafeteria in-house, the policy is having the opposite effect than what is intended.”

To make healthy food and snack choices, Ward suggests revisiting the guidance and tips promoted in Canada’s Food Guide and selecting food containers that make the most sense for each person’s lifestyle.

“Invest in some decent storage containers and cooking supplies that are going to work for you,” she says. “A simple bamboo or metal steamer, small crockpot and storage options, it doesn’t need to be expensive.”

Ward advises university students to set realistic goals for how many meals they can make at home and decide what frequency of grocery shopping makes the most sense.

“If a student can have a dedicated cook day, they can make several meals to freeze or get together with a few friends and cook up three different things and share,” she says.

Plans will need to be revised as schedules get busier. To reduce waste, Ward also suggests using perishables first before using frozen or canned items.

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