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Concerns about childhood obesity have become so universal that saying, “He will outgrow it,” or, “She still has her baby fat,” no longer rings true.

Most parents have thought about how they can help prevent their children from becoming overweight, but the trouble is that empty-calorie foods are available most anytime and everywhere. About two-thirds of the nation’s adults and a third of our children are overweight or obese – double the rates of 1980. Health officials are also worried that children are eating too many of the wrong foods and beverages.

One setting where our children may be getting extra calories is school, and perhaps more often than parents think.

In the classroom, most holidays include special “treats” as part of the celebration. There’s Halloween, Christmas, Valentine’s Day and Easter. Then come 15 to 20 birthday parties each year. Well-meaning parents often send cupcakes, sweetened beverages and other sweets to school to mark the celebration. But childhood memories can also be created from music and games, from activities and human interaction.

Some teachers may still provide food rewards for good behavior, correct answers, good test scores or meeting deadlines. Others provide pastries because it is the end of the month or year, or simply because it is Friday.

Rewarding children in the classroom need not involve candy and other foods that can undermine children’s health and reinforce unhealthy eating habits.

A variety of alternative rewards for good behavior and academic performance can be used, such as stickers, pencils or “points” that can be used like coupons to have lunch with the teacher. “Social rewards,” which involve attention, praise or thanks, are often more highly valued by children than a toy or food. Simple gestures like pats on the shoulder, verbal praise (including in front of others), nods or smiles can mean a lot. These types of social rewards affirm a child’s worth as a person.

“But it’s just a little treat,” so what’s the harm in using food to rewards children?

Providing food based on performance or behavior connects food to mood and can encourage children to eat treats even when they’re not hungry, instilling lifetime habits of comforting themselves with food.

Many schools teach children how to make healthy choices and also provide an environment that fosters healthy eating. Wise teachers provide lists of recommended treats for parents to bring to the classroom, such as cheese sticks or low-fat milk, graham or whole-grain crackers, cut up fruit or vegetables, fruit smoothies, yogurt parfaits, unsweetened applesauce or fruit cups, whole-grain tortilla chips and salsa. Such classroom guidelines can be very helpful, especially when both parents and teachers are involved in helping shape a healthy school environment.

Does your school offer such guidelines? And if not, how could they?

With just a few easy changes, teachers and parents can continue celebrations for birthdays, holidays and special events with happy memories, healthy foods and fun. To request recommendations for healthy classroom celebrations and rewards, please contact your child’s teacher or e-mail pittawaym@ho.missoula,mt.us.

The Missoulian Health page features a monthly column by a member of the Healthy Start Council of the Missoula Forum for Children and Youth, a coalition that helps Missoula’s kids to be healthy and resilient. The Missoula City-County Health Department provides nutrition services through WIC and the Eat Smart Program. Mary Pittaway, nutrition services supervisor, can be reached at 258-4837 or at pittawaym@ho.missoula,mt.us.

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