Where Can I Get a Chicken Nugget?

by Drew Heyding on February 23, 2012

When my wife first met me, she quickly pointed out that barbecue potato chips and hot pockets probably shouldn’t be dietary staples. How, she asked, could I go to work every day and counsel patients on health eating without feeling like fraud? I’ve made great strides over the last few years at making better food choices. I would never claim to have an ideal diet, but it’s much better than it was.

Centers for Disease Control

These days I also have to pay attention to what my kids are eating. My daughter in particular is partial to some less than nutritious foods like chicken nuggets. I’m not sure what it is about those things, but she can’t get enough of them (like most of the world’s toddler population apparently).

With healthy eating in mind, my wife and I paid attention to menus when we started looking for a daycare last summer. Food options weren’t the only (or even the main) factor we considered. Still it would have been hard to ignore some of the less desirable menus. One daycare we visited, for instance, had a standing weekly menu that included the ever popular chicken nuggets along with macaroni and cheese. On the day of our visit lunch was arriving – in the form of a stack of take out pizzas.

Given the increasing rates of obesity among children and adolescents, emphasizing nutritious food options in school settings has been an important area of research and policy focus. A recent headline in the New York Times suggests that the efforts may be misdirected. Maybe chicken nuggets at daycare aren’t so bad.

The Times headline “No Obesity Link to Junk Food in Schools” highlights the conclusions of a study published last summer in the journal Sociology of Education. The study tried to find evidence of a relationship between access to junk foods like soft drinks, candy bars and potato chips at school and obesity (as measured by body mass index). Based on the data analysis, the authors concluded that kids in schools where junk food was readily available did not have more weight gain overall between fifth and eighth grade than kids in schools without junk foods.

Several factors could explain these results. Prior studies that had shown a link between junk food and weight had small samples and were cross-sectional, meaning they only looked at one point in time and compared junk food availability in a school to student weights in a school. This recent study is larger (around 11,000 kids were included), and it is longitudinal. By looking at data over several years, the authors suggest they were better able to assess for a possible cause and effect link between junk food and weight gain.

Why didn’t the study find evidence of a link? The authors point out that calories from junk food consumed at school may replace and not supplement calories eaten outside of school. Also, since the students were in middle school, another contributing factor may have been the structured class schedule that limited time available to purchase and consume junk food.

Probably most importantly, the authors note that there are so many opportunities for kids to eat unhealthy foods at home and in their community that junk food at school just isn’t as important in the scheme of things.

Now this study looked at middle school students, so we may not be able to apply the conclusions to other age groups.  Also it looks at the impact of “competitive” food, meaning food that is available for purchase to kids that is not included in the regular school food menu (these menus must meet certain nutrition guidelines set out by the U.S. Department of Agriculture).

So clearly the study is not directly relevant to my daycare lunch menu situation. What I did take away is another point brought up by the authors to help explain their findings. They emphasize that from a developmental perspective, weight trajectories are already firmly established by the time kids reach middle school. Early childhood is really the time when dietary habits are beginning to form. So even if my daughter just wants to eat chicken nuggets, at least I can make sure she’s got other options when she gets to daycare everyday.


Ginny Kendall February 23, 2012 at 11:14 am

I think the last paragraph of your well-written post sums it up nicely. Children’s food preferences develop long before middle school or even elementary school. As a former teacher, both elementary and preschool, I know about the early establishment of children’s tastes. Something to keep in mind, though, is that those tastes do change as the children grow. If a parent says “my child doesn’t like carrots” and never again offers carrots to eat, they are missing an opportunity. An important study might be conducted over a period of, say 5 years, from toddler to second or third grade to determine exactly which factors are most influential in shaping children’s food tastes. (Advertising would have to be included). Those are the years when parents and school have the greatest influence on what children eat, and when food preferences are being established.

Rosa M. February 23, 2012 at 11:20 am

As someone who grew up in a small town in Spain, I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to instill healthy dietary habits in kids from an early age. Soda in my house would be a once a month occurrence, I did not even try a hamburger until i was 13. Both my siblings and I were raised on a diet full of vegetables, fish, fruit, meat and dairy raise and grown within a 50 miles radius. Of course when were kids and were having the same vegetable for the third day on a row (generous neighbors would constantly stop by with whatever they were growing at the time) we could complain about it constantly. But I believe that was the main reason my siblings and I have continued having a healthy diet and making conscious options as to what we eat. I remember the first time I came to the USA, how startled I was about how many obese people I saw, my concept of a fat person completely changed. Eating junk food during middle school or not being relevant to obesity in this country, I believe as with everything related to educating children, its a cumulative effect. Multiplying the places where reinforcing nutritious choices on them, the healthier they will grow up as adults. Not will this decrease the obesity level in this country, it will help contain the ever increasing costs of health care.

Drew Heyding February 28, 2012 at 10:40 am

This study is only interested in weight gain over a specific period of time. As you point out, it’s interesting to think about the role of junk food in school vending machines as reinforcement of a wider acceptance of the place of processed foods in our daily lives.

Paula Johnson February 23, 2012 at 1:57 pm

Good, concise, easy to read post. Interesting and important topic too. I was interested to hear at the very end of your post, what exactly you will do to “make sure she’s got other options when she gets to daycare everyday.” I could assume you meant to choose a daycare with a better menu, but maybe you meant to bring your own lunches, or something else.
This topic hits home for me too. My son attends the UM daycare system, which you would think, would have great menu options (especially because they are so great with their quality of care, they are very linked in to the U. in terms of research and teaching, and they are very expensive!). However, I was appalled at their options. Granted, I am on the pickier end of the nutrition spectrum, but feeding snacks laden with refined sugar and hydrogenated fats to even the infants is just wrong. We are moving out of state soon, but if I were to stay, I might try to help remedy this situation. Maybe someone else who reads this will decide to act. Or maybe that’s what’s wrong with our situation…we want someone else to take care of it. (By the way, we brought our own snacks to daycare.)

Drew Heyding February 28, 2012 at 10:24 am

It’s a challenge when a day care is providing one kind of snack and then a parent is trying to stick to healthier snacks at home. (Since one of the usual tips parents hear about toddlers is “always be consistent”.) That’s great you can bring in your own snacks to daycare. We get around my daughter’s passion for chicken nuggets by given her my wife’s homemade version.

Angela February 27, 2012 at 9:29 pm

Take out pizzas in daycare – wow! Definitely shocking. Was surprised that nutrition value and health did not feature in the study as much as pure weight gain. Strongly believe that regular junk food intake messes up your body (and brain) long term, and not only in visible ways.

Drew Heyding February 28, 2012 at 10:18 am

Great point about offering foods more than once. My daughter will sometimes surprise us and eat something all of sudden that she’s wanted nothing to do with for a long time.

And I agree that research on food preferences in young children can benefit from considering the role of media. Some jurisdictions have also paid attention to the role of marketing and fast food in the form of happy meal toys. Santa Clara county passed legislation that prohibited the practice of distributing toys with nutritiously unsound food. A recent study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine shows that the ordinance has had some positive effects.

Aniketa Shinde February 28, 2012 at 10:25 am

Interesting post. I’m not in any place to be day-care shopping, but food choices would not be something I would have thought about being concerned about. It makes perfect sense though. If it is known that weight trajectories are established before middle school, what was the main reason for this study or why were middle school students chosen in the first place?

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