Yes, we all remember the old-fashioned rhyme, which gives the answer, “sugar and spice and all things nice”. And I’m not planning to get into gender debates here about the merits or otherwise of spice versus puppy dog tails. Simply ponder whether we practice what we preach in Guiding when it comes to food – both the food which we serve, and the food which we teach the girls to make in our food activity sessions. Should the girls be made of sugar and spice? Or are too many of those ‘all things nice’ the very ones which we know are not good for them to have?
Yes, I’m happy to accept that our meetings are only 90 minutes a week. And our catered camps/holidays and outings are only a few weekends a year. So I agree that what we do has a limited impact on their health in comparison to what happens at home or at school. And we’ve all heard about “a little of what you fancy does you good”, “all work and no play” and all those old sayings which are usually wheeled out at this point to claim that we needn’t worry a jot how many treats we give out or how often we give them, whether our last three cooking sessions were all ‘cake & candy’ ones which involved a lot of sugar, butter and oil, or whether sweets and sugary drinks were used as all of the prizes and most of the refreshments at the last couple of parties we ran. Nevertheless – Guiding as a movement claims to promote healthy lifestyles. We have our Healthy Heart and our Agility badges, our Outdoor Pursuits and our Independent Living and our Sport. We encourage the girls to do as many outdoor activities as we can muster and appreciate nature, exercise and fitness, and the healthy out-of-doors. We teach them the first aid and the survival skills in order that they can look after themselves. And yet . . . do our deeds match all this fine talk? Are we really talking about ‘treat food’ which fits the definition of ‘treat’ – a very occasional one-off as part of an otherwise healthy balanced diet - or if we are being honest with ourselves, is it actually ‘treats’ we provide most if not all of the time, and are we actually providing the prime example of a rather unbalanced and somewhat unhealthy diet?
Problem is, when we do ‘cooking’ activities with the unit, all too often, the results are food which is very sugary, or fatty - or both. Often for 'cooking' we can read 'making cake & candy' - whereas cooking savoury food is much rarer, and fresh vegetables almost never appear. And when it comes to menus for camps and holidays there does tend to be a lot of bread, rice and pasta, which is reasonable and sustaining - but also a lot of fried or fatty food which does not have much merit nutritionally. As I look at my last outdoor camp menu, it was tinned soup (which contains sugar) and cheeseburger rolls for dinner (burgers fried not grilled, with processed cheese slices). Hot choc and biscuits for supper (more sugar). Breakfast was sugar-laden cereal and bacon rolls for breakfast (fry again), with diluting juice and fresh fruit for elevenses (more sugar). Lunch was a buffet, so salad vegetables were available then – but some girls may have filled their wrap with ham and cheese rather than adding much lettuce, cucumber or tomato (sugar) to it, and a packet of crisps each was provided (so fry again), and a piece of fruit (sugar). Most of the girls probably only brushed teeth morning and night, not also at elevenses, lunch or after evening meal. Where camp and holiday menus include ‘fruit & veg’ it tends to be mainly fruit, which contains natural sugars – veg is rarer, and under that category we do tend to mean sweet tomatoes, sweet carrot sticks, tinned sweetcorn in sweetened water, or beans/spaghetti in sweetened tomato sauce. We tend to serve diluting juice rather than water at mealtimes too. And if there is a party, then it’s often automatically fizzy juice, crisps, biscuits, sweets, mini sausages or sausage rolls, pizza bites, with perhaps an iced cake too - healthy options are rarely or never offered to the girls at parties.
Yet on the other hand, there are the “childsmile” campaigns about child dental health, the “daily mile” campaign to increase exercise, and the “lunchbox” campaign to encourage healthy snacks, to name but three of the many national health initiatives aimed at children in the age groups we deal with, all intended to tackle the increase in childhood obesity and in dental decay. Plus there is the question of parental wishes – many of the parents in my area are trying to manage the levels of fat and sugar in their child’s diet, and I doubt that’s unique to my town. Should we not be supporting and assisting parents in this positive action, rather than potentially undermining them when the children are in our charge and out of their sight?
It isn’t to say we can ‘never’ give sweets to the girls, or ‘never’ serve fruit juice or carrot sticks without arranging a tooth brushing session immediately after. Of course these and other treat options can have their place occasionally amidst an otherwise healthy diet. But it is that ‘occasional’ and ‘amidst an otherwise healthy diet’ part that counts. So where should we target? First up is tuck shops at unit meetings. Whilst they can be a useful fundraiser, should we have them every week, or even every month? Are there always healthy options amongst what we offer, or is it sugar or nothing? Some units have a snack break every week during their meetings – again, are the children actually hungry and in need of food at that time – and if so, are healthy food options provided, and does tooth brushing follow? Or is it sugary juice and sweet biscuits with no tooth care afterwards?
Next we could think about our cookery activities – do we alternate sweet with savoury, fried with simmered, roasted with grilled – or could we? You can do a lot to teach the girls how to prepare and peel vegetables, and can arrange plates of salad to make them look really attractive - the girls could easily learn to peel veg, and make healthy dips. Pasta can be served with a tomato-based sauce with fresh vegetables through it rather than with a cheese sauce. Lots of healthy stir-fry dishes can be made in the space of a unit meeting time as easily (or easier) than cakes can. Teaching them how to make main meals as well as snacks/treats are useful life lessons anyway, with all the age groups – it’s never too early for the girls to learn how to prepare simple meals, with an eye to the day when they have to cook meals for themselves.
As part of our balanced programme, can we also adopt a healthy lifestyles aim and balance in the food we serve and the food activities we do all the time, not just when we’re doing a health-themed badge? Avoiding “Don’t do as I do, do as I say”?