I love synagogue and I love snacking- and so do our kids. The ways that our communities present food can speak volumes about their level of sensitivity to the needs and wants of families with young children. As a Jewish parent and a professional, I often observe a dissonance between what the recommendations that data-driven experts offer to guide the ways we raise our children and what families actually choose to do with that information. The largest gap between what research suggests and what families seem to actually do that I observe probably relates to food and nutrition (with screen time beings a close neighbor to this rank). It is not our job to police the choices that parents make for their children- but it IS our job, as educators and community leaders, to model healthy, inclusive, safe choices and I think we can do a better job, collectively, in the choices we make when we offer food and host meals for children and young families. Please consider these five suggestions and share them with the other members of your community who serve this population.
DO NOT SERVE NUTS
I know we all love our Bamba and peanut butter crackers are a popular and cheap snack, but more than half of the deaths caused by allergies each year are peanut related. Talmud says that if you have saved a single life, then you have saved the world- so take this seriously.
Don’t claim to be nut-free, either- because you can’t control what a parent brings with them, so claiming to be nut free can provide a false sense of security. You might call yourself ‘nut friendly’ but you can most certainly find a local parent who deals with allergies who can help create appropriate guidelines.
DO NOT OFFER CHOKING HAZARDS
Grapes, Hot Dogs, Popcorn and candy are the most frequent offenders I see, but you can google yourself a complete list and at least make more informed decisions.
PS: Don’t let little kids play with balloons, either. If they pop and a piece of latex gets stuck in a child’s throat, it can be a fatal accident. I KNOW they are so much fun, but all the fun in the world doesn’t justify risking a life.
If you want to step up your game and possibly impress families:
Some families serve lots and others strictly limit it- but most children in the U.S. are consuming far greater amounts than recommended, and Jewish communal institutions can make some small changes to stop contributing to the epidemic. Offer water and a water-ed down juice beverage with no added sugars. Babies should not drink juice and children 1-3 should have less than 4 ounces a day (that is a limit, not a recommendation- no juice is fine, too). Consider the options you are providing and make certain that they are not all sweet.
KEEP BOOSTER SEATS/HIGH CHAIRS HANDY.
If you are ever serving food to families with young children, invest in some seating options that will allow babies to safely sit and join their families. This is great for the grown-ups, who now don’t have to hold a baby while they are trying to eat. This is great for the kids, who can now participate in eating with the community.
Add a question to the registration form that asks about any food allergies, sensitivities or preferences, or add a note to a flyer or event page that demonstrates your willingness to accommodate. Keep some packaged snacks on hand that are gluten free, free of the top 8 allergens, and/or are designed for infants so that you can be prepared if it is discovered that a child who needs one of these things is participating in your program.
These are the first steps towards developing a healthier communal norm as it relates to food. If you are looking for additional information regarding children’s nutrition, www.HealthyChildren.org is a great resource. In some communities, these might already be established- if so, great! Consider if some members of your community have other concerns or priorities that could reflect in your food offerings: foods that are GMO free, organic, sustainably sourced or minimally processed are ideal in the perspective of many families. It is a wonderful thing that in 2018, most congregations will say that they want to welcome and young children and families- but we can take steps to ensure that our actions send the same message as our lips.