Building Lifelong Healthy Relationships with Food and Food Systems

A picture of bowls of fresh produce, including tomatoes and squash
A picture of bowls of fresh produce, including tomatoes and squash
Some of our delicious garden bounty shared with the Treehouse Learning Community!

What’s Growing This Week?

This week at Big Circle we’ve focused on the foods that have been grown near or around us. (The vegetable-related puns we weave into our Big Circle Singing experience just can’t be beet…. From my head down tomatoes, lettuce peas keep on celebrating and singing about the delicious food that grows from the ground!)

The garden bounty “Community Share Basket” in the front lobby includes trays of tomatoes and an assortment of squash and corn grown in the garden of the May Family (about a mile away). The tomatoes are a variety that will ripen and turn red in a few days, and are especially delicious as a pasta sauce! (We recommend sauteeing garlic and onion in olive oil, and then cooking down these tomatoes, along with handfuls of fresh herbs, salt, and a can of tomato paste for a super-simple pasta sauce). 

Of course, the most impressive garden gift at the moment is the volunteer pumpkin peeking out of an innocuous juniper bush along our upper parking, a sovereign plant that emerged after placing community members’ Halloween pumpkins around our property!

Telling the Story of the Food We Eat

Our mealtime experiences at Treehouse Learning begin at Big Circle, where children watch the day’s lunch begun by our dedicated professional chef (who cooks and sings all morning long!), and in the gardens on and nearby our property that grow vegetables, herbs, fruits, flowers and all sorts of delicious pollinator food we also love to sing about! As we tell the story of the tomato, the butternut squash before it ends up served to children in a bisque, a surprise pumpkin peeking out of a bush, or singing about the 12 recent trees planted during our Tree Planting Party (including two apple trees), we are connecting to the story of our food through music, movement, and the arts, creatively building resilience and imagination.

We’re also telling the story of the water that flows around us, as a living ecosystem at the base of glaciers that make up the headwaters of the entire eastbound watershed. Children learn that everywhere water flows, lots and lots of trees, plants, food, and life can grow! Because Water is Life! We also sing about the worm and the soil, including how a living system relies on the contributions of everyone in the community. Even the worm has a job to do, and every single one of us has a contribution to make to the entire living system, or community, too!

What does a Healthy Food System look like?

From the worm in the soil to the sunshine and water, we connect to our food because that is good for our bodies and our whole planet. Healthy soil grows healthy food! Our bodies are also healthy when our diets include plenty of real food that grows locally and seasonally, in healthy soil without the use of pesticides, chemicals, or artificial ingredients, and food that is minimally processed.

Real foods come from the garden to our kitchen to our tables, not modified into processed edible substances, packaged in disposable packaging in a factory and shipped all over an entire continent to be distributed in stores in exchange for money. At a recent Corn Festival at Harvest of All First Nations, an Indigenous Community Leader reminded us that we actually shouldn’t have to pay for food, because it grows from the earth for free. Especially when we grow the foods that are adapted and suited for the climate in which we live! Resilient food systems are built around land-based knowledge (stewarded through traditional, land-based food, culture, and cooking relationships) and a healthy integration with the whole planet, and all of the complex living systems that we’re a part of. Well-being for a whole person and a whole planet considers the microbiome in the soil as well as the microbiome in our guts!

A resilient food system also cares for the workers and those most connected by the land. When Indigenous communities are displaced from land by corporations or colonizing governments, there is disconnection. Our values at Treehouse Learning around real food, and locally-based food systems, are also concerned with the conditions that farm workers and food-production factory workers endure in order to provide the food we eat, including the temperature, wages, pesticide exposure, employment conditions based on immigration status or age (including workers who are children), sexual harassment or other forms of exploitation including trafficking, physical safety, and more. Local food systems help ensure sustainability at every level of the system.

A Thriving Food System Benefits Everyone

children benefit from the relationship we have with our food here at Treehouse Learning. As a community, we connect to Ms. Mary cooking squash or tomatoes in the kitchen, blended together with the smells of onions and other ingredients, using our five senses. Ideal learning experiences involve all of our senses and occur within the context of relationships. Our food program is also about building relationships, like the daily ritual of fist-bumping, waving, and greeting between children and Ms. Ari delivering afternoon snacks! We recognize the critical importance of building a relationship with food, where our food comes from, the land around us, and the people who are involved with our food systems.

Listening and Learning: Treehouse Learning Food Program

Over the past several weeks, we’ve been conducting extensive learning and listening opportunities related to observations and attitudes around our Treehouse Learning food program and how we can continue to improve it. We’re seeking to model a Growth Mindset from the bottom up, so we continue to listen, learn and grow. We’ve heard extensive feedback from teachers across the program across all classrooms. We’ve held conversations with our Kitchen staff, including learning the details related to the process of food planning, ordering, delivery, storage, and distribution. We’ve heard from parents, including parents of children who have particular feeding needs.

We’ve heard from OTs and other childhood professionals related to food observations, including a private therapist working on behalf of individual clients as well as Treehouse Learning partner, speech and language pathologist, and Early Intervention Specialist, Mandy Sangha, who has been sharing mealtimes with all classrooms.

We’ve also been working with our local health department, which offers extensive program resources related to our Healthy Eating, Active Living partnership offered through Boulder County Public Health on dietary and nutritional aspects. We are also collaborating with other program partners connecting farms and food to early childhood education, such as Growing Gardens, Garden to Table, Farm to ECE programs, Harvest of All First Nations and many other local farms and food producers nearby. We’ve also listened and learned about some of the food attitudes that each of us have as adults based on our own food experiences.

Supporting Lifelong Healthy Relationships with Food

We believe that the most important thing we can do as a program related to each child’s development around feeding, nutrition, and food-based learning is to intentionally support lifelong healthy relationships with food as we involve them in learning about the nourishment of their bodies. This means children learn to eat mindfully and thoughtfully, listening to their bodies and developing preferences for a variety of colorful, flavorful, and diverse foods with an open, Growth Mindset approach. This means children learn through hands-on experiences by building relationships with the soil and places where our food comes from, gaining skills and knowledge in preparing food, and connecting through stories and experiences with the people who grow, pick, prepare, and cook our food, including the cultural knowledge passed down from our Grandmothers!

As adult educators and parents in the lives of developing children, supporting healthy food relationships involves us too. Own relationships, thoughts, judgments, wounds, traumas, and stories around eating, food (or lack of), or the foods we eat all impact our attitudes, behaviors, and communications around food with children. This also includes our own thoughts about ourselves, the impact of our culture, and social forces around the ways in which we engage with the food we eat, and the food patterns we had growing up and either continue or shift today and whether we ourselves have the access, resources, and knowledge to nourish ourselves in a beneficial way.  Food is, of course, about way more than just food!

Supporting Thriving Children: Feeding Our Bodies and Souls!

Our program objectives for our nutrition program are to support thriving children, thriving families, thriving communities, and a thriving planet. We imagine each child learning to smell, look, discover, and savor each bite of food they eat because good food tastes delicious. We imagine a web of relationships, stories, and learning experiences around the food we eat. We imagine all children and people having access to real food, and for children to learn that good food (as in food that is beneficial for children, families, farm and food workers, and the environment) is a gift to us from the earth itself! When children see themselves within this living system, and as part of living systems that include food systems, beneficial relationships emerge!

How do we teach children about food systems?

Our food systems exist within a culture that teaches us food lessons other than how to nourish our bodies with real food that is beneficial to ourselves, others, and the planet. These cultural considerations shape learning experiences and food relationships, often resulting in a gap between the healthy nutrition we want for our children and the lived reality.

Some of the messages we receive around food include questions like, what is food, and where does our food come from? Does food come from a restaurant? A drive-through? A box? A plastic package? A delivery driver? Is food eaten rushed, standing up, or in a car, or enjoyed in a community or family, sitting down? Are we distracted on our devices or do we slow down enough to taste and chew our food? Does food, or edible substances, include artificial substances that are banned in other countries and impossible to pronounce?

And, a common question I have as a parent: how do we get our children to choose broccoli and butternut squash over processed food?

No Magic Bullet…

As a culture, we are accustomed to “quick fixes,” easy solutions, and the promise of a “magic bullet” related to food. We’re all taught to look for the “one thing” we should, or should not eat, or should buy to feed our children.

Food and Children’s Behavior

As parents, we’re all also dealing with children confident in the expression of their wants, desires, need for connection with us, and physical needs at the end of the day when we pick them up! If your children are like mine, most children would happily eat a sweet snack like a Fig Bar, granola bar, or other snack with up to 20 grams of added sugar! We all hope that our children are hungry in time for dinner, and we know they are usually in want of a snack at pickup time. Ideally, as parents, we can encourage nutrient-dense, real food and water, and re-assess as necessary based on family schedule.

We often confuse body signals for hunger and thrist, so encouraging water at pick-up time is ideal for our children’s nervous systems to re-regulate and transition to home time. A banana or orange is my family favorite, personally. This, along with apples, are all incredible snack foods made by nature that are high in fiber, filling and come individually wrapped in child-friendly serving sizes. (Just make sure the stickers end up in the landfill and the peels in the compost!)

Our observations as parents and educators lead us to look curiously at parent attitudes (our own included) around children’s snacks, which are also impacted by where we buy groceries (the same Costco snack options many of us buy for our children), children’s activities and schedules, our own schedules and capacities, and our own tolerance windows to navigate pre-dinner challenges.

Snack Attack: The Hangry Child Conundrum!

As a mother of four, I doubt that I am alone in sometimes feeling like it is far easier to buy packaged or prepared foods than to take the time to prepare food directly. For me personally, the processed snack food in the hours between Treehouse Learning pick up, my children’s sports activities, driving, and dinner time can be a game changer. Especially on a busy evening after an already full day when I’m probably hangry (and thirsty!) myself. I doubt I’m alone that a handy snack can be a super convenient way to stave off many miles of hangry car meltdowns.

What Are Children Learning through the Avoid-A-Meltdown Snack?

But, at the same time, we seek to be mindful of what children are learning in between what we hope we’re actually teaching them, too. Sometimes I notice that my children have learned the non-beneficial pattern that whining, crying, complaining, or melting down can be a direct way to get a packaged bar out of the car console or my bag, especially because I have beliefs around the connection of food to behavior. Are my children actually hungry? Yes, probably. But they also know the easiest ways to get a desired outcome based on past experiences. At times, my own children will vehemently express their dissatisfaction at having to wait until dinner is ready and often fill up on snack foods and lose their appetite for a really delicious dinner we’ve taken the time to prepare using real, fresh ingredients. I usually feel frustrated and rejected when this happens (though my dysregulation is more related to the various locations around my house where I’ve discovered abandoned banana peels…)

A basket of garden veggies
If your children are anything like mine, they beg you for an afternoon snack of fresh peppers and tomatoes and eat squash slices like like are candy. Kidding!

The “Magic Fairy” that Makes Food Appear

Our culture also teaches us adults that pressing a button on an app on our electronic devices will result in food magically appearing on our doorstep, delivered as if by Magic. With the promise of convenience, ease, and instant gratification, technology allows us to frictionless-ly part ways with our money and buy something that fully removes us from the systems and processes involved in growing, producing, and preparing our food. It is possible to have no contact with any of the people involved. Because of this, perhaps we often forget that food is part of a living system that we’re part of, and that there are humans on the other end.

If we don’t like the service of the technology-driven food that gets delivered or have to wait too long, we can also leave a negative review, with the freedom to criticize freely, often under the cloak of anonymity. (If we are curious why our country, including BVSD school districts, is in the midst of such an epidemic of bullying behavior, we need to look no further than social media). 

Cultivating Resilience and Food “Insecurity”

Our community collectively holds substantial privilege and access to resources that most people in the world do not have with regard to accessible and affordable food. In fact, we live in a community where food is so plentiful and abundant that children often have few opportunities to experience the kinds of challenges that lead to resilience and growth related to our food by understanding where it comes from.

Hunger is a Feeling From Our Bodies

Feeling the sensation of hunger is not the same thing as starving. What if the feeling we call “hunger” wasn’t considered a problem we needed to immediately fix, but information from our body about nutritional needs, creating a sense of anticipation and positive expectations for enjoying our food? When we feel secure that food will be available, we can have a growth mindset about the eventual enjoyment of food at the next meal or snack time. This is why language, stories, and learning about the foods we’ll be enjoying are so critical to building healthy food relationships, or a secure relationship with our food.

Insecure Food Relationships

We are fortunate to live in a community with access to grocery stores selling fresh produce, unlike many communities which can be described as food deserts or food swamps. Oftentimes, our culture conditions us to have little patience or tolerance for waiting for food that isn’t instantaneous or predictable.

Sometimes we have little resilience for variations in our expected menu, whether this is an intolerance for situations resulting in a menu change, including too much variety, or lack of variety if a well-loved staple food is offered too many days in a row.

Sometimes our intolerance has to do with the presentation of the food, like an apple with a blemish or a bumpy tomato.

We believe that it is possible for a community like Treehouse Learning, which holds so many collective resources and privileges, to experience a different type of food insecurity than simply access to food. Perhaps “food insecurity” could also be considered in terms of an insecure relationship with our food, characterized by the disconnected relationship we have with our food and where it comes from.

What is Food Insecurity?

We encourage families curious about learning more about food insecurity and what it is and is not, to also look into the work of some local community organizations working with local people in our community experiencing food insecurity, such as Harvest of All First Nations, Growing Gardens,, Community Food Share, or Sister Carmen. Food insecurity is also experienced unequally within communities and people for a variety of reasons and it is worth taking the time to expand your perspective beyond your own lived experience. There are ample resources available to choose to educate yourself about food insecurity!

How Do We Build Healthy Food Relationships?

Our approach to this topic is to begin our focus on the relationship we have with our food here at Treehouse Learning. As you can only imagine, we’re connecting food, menu, and eating to the garden bounty we proudly display. And of course, we’re also singing about food, and where food comes from at Big Circle, and discovering more in our classrooms through food cooking projects, with a focus on real food and the stories around them. We’re excited to explore “food field trips” and immersive participation in the food process. As a program, we’re also looking to create a new role related to cultural food systems which will encompass growing, preparing, and stories about food. Stay tuned for more!

Image of green tomatoes and squash picked from the garden
Pictured: Locally grown spaghetti squash, butternut squash, spring squash, plum tomatoes and more!

Other Learning Resources for Raising Healthy Eaters from Jen Lumalan of Your Parenting Mojo

142: Division of Responsibility with Ellyn Satter | Your Parenting Mojo

Episode 07: “Help! My toddler won’t eat vegetables”

Episode 150: “How to avoid passing on an eating disorder to your child with Dr. Shiri Sadeh-Sharvit”

147: Sugar Rush with Dr. Karen Throsby | Your Parenting Mojo

145: How to Sugarproof your kids with Dr. Michael Goran | Your Parenting Mojo

140: Mythbusting about fat and BMI with Dr. Lindo Bacon | Your Parenting Mojo

Related Images: