Starting the day off with a sugary, fatty treat isn't supposed to be good, so what's making these kids thrive?
My best friend in elementary school used to bring chocolate sandwiches to school. We all envied her, especially when my lunch always contained hearty whole wheat, cream cheese, and alfalfa sprout mammoth sandwiches that I had to choke down every day.
Years later, when my sister took a job as a nanny just outside Amsterdam in the Netherlands, I discovered that my friend’s chocolate sandwiches were actually a Dutch breakfast staple known as hagelslag. My sister informed me that every morning her little wards would pile their bread high with chocolate sprinkles; in fact, she had gotten on to the practice and found it quite tasty.
Giving chocolate to kids for breakfast seems like a bad idea, and yet it’s working amazingly well for the Dutch. A 2014 study by Oxfam put the Netherlands at the top of the list for having the most plentiful, nutritious, healthy and affordable diet, out of 125 countries. (France and Switzerland tied for second, while the U.S. took 21st place.) Dutch kids aren’t suffering from behavioral problems and have the lowest obesity rates (8.36 percent of children aged 11, 13, and 15) of all 29 industrialized countries—despite the fact that they’re enjoying a sugary, fatty treat served atop white bread first thing in the morning.
(Ironically, one could point out that many American parents give their children the equivalent of straight chocolate in the mornings, although they like to package it as healthier “breakfast cereal” and pretend it’s not as sugary as it is. The Dutch, at least, call it what it is.)
According to Rina Mae Acosta and Michele Hutchison, mothers and authors of The Happiest Kids in the World: How Dutch Parents Help Themselves (and Their Kids) by Doing Less, the secret to success lies in the fact that 85 percent of Dutch children eat breakfast every morning before school, usually together with their families. They write:
“There’s an abundance of research that points out the benefits of having breakfast every morning: It’s said to reduce the risk of snacking on unhealthy foods throughout the day, decrease the risk of obesity and increase a child’s ability to concentrate at school. The Dutch are champions of breakfast time and seem to be happier and healthier because of it. But the real point is that they put as much value on the idea of starting the day together around the breakfast table, a calming and bonding experience for all the family.”
Family meals are more likely to contain other, healthier foods that go alongside the sweet treats, a calmer environment in which to eat slowly and consciously, an occasion for children to develop confidence by assembling their own foods (hagelslag is very user-friendly), and an opportunity for reassuring conversation with parents.
So while offering hagelslag in the mornings is certainly going to make kids more eager to sit down at the table, it’s really the fact that families are eating together that helps Dutch children start the day off on the right foot – not to mention hopping on bicycles to go to school afterward. The Dutch model suggests that the way in which we feed our children is as important as the actual foods themselves.