How to Have a Healthy Relationship with Food During the Holidays
According to the United States Department of Agriculture, in 2015 one in seven Americans and more than 12 million families struggled with hunger. Not being able to afford balanced meals and running out of food are likely some of the realities these families face.
For children in these families, succeeding in school without proper nourishment can be challenging. When these children enroll at Milton Hershey School, our food services team provides them with nutritious, well-balanced meals at no cost so they can overcome the barriers created by hunger and poverty.
Especially during the holidays, our team encourages students and staff to form healthy relationships with food. They learn that food can benefit their physical and mental well-being, while also bringing people together to create lasting memories.
See how the MHS food services team is making the holidays brighter for students. They shared five tips for making healthy, meaningful choices both in and out of school.
1. Take advantage of convenience—if you know where it comes from.
MHS has a warehouse grocery store with close to 2,500 different items, providing student homes and on-campus dining halls with a variety of wholesome food. Houseparents use an online fulfillment system to place orders for the ingredients they need to make healthy meals, or they can choose from a menu of already prepared meals that will be dropped off by the campus “meal bus.”
Cooking each night of the week during the holiday season may be the goal of many houseparents, but the bustle of planning activities, helping with homework, and transporting kids to athletic events takes up time. Ordering prepared meals—especially meals with healthy ingredients—is a convenient way for houseparents to multi-task while giving students a regular dinner routine.
“When students are newly enrolled, it’s certainly different to have everything provided and not focus on ‘where is my next meal coming from?’” said Cindy Richmond-Winters, MHS Senior Director of Program Support Services. “We serve as their grocery store.”
Thanks to this on-campus ‘grocery store,’ students can choose to take behind-the-scenes tours. This allows students and houseparents to see where their food comes from and how it gets prepared. When choosing the route of convenience during the holidays, it’s important to be knowledgeable and confident about what goes into each meal.
2. Focus on nutrition.
To help students learn how to make healthy food choices, they frequently help houseparents place orders for ingredients and meals.
“We focus on healthy lifestyles and making nutritional choices during the school day. We also rely on our houseparents to reinforce [that mindset] in the home,” said Richmond-Winters. “As students get older and make selections in the online fulfillment system, each item is color-coded to help them visualize which foods are the healthiest.”
Over time, the food services team partners with school nutritionists to provide nutritional coaching when necessary to help student homes make better selections. During the holidays, they can help students maintain a healthy mindset but also feel comfortable having holiday treats in moderation. The goal is for these healthy habits to transfer to the school cafeteria when students are making decisions on their own.
3. Spend time together.
Before enrolling at MHS, many students never experienced holiday meals or birthday celebrations revolving around food. To show how food can bring people together, the dining services team customizes and prepares birthday cakes for each MHS student. When the student receives the cake, their student home holds a special gathering.
Students also learn that food can bring the entire campus together for special Christmas events, assemblies, and programs like “Desserts with the Gurts.” President Pete Gurt ’85 and his wife Jane invite each student home to The Homestead, the birthplace of Milton Hershey, to socialize and celebrate a piece of campus history. Students also get a chance to witness the creativity of the school’s baking team.
“Our staff members have gone to culinary institutes, and they love to show off their skills,” said Richmond-Winters. “[These events] give them the opportunity to be creative and cook some good food.”
Over the holidays, the ability to create meaningful conversation and relationships through food is priceless.
4. Give back to the community.
During holiday breaks, many MHS students are going home to a family that can’t afford regular meals. Giving back to the community is one of the best gifts of the holiday season.
MHS staff collect food throughout the month of December to send home with students as care packages.
“We give employees a shopping list to help guide them with their shopping habits, so we can include healthier food in the packages,” explained Richmond-Winters.
They also send resources home with students to help family members learn about nutrition and implement healthy habits in their own lives. Along with educating family members, many MHS students volunteer their time at local food banks to give back to families in need over the holidays.
5. Have fun with food.
Part of healthy eating and the excitement of the holidays is trying new foods. During the school day, the dining services team often incorporates new vegetables or menu items that celebrate different cultures.
“It’s exciting to be able to offer different types of dishes students have never experienced,” Richmond-Winters added.
To make food fun, the food services team also makes fruit and vegetable displays in Elementary Division cafeterias and plans “veggie derby” activities. This gives staff members the opportunity to connect with students and bring food to life in an engaging way.
In the student home, houseparents can choose from themed meals throughout the year—including a Hawaiian luau night, football-themed food, and a “Harry Potter” meal with custom-designed desserts highlighting book characters. If students learn to have fun with food, they are more likely to try new things and appreciate the community around them.
Food Can Make a Difference
Throughout the holidays, having a healthy relationship with food can lead to increased wellness and lasting memories. And at MHS, having access to regular meals leads to a lifelong impact.
“I love getting the chance to talk to alumni and hear them talk about their favorite lunches, or the clothing they received at MHS,” said Richmond-Winters. “When you hear students still reflecting and sharing the impact it had on their lives, it’s special for our team. We know we made a difference.”
Learn more about the food pantry at MHS and how we’re providing regular, nutritious meals to students at no cost.
Cindy Richmond-Winters is the Senior Director of Program Support Services. She has worked at MHS for over 20 years.
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