Back in 2007, I wrote an essay on family nutrition that I never published. Rereading it this morning, the points still seem valid, so I’m posting the first part as today’s blog. Will post the rest later…
Weeks away from giving birth to my fourth child, I have begun reflecting in earnest on parenting yet another new life. All of the usual issues arise, but increasingly one issue has taken center stage in my mind, due largely to the difficulty I’ve experienced in dealing with it with my other kids. That issue is nutrition, or, rather, the wave of anti-nutrition that confronts them at every turn.
Consider a typical day for my seven year old son. Breakfast: I put out a selection of fruit, OJ, milk, and some type of whole-grain cold cereal or waffle or a bowl of oatmeal. Seems appealing to me, but then I haven’t been charmed by leprechauns or Tony the Tiger into craving dessert in lieu of breakfast. For, let’s be honest, a bowl of, say, sugared, processed, refined flour and artificially colored and flavored marshmallows is not breakfast–it’s dessert.
Next comes morning snack in his first grade classroom. I send him a piece of fruit or a bag of homemade trail mix. But these cannot compete with the Cheetos or Chips Ahoy being eaten by his friends, so if he can’t make a trade, he tosses my food in the garbage so he can get a snack from the teacher–typically some processed food that comes in a large bin from Costco.
Moving along to lunch, he is offered such fare as hotdogs (i.e., tubes of nitrate-laden meat scraps) or nuggets (breaded, compressed bits of chicken scraps) or pizza or French toast “dippers” served with a puddle of artificial “maple syrup.” A call of concern to the PTO about this last lunch item got merely the dopey reply, “Well, they contain eggs—that’s protein, right?”
After school, he’s off to swim lessons or little league or hockey practice. At the local swim school, which I otherwise love, the kids emerge from a healthy 30-minute swim to encounter a tantalizing concession area loaded with every imaginable candy, sweetened beverage, and junky snack. The begging starts immediately. My other little ones take their lesson on a weekday morning, so on that day, the begging commences by 10:45am.
After a strenuous two hour baseball game, my son is provided with a sugary drink and yet more processed chips, cookies, and candies. And you practically can’t escape the hockey arena without a slushie or ice cream bar or vending-machine foodstuff in hand. Again, this goes over especially well when we have early-morning practices and games. I stare aghast at all the kids with blue or green slushie-tinted lips at 9 o’clock on a Sunday morning.
Finally, let’s say I’ve had a long day and decide to take my family to a restaurant for dinner. My boy, who can now read quite well, is presented with the so-called “Kid’s Menu,” where he peruses such offerings as burgers and fries, hotdogs, nuggets, deep-fried cheese sticks, greasy noodles, and pancakes. No real food at all.
None of this, of course, touches upon the junk food offerings at playdates, birthday parties, movie theaters, airports, markets, gas stations, drug stores, video rental shops, fairs, parks and concession stands anywhere else you might go. The basic thinking seems to be that if there are kids present, there must be “kid food.” That’s what kids eat, right?
Some people tell me to “lighten up.” I was actually forced to do so somewhat by an incident with my son when he was just two. We were having dinner at a cousin’s, and he shut himself in the pantry and told me he needed “privacy.” This privacy request was pretty common as he approached potty-training, so I didn’t think anything of it. About five minutes in, however, I got worried and cracked open the door. Far from relieving himself in his diaper, he had several boxes of sugar cereal open and was eating them by the fistful. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, but I knew I had to find a better balance, and that the total junk food deprivation tactic was doomed.
So I now keep a treats area in my pantry from which the kids are free to choose a treat or dessert after eating a healthy dinner, and once a week, I take them to a restaurant and don’t say a word when they order that greasy burger or those fried nuggets. They get sweetened cereal to use as a topping on healthy cereal some mornings, lots of ice cream cones in the summer, and even that team snack, assuming that the rest of their day has a more balanced menu. (Though I’ve had some success encouraging other parents to bring fresh fruit, whole grain snack foods, water not juice, etc. for after sports.)
But, still. It is an uphill battle every single day, everywhere we go. This very morning I went to, of all places, a battery shop, and the clerk promptly offered my kids suckers and Tootsie Rolls—at 10 am!
Kids didn’t used to eat this way, not was it assumed they should. It was understood that even as children, they were learning how to feed their bodies properly for life. Training in nutrition occurred by modeling–adults ate far healthier fare back then–but clearly this won’t do today. Setting an example for our children with our own eating habits is crucial, but with today’s onslaught of the junk food agribusiness, far more explicit education is required. We literally must use the carrot and the stick…