“Sometimes” food: Talking to kids about eating well

Dairy Queen and I were recently talking about the delicateness of conveying Ethicurean views to friends who are not as focused on their food. We don't, after all, want to be pushy or preachy.

In a sense, this is part of a larger anxiety in America right now about sincerity. Politically and spiritually, the climate is hostile towards those who wish for idealistic change. The words "hippie" and "feminist" are used derisively, and "political correctness" has become perceived as a phony, confining construct. The closest thing we idealistic liberals have to heroes are comedians who dazzle with their snarkiness and sarcasm: infotainment guru Jon Stewart, pseudo-conservative blowhard Stephen Colbert, and the eternally bitter George Carlin.

Why?

Well, I don't really know. Maybe someone can shed light on the reasons why in the comment section, or perhaps scrawl it on a bathroom wall with a sharpie.

Disney recently announced that it intends to change promotion of food aimed to entice children. No mention of HFCS or GMOs — but hey, it's a start. (Some people disagree.)
I'm a nanny for two boys, ages 8 and 5. You wanna see a GMO graveyard? Look no further than their fully stocked pantry — it is replete with HFCS delights. "Fruit" roll-ups, Pringles, sugary cereal, saltine crackers, granola bars, and microwave popcorn. It kills me. I'm in a strange position though. I work for the guy who buys all the food. So not only do I not want to come across as "pushy" or "preachy," I have a financial interest in not making waves.

The younger one has a reputation as a picky eater. He often doesn't eat his lunch, and he's not really into snacking either. However, when I started bringing my lunch from home over the summer, he always wanted to eat some of it. He loves tomatoes and squash from the farmer's market, the yummy Berkshire pork sausages I get from Peach Creek farm, and he went crazy for the chicken pot pie I made with farmer's market veggies and eggs, milk, and chicken from the Food You Can Trust farm. The older one has a very sophisticated palate — he loves onions and garlic and whole-wheat pasta, and salads with arugula and grape tomatoes.

How do I let my boss in on this? Rather than criticize the food in the pantry, I opted to tell my boss about the kind of food the kids like. I told him I noticed a big difference when they had fresh fruit and veggies for snack as opposed to processed, sugary food. Which was true; there were fewer meltdowns and they had more energy.

However, their dad is a single parent, and he is extremely busy, even on the weekends. He often doesn't get around to shopping for food, and when he does, it's kind of a rush job.

I did tell him that I didn't think the kids should have fruit snacks for their afterschool snack because of the high sugar content. He agreed and totally backed me up. But he still buys the fruit snacks and the chips and all that. Also, the kids knew it was me who instituted the change, and the older one was a tad bitter about it. He mentioned it almost every day and I kept saying No, no, we can't eat fruit snacks for afterschool snack anymore.

Then one day we actually talked about it. "Why can't we have fruit snacks?" he asked. "They're healthy!"

"Actually, they're not."

"They have fruit in them," he said. He pointed to the word "strawberry" on the box.
I told him they probably had more sugar than fruit, and that it probably didn't have any real strawberries in it. He looked at the box. "Well why don't they call them sugar snacks then?"

"Excellent question," I said. I told him that the companies that sell the food don't care about you, and that they put a bunch of cheap junk in the food so kids will think it's yummy. "Sugary sweet stuff and salt is addictive and makes you want more, but it's not really good for your body. Your body needs good food that doesn't come in a box in order for you to have energy to play."

He looked at me, crestfallen. "But I like fruit snacks."

"I know you do." I smiled at him. "I like junk food sometimes, too. I know it's hard to not eat that stuff sometimes, but you'll find that you feel better when you eat stuff like fresh fruit and vegetables. And you're growing, so you need to eat things that are good for you."
"What about crackers," he asked hopefully. "Are those bad for you?"

I told him that some of them are not healthy, but companies make more money from stuff that's in a box. I told him that the companies make it seem like it's good food, so you'll buy it. "You know all the commercials you see on television? The companies make those commercials so you'll whine to your parents about it." He gazed into the mid-distance, probably remembering all of his successes in that category. I told him that it's very stressful for adults when kids whine, that even I give in to it sometimes.
He grinned. "So if I whine you'll give me a fruit snack?"

Dammit! Kids are smart. "Well, probably not, but let me tell you what's in it so you'll know why it's more like candy than food."

I read the ingredients, which were pear juice from concentrate, high fructose corn syrup, corn syrup, sugar, and artificial flavors and colors. And guess what happened? He doesn't ask for fruit snacks anymore, and he reads nutritional labels now.

Now, I suppose it's possible that he just doesn't want to get into another conversation with me about it, but I'd like to think it's because it affected him to hear that information. I'm not a parent, but I've been taking care of kids for almost 20 years, so I feel qualified to give advice. If you have kids and you're interested in changing the menu at home to a more Ethicurean-friendly one, I would suggest the following:

  • Talk, talk, talk. Take their questions about food seriously, and be honest. You're changing their diet because you care about them, and it's your job to make sure they're healthy.
  • Set clear boundaries. Let them know which foods they can have anytime, such as fruits and vegetables, and which ones are "every once in a while" foods. Let them know which foods are off-limits, if there are any. If it's okay with you that they occasionally eat off-limit foods when they're a guest at someone's house, let them know.
  • Tell them about how advertising works — they probably don't know that companies work really hard at trying to get your money, and that corporations don't care about healthy bodies.
  • Admit that you haven't been giving them healthy food, and that you want to change that. Tell them that you're learning more about what's healthy and that you have to work together as a family to make changes.
  • You don't have to demonize processed food, but cultivate awareness about ingredients. Look at nutritional labels with your child, and talk about the ingredients, pointing out ones to look out for.
  • Let them be mad at you. Empathize with them. It's hard to give up something you're addicted to. Kids love it when you share similar stories — let them know about something that you had to give up in order to be healthier.
  • Don't collapse on the boundaries you set. If a kid asks 20 times after you've said no, and you give in, then she or he will know that it takes 20 times to get what they want. If you do give in, revisit it later and let them know that you're recommitting to the boundaries you set, or revise them so that you won't cave next time.
  • Keep exploring healthy options for their diet — try new foods at home, experiment. Go to the farmer's market with your child, and let them pick out some of the food to take home. Include your kids in the cooking process. Give them simple tasks such as measuring, pushing buttons or setting the timer, stirring or mixing.
  • Baby steps! Small changes implemented slowly are more effective than radical changes that require a big adjustment. You can minimize the amount of times your child can have a "once in a while" food. You can start introducing new things slowly. Make it easy on yourself.

Disney may be trying to sell "more nutritional" food to kids, but why not start at the source? Tell them that Disney just wants to sell them stuff, that Disney is a corporation. It's fine to watch the Lion King, but just because Simba is on the front of the cereal box doesn't mean you should eat it.

I was talking to Momniho about this, and she suggested that I talk to my boss about how I was talking to the kids, and share my advice with him. But I'm scared! I'm thinking on it though. As we say here in Texas, "I'm fixin' to do something about it." Further updates as events warrant.

3 Responsesto ““Sometimes” food: Talking to kids about eating well”

  1. Jack says:

    G-r-e-a-t! (This article, not the frosted flakes.)

  2. Emily says:

    You have my heartiest applause!

    Is grocery shopping something you can do as part of your job? Less stress on dad; more options for you.

  3. Omniwhore says:

    Emily, it's like you're reading my mind! I was planning on talking to him about that on Monday, and to circumvent any possible problems (like, you're a bad dad! which he most certainly is not) by just telling him that it will be a fun learning experience for the kids. Which it will be!