Kids’ Food In The News

Zak decided, what with our imminent status as the parents of a newborn, that he should read up on what is going on in the world of parenting. So, he subscribed to an email newsletter about parenting from The Washington Post, and thus found out that one of the things that parents are concerned about is feeding their kids.

You know, back in the dinosaur days when I was a kid, (the late sixties and early seventies) it didn’t seem that parents fretted quite so much over what to feed their kids, mostly because their kids ate what the parents ate.

I mean, yeah, we all were bottle-fed (with a few exceptions), and most of us were weaned on baby food from jars (though not an insignificant number of us also were given mashed up adult food, too), but after that, we ate what Mom and Dad and the rest of the family ate. There didn’t seem to be as many concessions made to “kids’ tastes” as there seems to be now.

There were no Lunchables, microwavable Kraft Mac n Cheez (like that powdered stuff is hard to make in its original form) or Chicken Nuggets, Fingers or Stix, and we kids ate vegetables other than french fries and ketchup. Parents didn’t seem to do as much catering to their kids, treating the home kitchen like a restaurant, with kids eating a separate dinner from the adults.

And, near as I can tell, we middle-aged folks seemed to grow up okay.

So, anyway, I have this thing about Kids’ Food. I think it is an invention of clever marketing drones and fast food emporia which have managed to get parents caught up in the idea that kids need or want to eat differently than adults. I also think that this has been detrimental to the nutrition of kids, too–fried Chicken Nug/Fing/Stix, fried potatoes and boxed Mac N Cheez are not exactly loaded with healthy vitamins, minerals and good carbs. Far from it. They are loaded with fat, salt, fat, bad carbs, some more salt, some sugar, and weird nuclear orange cheez powder, oh, yeah, and a lot of fat. This is not a nutritious diet for anyone.

Oh, and whatver happened to kids drinking milk? What is up with most kids drinking soda nowadays? When did that happen? When I was growing up, soda was a treat, and milk and water were the drinks du jour. Milk gives kids calcium to grow nice strong bones, (and fat to grow nice smart brains), but soda gives them what? Phosphorus, which makes for nice brittle bones (it leaches out calcium) and lots of sugar for nice decayed teeth and mushy bodies.

So–Kids’ Food.

I don’t believe in it.

But whether I believe in it or not, lots of other people do, and marketers are giving folks what they seem to want.

And this isn’t just an American obsession–folks all over the world seem to be taking issue with how kids in their countries are eating.

Let’s take a look at some news about kids and food:

Nick, Disney and Sesame Street Characters Start Marketing Fruit and Veg to Kids

This news is kinda old, really, but it was in that Washington Post Parenting Newsletter thingie Zak forwarded to me. Apparently, instead of just using trademarked characters like Dora the Explorer and SpongeBob Squarepants (can anyone explain to me why this cartoon is popular?), to feed kids bad food, kids network Nickleodeon has made a deal with various fruit and vegetable growers and distributors to use them to get kids to eat organic edamame, fresh cherries, pears and apples, and other healthy edibles.

I guess this is better than making Spongebob canned pasta shapes and Dora sugar cereal, but it is still weird. It is still marketing food directly to kids, using cartoon characters from shows that kids haven’t quite figured out aren’t real and aren’t their friends. (Yet another reason to eschew TV for wee kids, as if we needed any more.) I don’t much like the idea of marketing food or really, anything else to kids, because kids are vulnerable and cannot make anything resembling wise decisions based upon any kind of judgement. TV is real to a lot of kids, so they aren’t equipped to really tell the difference between a show for entertainment and an ad, and well–that is really kind of, oh, not fair.

But I shouldn’t just rag on Nick for this, since Disney has made a deal with Krogers to market “healthy” foods to kids that include fruit, yogurt, and other breakfast items. (Do you know how much high fructose corn syrup is in most yogurt products? No? Take a look at some of them, and then come back and tell me how healthy that really is for kids.)

Eventually, other products to be introduced will include cheese, character-shaped frozen and canned pasta; fresh and frozen meals; cut vegetables with dip; and snacks including granola bars, fruits cups and apple sauce. (Once again–how “healthy” are these foods, really? Canned pastas are usually full of high fructose corn syrup, fat and sodium. Dips for cut vegetables usually are fat laden, and granola bars are mostly sugar, high fructose corn syrup and fat.)

I really hope that parents read the labels on these new cartoon foods and not just take these companies’ words on the fact that these foods are “healthy.”

Some Kids May Be Genetically Predisposed To Find Veggies A “Bitter Pill”

This story, also linked via the Washington Post parenting newsletter, I found to be both interesting and frustrating.

It is interesting, because researchers have found a gene that in some variations might make some people, especially kids “supertasters” who can detect very small amounts of bitter compounds in water. When kids in a recent study were tested the same way, the ones who tended not to like vegetables such as cucumber, broccoli and olives, showed evidence of being similarly endowed with a super sensitive variant of that gene.

See, that is cool, and I can see the evolutionary advantage of such a gene, since a lot of plants with bitter compounds have poisonous alkaloids in them, some of which are deadly even in very small concentrations.

What frustrated me, however, was the ways in which parents were advised to treat kids who kept refusing to eat vegetables. Along with the sound advice to offer vegetables that kids don’t like cooked rather than raw (this removes many of the bitter compounds), and suggesting tasty sauces and dips to go with the vegetables (even though the scientists noted this was probably not the most healthy way to get kids to eat veggies), the researchers said for parents not to “impose thier own tastes upon their kids.”

However, most pediatricians and nutritionists say that kids’ food preferences are formed very early on–perhaps as early as the first two years of life (now researchers are saying that food tastes may even be formed earlier, within the womb during the last trimester of pregnancy). This is part of the reason why nutritionists and pediatricians tell parents to keep offering foods, particularly vegetables to kids, even after they reject them once, twice, three, or ten times. What I have heard and read over and over is this: “keep trying.”

Cook it differently, serve it raw, make it into soup, stew or souffle, but eventually, most pediatricians believe that you can get most kids to eat a variety of foods if you keep modelling the behavior of eating it (that means you need to eat it and enjoy it and let the kid see that) and keep getting the kid to taste it.

Hence, why I was frustrated with the statement “don’t impose your tastes on your kid, because they may not be having the same taste experience you are having.”

Mom’s Diet Obsessions Can Be Unhealthy for Kids

I read the headline in the Washington Post and heard a big “duh!” in my head.

But I also heard another sound. The sound of a double standard, “damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don’t” blame the parent for everything media statement that hit my brain like a crate of SlimFast.

Kids are supposedly obese, right? I mean, we keep hearing about that, right? (Even babies are obese these days.)

So, shouldn’t parents model good behavior and go on diets?

Nope, because if Moms obsess about their own weight, this can lead to their daughters modelling similar behavior and ending up with eating disorders and low self-esteem?

Do you see why I am irritable with this news story? Sure, it is true that if Mom is weird about her weight, her daughters are going to pick up on it, but I find it ironic that reporters on the one hand keep talking about the dangers of obesity, how Americans are all getting fatter, and how kids are going to have lower life expectancies from it, and then, criticize women for trying to lose weight and foster dieting as a method of weight loss for thier kids.

Isn’t that a little bit like saying, “Don’t be fat–but, don’t be weird about not being fat. I mean, don’t be obsessed with not being fat to the point that you, like, make your kids crazy. But for god’s sake, you don’t want them to die, do you? So, don’t let them be fat. But don’t diet. Because if you do that you are a BAD MOTHER!”

Yeesh.

Lunch Box Inspections Allow Teachers To Become Food Police

And, now, just to prove that it isn’t just Americans who are starting to obsess over fat kids, here is a story from Australia, where teachers are apparently inspecting kids’ lunches from home and rejecting some of the foods parents have packed.

Chocolate birthday cake is bad.

But plain vanilla cake, without much if any icing, is okay. (But I bet there are still eggs, butter, sugar and white flour in vanilla cake…hrm.)

Basically, school teachers are going through kids’ lunchboxes and taking out what they think is inappropriate for kids to eat and say that they are “educating parents” about what an appropriate diet for the kids is.

Actually, what I think they are doing is pissing parents off. At least, that is how I would feel if I was a parent who sent my kid to school with food and had it sent back as “inappropriate.” Especially if it wasn’t. I mean, what if they took away Thai coconut milk curry because it was “too high in fat.” Or if a food fundamentalist vegan teacher decided that chicken wasn’t appropriate?

Talk about a “nanny state!”

So, in closing–what is a parent to do about feeding their own kids?

Should we ignore television ads, and cartoon spokespersons and make up our minds about what is healthy?

Should we fix separate meals for kids?

Should we diet?

And for goodness sake–should we let teachers snoop around in our kids’ lunch boxes?

My feeling is this–there should be no such thing as “Kids’ Food.”

There should just be food that kids eat. And it should be healthy (but we should let them have a bit of chocolate cake with icing now and again, too, because food is also about joy), and we should protect our children equally from food marketing and food fundamentalists.

I am sure that my readers are going to enjoy listening to me rant on this topic for years, as Kat grows, and eats or doesn’t eat whatever it is her loving parents give her….

Until then, though, happy reading and eating.

15 Comments

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  1. I am middle aged now? I thought I had another 10 years to go ;)

    great article – I will forward to a pregnant friend of mine.

    Comment by sam — August 16, 2006 #

  2. So, teachers are to be nutrition police now?? Do they like this role?? Are they trained for it?? How do dietitians feel about teachers doing their job for them?? what about the kids whose unthinking/poorly educated/willfully neglectful parents pack them a lunch deemed by the teacher to be unsuitable – do they go without lunch? Dont get me wrong, I am the greatest advocate for children eating well, but there is something about schools and teachers policing this that does not sit well with me.

    Comment by The Old Foodie — August 16, 2006 #

  3. Here in India we accept a lot more policing than in the West. I remember we got a general note from the school encouraging (not enforcing) that we send roti/paranthas with vegges in the lunch box. My son was in Kindergarten then. All school kids (at least here in India!) look up to their teachers and if we were saying what the teacher is saying, it was easier. Their teacher is always right.
    With the result my son never takes Maggi instant noodles in his lunch box, even today. When he occassionally fixes it for himself, he says that he’s having a bowl of fat for snack!
    But ‘fast food’ in school canteens is being debated here as well. Many schools have stopped serving soda but there is convenience foods that are your usual white flour, fat, salt/sugar, fat, and salt!
    But you needn’t worry too much, Barbara. You are very right when you say that we don’t need to cook different for kids. I tell my son not everyday can he have his favourites, somedays it is things you don’t dislike too much!
    And, by all means, we must ask them to keep trying the foods they do not like initially. We have to only look back and think of the things we didn’t care much for as kids but now…For myself, there was never anything that I didn’t eat. My mother insisted that we eat everything, and I am glad she did.

    Comment by Anita — August 16, 2006 #

  4. I wonder if my teachers would have taken away my pasta or stuffed eggplants when I was a kid. That kind of food wasn’t nearly so prevalent when I went to school.

    I never had ‘kid’s food’ growing up. We all ate the same thing. Consequently, I have pretty much the same tastes as my parents, minus a few exceptions. Is that so hard?

    Comment by Stephanie — August 16, 2006 #

  5. Great post, Barbara–I’m emailing it to my daughters.

    Comment by lucette — August 16, 2006 #

  6. As people who liked just about any well prepared food, my husband and I were surprised when our child turned out to be a fussy eater. When small, she refused all cooked vegetables, and anything with tomatoes. There was plenty
    for her to eat, as long as we left some of our cooked vegetables raw for her, and didn’t put sauces on her portions of meat and fish. But it was weird.

    She really favored meat above other foods, and was not cool with fruit. She was always interested in making food herself, and she tried new stuff over time, adding more things that she liked to her list of acceptable stuff. Eventually she became a very good cook, who eats almost everything-except meat. She and her husband are both vegetarians. She certainly has better weight control than I do…so I’d say her food-life has worked out very well.

    We never bought gimmicky food, and almost never ate fast food- but if the occasion arose when it was the thing to do-we didn’t make a big deal-just did it. If it has anything to do with anything we did, my advice to parents would be to buy the best food you can afford, prepare it well, enjoy it, and don’t make a fuss about what kids eat.

    Comment by lindy — August 16, 2006 #

  7. as an australian.. until a couple of months ago, i worked in daycare, kindy, preschool, what have you. our centre had a firm healthy foods lunch policy, trying to emphasise healthy foods over junk. we would allow the children to eat healthier choices first, and then if they were still hungry, they could eat their junk food choices. and it worked well. some kids came to school with lunches full of crap, so staff would make sure those kids had mplenty of fruit from when we all sat down and had plates of fruits twice a day. you do what you can and it’s a good place to start :)

    Comment by kelvin — August 16, 2006 #

  8. When I was a kid, we used to occasionally get “kid food” like macaroni and cheese or hot dogs, usually when my parents were going out to dinner and needed to prepare a quick meal for us kids that they weren’t going to eat themselves. Whenever we ate together as a family, my sister and I ate whatever our parents did. (We were never forced to eat anything we hated, and I think my mother always made sure there was something we liked on the table, but the general expectation was that we would eat grown-up food.)

    I had tastes very different from stereotypical kids’ tastes, anyway – I loved green vegetables (especially broccoli), and adored spicy food.

    Comment by spaceling — August 16, 2006 #

  9. Hmm, food preferences in the womb, eh? Could explain why I hate all condiments and eat everything plain despite everyone’s efforts to get me to put ketchup on fries.

    As for teachers policing food, my county is in no position to do that since the office of food and nutrition (?) considers supernachos an acceptable entree for children at lunchtime. Before universal breakfast where we can choose from glorified cookies, there was sausage on a stick, wrapped in pancake batter which could be dipped in syrup. All funded by the state.

    Comment by artcargirl — August 16, 2006 #

  10. Mmmmm….Yummy Stuff Theresa!

    I think teachers policing food is a pretty scary proposition, considering what is considered to be a “healthy balanced meal” in public schools today. It also smacks greatly of that cultural phenomenon that Barbara has talked about here before, in which the schools in the 40′s and 50′s show a cultural bias toward European-based foods, and Asian, African, and other cultural cuisine was supplanted.

    I don’t necessarily think that would happen today. We at least pretend to be more aware of other cultures, but we are culturally moving toward the “Wal-Mart”ization of food sources.

    If a teacher took away my child’s slice of carrot cake made with whole wheat flour and no processed sugar, and given them a Wal-Mart Banana, sprayed down with pesticides, or a sandwich made with hormone-impregnated meat, I might get a little bent out of shape!

    I was REALLY picking growing up. Didn’t eat too many fruits and veggies, but that was primarily mirroring what my father did. Dad was very much MEAT and POTATOS and that was about it. When we did have vegetables, Mom boiled them within an inch of their lives, (green beans should NOT be Standard Military OD Green.) Food at my house was lots of starch, lots of fat, and lots of protein. But, there is barely a day in my father’s life that he hasn’t been outside digging ditches or involved in HEAVY manual labor, (to this day, and the old bugger is closer to 70 than 60!)

    That obviously wasn’t a healthy way to eat growing up. BUT, I never really ate too much “Kid Food” either. Just didn’t like it. Overly sweet cereals made my teeth hurt, (and still do just to think about them! BooBerry and Lucky Charms! GAHHHH!!) and I was never into sugary snacks. Candies and cookies just didn’t appeal, (up until I was about 4 or 5, my idea of a cookie was a Ritz butter cracker! Though brownies, and homemade cookies! I could get behind that!) Mac and Cheese was ALWAYS home-made, (still CANNOT STAND that boxed crap Heather sometimes brings home! Organic or not! Cheese can be grated, melted, sliced, etc. It CANNOT be powdered!)

    I ALWAYS took my lunch to school, because the thought and appearance of cafeteria food just nauseated me. Standard fare in my luches in school was PBJ or Baloney and cheese. Small bag of chips, (a sandwich baggie full, not one of those “snack pack” bags,) more likely Cheez-Its than potato chips, and a can of Dole Pineapple Juice.

    I’ve grown out of most of my pickyness, (though I still loath unpureed tomatos and mushrooms!)

    Comment by Dan — August 16, 2006 #

  11. I have a 10-month old son son, so these types of topics are often times on my mind. I’ve been very lucky in that he hasn’t been a fussy eater thus far. He eats and loves Chinese, Japanese, Middle Eastern, Mexican, Indian, Italian…you get the drift.

    He’s a wonderful eater.

    Our daycare provider often looks at the food we bring with confusion. A spicy (not heat spicy) rice dish with plain yogurt, dhal with spinach, plain yogurt with dill and garlic and all sorts of food that we eat at home that she obviously isn’t familiar with.

    I hope he continues on this path, I won’t freak out if he has fast food – he has had french toasts sticks once while we stopped of Burger King while waiting for some work that was being done on my vehicle. But I am just thankful that thus far, he’s loved everything that has been put before him.

    Comment by Jenn — August 16, 2006 #

  12. I was born in the mid-60s, and the only real “kids food” I can remember (that is, food obviously marketed for children) is breakfast cereal and frozen TV dinners (which we only got when our parents went on the rare night out, leaving us with a babysitter). And while I can distinctly remember being forced to eat things I didn’t like (mashed potatoes, swiss steak, canned spinach all come to mind), my mom remembers differently. “Oh, I just didn’t make things you all didn’t like.”

    I can buy the “don’t impose your tastes on your kid, because they may not be having the same taste experience you are having.” It’s definitely true in our family. My oldest son used to be a very adventurous eater – such as sharing spicy dishes from an Indian food lunch buffet. But at one point his tastes radically changed, and things previously liked were rejected. For example, he used to eat tomato-based pasta sauces but then he stopped. A few years later he started again – and his tastes have been gradually expanding. He’s also very sensitive to smells, and is a taster of articial sweeteners (as am I). He’ll eat sweet apples, but not tart ones. (But yet he loves olives, so figure.) My middle son has always been much more adventurous, while the youngest is the most adventurous of all (but also has the biggest sweet tooh!).

    We keep offering healthy choices (and allow some not-so-healthy ones…), and encourage them to try again (“have you tried it recently? tastes change as you get older!”), but never force anything. In fact, we say something along the lines of “everybody likes different things!” A ’2 bite rule’ – where you have to eat 2 bites of everything served at a meal – would not fly (especially not with my eldest). At that’s what I think they might be getting at – those people who try to force their children to eat things just because it’s good for them, or just because the parents like it. At some point, kids develop their own taste preferences, and we should respect that – while also reminding them that tastes change, and encouraging them to broaden their horizons at times.

    Comment by Tricia — August 18, 2006 #

  13. I have nothing against kids having their own taste preferences–there were things that I liked as a kid that my parents thought were nasty–like canned spinach. (Now the thought of it gags me, but I liked it then….)

    But, what I do mind is the idea that you shouldn’t keep trying to get kids to taste other foods, and the weird idea in the US today that there is an entire category of foods that are considered to be “kids’ food.”

    Such a thing did not exist until food marketers invented it, and on the whole the stuff that lives in that category is not nutritive, highly processed crap.

    I don’t eat that stuff, so why should my kid?

    For the record–I also am not sure that forcing kids to eat foods is a good idea, either. Encouraging, cajoling and rationalizing a kid into eating something is one thing–forcing them to finish something or eat it when it is obviously not to their taste is another.

    I had enough canned peas and overcooked broccoli forced on me in childhood to know that I can’t do that to another human being, I don’t care how little he or she is. I remember how frustrating and humilitating it was to be forced to sit and look at a cold plate of food until I ate it, that I wouldn’t do that to a kid.

    (Mom figured out later on that I would eat both peas and broccoli raw, and so would leave some uncooked–if we were having fresh peas–so that I would eat them that way. The same with turnips. Mild concessions to kids tastes like that are fine–and I think are a great compromise, and unlike some folks, I think a lot of veggies that kids won’t eat cooked, they will eat raw–so that isn’t a problem. She just never made an entire separate meal for me, nor would she….and I don’t blame her.

    It looks like a struck a chord here–and I appreciate everyone’s input! Thanks for posting such insightful comments, folks!

    Comment by Barbara — August 20, 2006 #

  14. I have just discovered this blog and its really great!

    This topic really hits home for our family. I don’t believe in “kids foods” and we don’t serve them to our kids. This morning I made fried rice with tomato, bok choy, sausage, egg and lots of garlic and packed that for the kids’ lunch. The whole idea of “kid food” is prepostorous and a fine example of marketing. Both of my kids are good eaters–the younger one is less fond of veggies but she mostly understands that to be a healthy girl and grow strong, she has to eat all sorts of things, even the ones that aren’t her favorites.

    But the wacky US attitude towards kids and food goes further back than the stuff for school lunches. I used to tour the baby food aisles of grocery stores in Europe and was just fascinated by what was there. In the US, the pre-packaged baby food is all fruit and some veggies like peas or carrots [both sweet] and the occassional meat. Oh and those faux pasta things.

    In Sweden or in France, the food was completely different. For example, in France you can get baby artichokes [pureed] or beef [that fancy french breed] with spring veggies [like cauliflower and spinach]. In Sweden the baby food is salmon and dill sauce with potatoes. In essence, just pureed grown-up food.

    How on earth can people expect their kids to like different things if they don’t let them/encourage them to try them? And where did we get the idea that offering something once to a two year old meant something? I have heard fellow parents declare that darling johny doesn’t like something because they gave it to him once and he spit it out…as if a small child doesn’t ALWAYS spit out whatever new thing you put in their mouth?

    Comment by jenn — September 7, 2006 #

  15. Jenn–welcome!

    I am glad you found my blog–and I am really excited to hear about baby food in other countries–how neat!

    You know, baby food here in the US just used to be pureed whatever Mom and Dad were eating, too. But there is a lot of fuss and control over which foods to introduce in which order when and how here in the US, which I think is part of what drives the idea that babies must have bland food all pureed into separate flavors.

    Very odd.

    And yeah–babies almost always spit stuff out the first time! (Morganna was an exception–there were lots of foods she took to right away, but then, she is my kid….)

    And yeah, when she was with me growing up, I didn’t cater to her with kids’ foods. At my home, she ate real food. Now, the lamb chops might have been called dinosaur cutlets–but she still ate them. And eventually, she would confront me with, “It isn’t really dinosaur, is it?”

    At which time, after she had eaten it and played the game, I would fess up and tell her it was lamb. She’d consider and say, “Lamb tastes good.”

    Comment by Barbara — September 7, 2006 #

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