When I was a kid, I considered children’s menus in restaurants to be terribly offensive. My parents knew enough not to hand it to me and passed me the adult menu instead so I could select the dish of my choice. Not only did I think the over-processed “kid food” was gross, but I also disapproved of the small portions, which weren’t enough to satisfy my (even then) hearty appetite.
My anti-kid-food sensibilities have only intensified with age, especially now that I have children of my own. I am deeply upset by the fact that adults assume children won’t eat healthy foods. And so the adults respond in the following ways, instead of patiently insisting that their children learn to eat well:
(1) Mask healthy foods within unhealthy foods, i.e. beets in chocolate cake, spinach in a smoothie, pureed veggies in tomato sauce. This is a terrible method, since it never teaches children to like those foods, and it also conditions them to expect sweet, ‘pleasant’ tastes all the time. It only makes liking vegetables in their fresh, pure forms all the more unattainable.
(2) Ascribe moral qualities to foods, i.e. talking about “good” foods and “bad” foods. That’s called an eating disorder. Way to mess with your kid’s mind and leave them completely confused about what they “should” be eating. There is nothing intrinsically bad about chocolate cake; it’s a wonderful food — when eaten at appropriate times, in reasonably small amounts. Just because it’s decadent doesn’t make it bad. I read that Americans associate chocolate cake with guilt, while the French associate it with celebration. I know which mindset I’d prefer my children to have.
(3) Break food down into nutrient blocks that must be obligingly filled. I think it’s terribly sad when the pleasure of eating food is lost, and often isn’t even referred to as food anymore: “You must eat your grains. You need your daily intake of calcium. Have some protein.” That doesn’t mean anything to kids. Why not stress, instead, the incomparable taste of fresh asparagus drizzled with butter, or the juiciness of early summer strawberries, or the crunch of an autumn apple? The precise nutrients don’t matter nearly so much if a diet is varied, colourful, and homemade.
(4) Give up. And then, out of sheer desperation, they turn to the processed food world of “kid-friendly snacks” that are covered with false health claims and empty nutrient statistics. “Try these Bear Paws! Excellent source of iron for your toddler!” There’s an entire industry out there whose mission is to convince tired, overworked parents that it’s OK to feed our kids processed snacks, but it’s not. A handful of nuts or a bowl of kale chips would be a much better source of iron, and they wouldn’t include the horrendously high levels of fat (6g per 2!!) and sugar (14g!!) that get added to said Bear Paws.
Children are so vulnerable and so easily influenced at a young age. This is the best time in their lives to introduce the wonders of fine food. It doesn’t have to be complicated or expensive, just basic and healthy. The key is never to introduce those foods at home. Please don’t buy those salt-laden Goldfish crackers! Don’t buy the thickener- and sugar-filled “yogurt” tubes! Don’t buy the artificially-flavoured fruit leather, the juicy “fruit snacks,” the unhealthy NutriGrain bars, the chocolate-slathered Quaker granola bars. It’s all garbage.
Our kids just need food, plain old food. Give them carrots, cucumbers, green peppers. Dip them in hummus or baba ghanouj. Cut up pita, slice a whole-wheat baguette, give them almonds, walnuts, and sunflower seeds. Make granola from scratch, serve it over plain yogurt with a drizzle of maple syrup. Make grilled cheese with whole-grain bread and real Cheddar. Give them fresh peas in the pod. Serve them salads, vegetable-filled soups, stir-fried noodles, curries on rice. They will eat it – if you stick with it. And they will thank you for it later on in life, when they’ve developed a love of good food, and their bodies are still healthy.
Together, we can banish this “snacking culture” that’s doing our children a tremendous disfavour. Rather than pushing empty calories, full of sugar, salt, and fat into their grasping hands at the first signs of hunger, let them be. Let them anticipate lunch and dinner, knowing it will be nourishing and tasty, and, to your own surprise, watch them gobble it up because they’re not full from snacks. Parents, it’s all up to us.