Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Five thoughts on kids and food

I've been meaning to blog on this topic for a while, but the small debate over at Craig's blog yesterday on kids and food has prompted me to do it now.

Now you're all going to think I'm a food snob or a food nazi or a party pooper, and I'm sure I'll get shot down in flames because hardly anyone I knows shares these views, but here goes. I think that, on the whole, our society has a Bad Attitude when it comes to how we feed kids. It's no wonder there's an increasing obesity epidemic. But it's not just about health, it's also about simple taste! This attitude is exhibited in a number of ways. Here's five of them:

1. As I said over at Craig's blog, it troubles me that junk food is equated with fun. This comes through in what we hand out to kids at their parties (and then give them another bag full of the junk to take home!!!), through to the face of McDonalds being a fun loving clown. Indeed, McDonalds can wear a lot of the blame in my opinion. I have no time for that institution at all. It serves up crap disguised as food, and clothes it in a sugar coating (literally) of fun - kids playgrounds, kids parties, free toys with meals. The one time I took my daughter (then aged only 1) to McDonalds (only because of lack of choice on the highway!), she started kicking her legs with excitement at the sight of the bright vibrant colours - it immediately appeals to kids.

2. The other similar thing that troubles me is that so many restaurants have a "kids menu" which invariably consists of chicken nuggets, chips, hamburgers or anything else battered - once again, crap. I'm not saying I never eat those things (though chicken nuggets I will draw the line at), but when meals such as these are the only things on a so-called "kids menu" what on earth is the message that we are conveying?? What's wrong with sharing some of your risotto with the child? Or serving child sized portions of risotto? This happens also in homes. We have one meal for the adults, and another for the kids, and often the kids meal is stuff warmed up from the frozen food section of Coles.

3. We also use junk food as the reward for "eating your greens". It pits the "nice food" against the "necessary evil food". Again, what's the message this is sending? Why not encourage kids to enjoy avocado, or brocolli, or peas. Cook them in interesting ways. Eat foods raw (my girls love snapping open snow peas and gobbling them up). Give them flavoursome sauces. Get them to help you cook them to increase their interest.

4. Apart from the health issues, there's a broader issue of letting our kids develop a wide taste for interesting and varied foods. Frankly, whether McDonalds is nutritious or not (and we know the answer to that), the simple fact is it tastes like vomit. Why limit them to such garbage when there is a world of interesting and delicious foods out there. In multicultural Sydney there is no excuse - there is such variety to try. Take them out for Vietnamese or Lebanese or Indian. Let them try olives and grilled eggplants and Pad Thai and hommous and curries.

5. Finally, I feel that we often treat our kids like second class citizens. We eat the expensive good stuff ourselves, and give them the cheap stuff. We justify it by saying they're too young to appreciate it. Garbage. My own hypocrisy on this was exposed when we had a family over for a meal and served a cheese platter - a block of blue vein cheese (more expensive) for the adults and block of cheddar cheese for the kids (surely that's all their unsophisticated palates can handle?). Guess which one the kids got stuck into? The blue vein!! And why not - let them enjoy the good stuff too! Why should the adults have all the nice food?

Anyway, there's my thoughts? What are yours?


Precious said...

An interesting point you make re. variety of tastes, Andy. The range of tastes children enjoy can be related to whether they were breastfed. Older children who were breastfeed extensively as babies are more inclined to try and enjoy a wider range of foods, rather than sticking to "beige" foods.

John Dekker said...

Great post, Andy!

Andy M said...

What's going on?!? 2 comments so far agreeing with me! I was expecting to get howled down!!

michelle said...

Precious, can you reference that comment please? I don't doubt it, and I am passionately in favour of breast-feeding children, but can you please point me to the evidence...

Andy, our 2 year old has a taste for brie, olives, espresso (not that she's allowed more than a few drops), 70% dark chocolate, washed-rind cheese, spicy chorizo sausages, and won't eat spaghetti bolognaise unless it's 'Daddy's Secret recipe' which includes red wine, worcestershire sauce, lots of garlic and a whole host of other herbs and spices.

Although she enjoys such a variety of foods, and eats very healthily all through the day, we do find dinner time a major struggle, as everyone is tired and cranky by then, and we have been guilty of going the easy option of re-heating frozen rubbish.

However, we're feeling challenged by your post, so tonight she's having pumpkin and parmesan risotto. Thanks for making us question this issue. Drew and Michelle

Precious said...

Hi Michelle,
It's something I learned from the Australian Breastfeeding Association at my birthing classes. There is heaps of info about the benefits of breastfeeding available at the ABA website and LRC (Lactation Resource Centre) who do a lot of breastfeeding research, as well as international sites.

Ruth said...

Interesting post Andy. I disagree with you on many points (if that gives you some comfort!), but on some I agree, which surprised me!

I like Maccas - I like the taste, and I have no problem with my boys eating it occasionally. It's completley out of our price range - so we're pretty safe on the 'occasionally' front.

We make all food 'fun' in our household - so the boys think that 'bread with bits in it' is a really special treat - and they get to eat it every day! They love their vegies, today 'D' scoffed a bowlful of baby spinach leaves down in a few mouthfuls - it's his favourite.

My boys dont have a wide variety of tastes though (and not because I didn't breastfeed them - quite frankly I find that argument a little bizarre precious), but because if I go to major effort to cook different things, they just don't eat it. We have an 'eat what's in front of you, there is no alternative' policy in our house - so they decide not to eat those meals and to go hungry. There is only so much of this I personally will put up with - because I can't afford to have so many leftovers every night.

Also, I think some of the reasons we serve a different 'more readily accepted meal' to kids that come over with families, is for convenience of conversation sake - which is not actually a bad reason. What we want to fight with our kids over - i.e eating the food put in front of them, may not be what our friends want to fight over with their kids - and spending a lot of time, when we could be talking - and they could be playing - seems to me a waste of a visit.

Having said that, we always have veggies with our meals for kids that come over as well as whatever junk is on their plates - and we have a 'no finish the main meal, no dessert' policy here...not that we have dessert that often.

As for party food - I have no problem with that. My kids don't get to eat the lollies from their bags after the party- they get put into a cupboard for a rainy day. I also don't put just lollies into the bags I make - somethimes there is no food at all - just toys and bubbles, and balloons.

However, my children so seldom get invited to parties - that I don't think it's a problem for them to eat that 'junk' and for them to equate it with 'special treat'. It is a special treat - they dont get it often. Like smoked cheese is a special treat - we only have it on holidays.

I thought your point about the 'kids menu' was interesting. I have been to a few places that do sandwiches for the kids as well - but I find it ridiculous to spend that amount of money on something I could simply have made at home. We mostly share our meals with the boys - but not because of health, because of cost.

My boys also think green beans are a variation on jelly beans - and so call them 'lolly beans'!

Good thought provoking post Andy. I also find using fruit as a reward for things works better than junk food. My boys love fruit. I don't want them to equate food as a reward all the time though - so sometimes their reward is just a hug and kiss - and sometimes it's just a thank you.

What I really struggle with, though, is a boy who greets me each morning with 'I'm hungry mummy' and continues in that vein all day long - who eats everything put before him, and goes through our cupboards looking for food when we're out of the room. I've never met a child who eats so much - and although we're cutting him back to 3 main meals, and two snacks - he spends most of the rest of the time crying now as a result. He's not overweight in the slightest - he's a very energetic child. It's been a hard week battling with him though.

Ruth said...

Sorry -last comment sooooooooooo long!

Mattt said...

Cool post Andy. I'm passionate about food so, God willing, I can't wait to have a crack at my own kids one day

Owls said...

But junk food is fun, Andy! Surely you can't deny that. Isn't the problem when _only_ junk food (and only packaged junk food, at that) is seen as fun.

(aside: At J's birthday party recently I went to lots of effort to make lovely little bikkies and cakes (the ones you see in the 'special occasion' section of the cook book). I had a guest with severe allergies, so I also had some chips because she has been taught not to eat things others cook. But everyone ate the chips, next to no-one ate my lovely home-made junk food! It was very sad. (In all fairness, they also demolished the fruit platter. Is there some deep seated suspicion in childrens minds of home baked goodies? Or is it just risky: you don't know what you'll get. It might turn out to be banana flavoured!!! ;) )

I love the point about kids menus, and agree that take-home lolly bags should be banned, or if they have to be there, limited to only 2 or 3 good quality things. I'd also like to ban bowls of plates of junk food left at parties at child height. Some kids can't self-regulate. (Tho on the bright side, I have one, who once scoffed a whole bowl of jubes, threw up, and is now self-regulating!)

I think you'll approve this conclusion Andy: Junk (= unhealthy, & includes fancy cheeses!) food is fun. But I think it's a very good thing to give our kids _small_ amounts of _high quality_ junk food on _special occasions_. (And we won't be able to afford it more often than that anyway.) Complete prohibition leads to disaster. Better to teach discernment.

(and lest I seem to be taking a moral high ground, we eat maccas on the road too. I even drink maccas coffee on occasion, which I think is even worse...)

Owls said...

I forgot to add yesterday that I really like Ruth's point about sometimes choosing to have 'mass appeal' food for the purpose of enabling adult conversation.

I'd broaden that and say that we shouldn't let food hinder relationships -- it's just not that important. (So do not worry about what you will eat, drink etc, but seek first the kingdom -- Matt 5ish). We had someone over once who was turned off by the fact that we had 'health food' for lunch (i.e. salad rolls). It got back to us that this had made him uncomfortable and not very keen to come back. He did return tho, and the next time we had meat pies. All things to all men.

We also need to remember that the kind of food we serve speaks not only about our tastes and desires to be healthy, but can indicate a social demographic & income bracket. We shouldn't let the food we serve embarrass people, or make them feel inadequate, or unable to return our hospitality.

I wonder how much childhood obesity problems stem not from tasting good and advertising, but the fact that unhealthy food is cheaper and often quicker and easier to prepare than healthy food. Not something we often hear in the debate.

A final thought in this vein... I have a friend who didn't want to send her kids to a private school because she didn't want them to feel that skiing trips to Europe and designer clothing was normal and anything less contemptible. We need to be careful we don't do the same thing with food and make our kids judgmental little food snobs! (That doesn't, of course, mean not teaching them to eat healthily & well!)

And now I'm off to blather on the baptism thread...