The Challenge of “Kid Food” Culture (and What’s a Parent to do)
It’s been a good year for books about food. Ruth Reichl came out with a memoir about her days as editor of Gourmet Magazine. The handsome foodie from Queer Eye published his first cookbook. And Alison Roman, the New York Times writer who cooks the way I want to eat, published Nothing Fancy (how perfect is that title?). They’re all appealing in their own way, but the book that spoke to me most this year, as both a mom and someone deeply concerned about the American food culture, is Kid Food by Bettina Elias Siegel.
This is Siegel’s first book and she’s done a bang up job crystalizing much of what I’ve felt over the years about feeding kids. She manages to address so many of the issues at hand in a way that is relatable, funny, and real. It is to “kid food” what Fast Food Nation was to junk food. Lucky for me, I had a chance to interview her recently and thought I’d share what she has to say.
When I first became a parent, I was overwhelmed by the barrage of unhealthy food that entered my children’s sphere. It’s how my blog tagline came about, “Raising Fresh-Food Kids in a French-Fried World”. Can you talk about the biggest challenges parents face in trying to feed their kids a healthy diet?
I had that same experience, and I think many other moms and dads are equally dismayed by how often their kids are offered junk food outside their homes. Parents typically cite the highly processed, less-than-healthy snacks that seem to be offered at almost every extracurricular activity, the near-constant “treating” of their kids—from lollipops at the dry cleaner to candy rewards at school—and a reliance on junk food fundraising in some school districts. Most parents are usually fine with their kids eating junk food now and then, but “now and then” seems to have gone out the window in today’s food culture!
But another challenge is how hard it is for many well-meaning adults figure out what’s healthy in the first place. In other words, the soccer coach who just handed your child a packet of gummy “fruit” snacks may sincerely believe she’s doing the right thing. That’s because the processed food industry blankets its products with nutrition claims that are literally true but often misleading. (For example, “made with real fruit” can actually mean that a product is less healthy, in that the “real fruit” can refer to concentrated fruit purees that are essentially just another form of added sugar.) In the book, I call that the “claim game,” and while it serves the industry’s bottom line, it only fuels the junk food influx in our kids’ lives. It also creates yet another challenge for busy parents just trying to figure out what’s best for their kids.
How big of a role have you found the food and beverage industry and fast food plays in the rising rates of diet-related disease and obesity in kids?
One of the points I make in Kid Food is that our children’s unhealthy food environment isn’t entirely driven by Big Food; there are other factors at work, too. That said, the food and beverage industries have an enormous impact. For one thing, they collectively spend almost $2 billion every year just to market unhealthy products to our kids, a staggering sum that’s on top of all their regular marketing. Even worse, these industries don’t just reach children through television ads, but also through social media, video games, smartphone apps, and other channels where parents typically have far less oversight. At the same time, these industries also undermine parents’ ability to act as nutritional gatekeepers by using the often-misleading product claims I mentioned above, like “contains whole grain.” It’s what I call the “divide and conquer” strategy to break down the family unit.
Another way in which the food and beverage industries play a role is their continued presence in our children’s schools, despite recent nutritional reforms. While their highly processed products do have to meet today’s stronger nutritional standards, we’re still teaching our kids some troubling messages when foods like Funyuns, Domino’s, Cheetos, and Pop-Tarts are offered or sold to them on a daily basis by their own cafeteria. It’s yet another form of brand advertising to children, who are a captive audience at school.
I remember having friends who were called “picky” when I was a kid, but it didn’t seem nearly as common as it is now. Has there been a rise in kid’s being averse to healthier foods and generally deemed picky? Why is that?
I tend to agree with you, and I think there are a lot of different factors at work. For one thing, the food industry profits from market segmentation, so these days, almost every food you can think of, from frozen meals to yogurt, now has a special “kid’s” version, too. Not only do these kids’ products tend to be loaded with sugar, they also create an expectation in children that food must always be “fun” in some way, whether through the use of novel shapes, unusual colors, licensed cartoon characters, or whatever. Unfortunately, all of this “food-as-entertainment” can make regular, healthier food seem boring by comparison!
Another issue, I think, is that many of today’s parents give their kids a truly unprecedented degree of input over the foods they buy and serve at home. I was shocked by one survey finding that children influence over 95 percent of parents’ grocery purchases! But kids lack adults’ greater knowledge of nutrition, so it’s not really in their best interest to have that kind of autonomy. Along these same lines, many of today’s kids are snacking almost constantly throughout the day. But if children are barely hungry when they sit down to a meal, it’s all too easy for them to regularly spurn healthier foods.
And then, of course, children’s natural love of “kid-friendly” fare only gets compounded when they’re offered the same kinds of foods on restaurant children’s menus, in school cafeterias, in summer camp mess halls, and everywhere else they go. In that sense, it’s really become a societal issue.
What have you learned about best practices when it comes to parenting a picky kid?
Based on my research for Kid Food, there are so many things I wish I’d known when my kids were little! For example, I wish someone had told me that there’s a period in infancy when children are especially open to new flavors, and that you can meaningfully expand their later acceptance of new foods if you take certain steps during this developmental stage. I also wish I’d known that all kids go through at least some period of “food neophobia”—a fear of new foods—and that it’s natural for many children to have at least an initial aversion to bitter flavors, including those in some vegetables. Had I been prepared for those and other totally normal behaviors, I wouldn’t have been so quick to slap a “picky eater” label on my son, which in turn led me to pressure him at meals—a big no-no! I also started to unconsciously limit what I served him. Parents are only human, and when we see a certain food, like broccoli, repeatedly rejected, it’s all too easy to just cross it off your dinner rotation list. Now I see that I should have stuck with all of those foods, while making sure to offer a lot of variety: roasted broccoli one week, steamed with cheese sauce the next.
I think it’s always useful to find the bright spots in what can seem like a pretty depressing landscape. I wonder what you’ve come across that’s hopeful or who is doing something really productive to support kids eating a healthy diet?
There are definitely bright spots! School food is a great example. Thanks to the Obama-era reforms, school food is more nutritious than it’s ever been, and new federal data show that kids are in fact eating these healthier meals, not throwing them out en masse as some news outlets had previously reported. And while many school districts still rely pretty heavily on processed foods, due to insufficient federal funding, there are districts around the country that are managing to offer kids fresher, whole foods, along with a wider variety of entrees.
I’m also encouraged that many of today’s younger parents seem especially interested in feeding their children healthfully, which in turn has pressured many food companies into offering more transparently labeled, healthier products. That said, I’d also love to see this interest and energy directed toward advocacy for policies that could make a real difference for all kids, such as a ban on kid-directed food and beverage advertising and healthier children’s menus in restaurants.
Given the challenges in our current food culture, what can parents do to make sure their kids eat a balanced diet and learn to embrace healthy foods?
All of the research I did for Kid Food leads me to counsel parents to just doggedly stick with it! In other words: keep serving healthful meals, try as often as you can to sit down as a family, model healthy eating with your child, and try not to in any way pressure a reluctant eater. As a parent of a formerly veggie-averse son, I know it isn’t always easy to follow that advice. But, as many more experienced parents told me back then, you really need to take the long view. These days, my 17-year-old son eats a much wider array of vegetables, and while he still doesn’t love all of them, he’s open to trying just about anything. So I promise you, there is hope!
I also think that teaching kids how to cook for themselves is hugely important, because otherwise they’ll be at the mercy of fast food and take-out when they’re on their own. (This will sound like I’m trying to ingratiate myself with you, Katie, but I think your Prep cookbook for teens and college kids is a fantastic resource in that regard!) And I also think it’s important to give kids at least some degree of media literacy: that is, showing them exactly how marketers try to shape their desire for certain foods, entirely for profit and often at the expense of their own health. (A great book for that purpose is Eat This! by Andrea Curtis.) Once kids get a peek behind the curtain, it can make those marketing messages a lot less powerful.