As a parent, it is part of my job to raise healthy children. That obligation includes regular medical and dental checkups, facilitating regular exercise, and offering healthy food choices. Like most red-blooded American boys, my son would undoubtedly choose Doritos over carrot sticks in a blind taste test, but he also willingly eats salad, most vegetables and fruits, yogurt, and lean meat. He doesn’t like milk, so I make sure he has yogurt and string cheese, and he balks at whole grain bread so I serve whole grain pasta and try to add high-fiber foods in at every opportunity. I buy as much organic produce and dairy as I can afford. The school lunch program has become healthier this year, and now offers only meals high in fiber, low in fat grams, and based on the food pyramid. As the result of all this, he is a spectacularly healthy child except for his pre-adolescent-onset Whining Disorder. The only significant threat to his health at this moment is from his father and me, either of whom might willingly shorten his life during a Nag-o-Rama.
It is my belief, as the steward of his food consumption, that there is room for treats. Dippin’ Dots at the mall, McDonald’s every other week or so, cones from “Tasty Twist” on summer nights and cookies right out of the oven are all part of his “diet.” Other folks do not agree. I have had children in this house who were so oppressed and depressed by living on Tofu Pups and soy milk that they could inhale a bag of Sun Chips in less than 5 minutes and then be snuffling around the kitchen looking for other sources of white flour, cane sugar and fat. I have also watched children who, despite being at a normal weight and having no medical conditions requiring a restricted diet, were publicly hectored and embarrassed by parents telling them to “put the cookie back” or that they had “had enough bread already.”
My personal absolute least favorite are parents who try to legislate their own notions of “healthy” for other peoples’ children. According to the self-appointed Health Police, kids eat too much candy at Halloween, so their school party should include only a vegetable platter and a bowl of Goldfish crackers. Teachers should be banned from handing out the occasional Hershey’s Kiss as a reward for a job well done. No one should be allowed to bring in sweet treats for birthdays, or to sports practices or games. Even if one disagrees, personally, the weight of guilt and peer pressure are enormous if you choose to offer a batch of homemade chocolate chip cookies for a post-game snack in front of the mom who sends orange sections and bottled water.
We should all strive to raise kids who make healthy food choices, stay at a reasonable weight and get plenty of physical activity. The fact is, though, that we live in a world full of Krispy Kremes, and a kid who has no experience with the perils of fat , sugar and salt will have an even tougher time making healthy choices once he leaves the protective orbit of parental influence. Anyone who has ever eaten in a high school or college cafeteria knows this to be true.
I would like to think that since Sam has had experience with all kinds of food, that he’ll know whether he wants a salad or a cheeseburger, and choose accordingly. I’d also like to think that if he eats pizza three nights in a row in college, he will recognize that his stomach is “off,” and that what he really needs to eat is a turkey sandwich on whole grain bread and a Clementine. I note with interest that he collects candy at Halloween and Christmas, and likes having it, but very rarely actually eats it. This morning, he found two chocolates in his Advent Calendar; he put them in his “candy drawer” and requested chicken noodle soup for breakfast.
I am as concerned about childhood obesity as anyone, and I have struggled with weight all my life, BUT, I firmly believe that dividing available choices into “good” and “bad” food, micromanaging and projecting our own feelings and fears about food and weight onto our children is a sure way to perpetuate the anxieties and misinformation that got our society where it is today. A wise friend who is a Registered Dietitian says that “all foods fit,” and I believe her. We all want what we can’t have, and the fact that I can’t control myself in the presence of a bag of Cheetos doesn’t mean that Sam can’t eat a handful full and then walk away.
Teach your children to decide what they really want and whether they’re really hungry or just bored, tired or sad. Let them eat anything in moderation unless its medically unwise. Educate them about healthy choices, and talk about how whole grains, fruits and vegetables and calcium help them grow up healthy. Help them to get enough physical activity by taking walks and bike rides with them, and letting them participate in athletic activities they enjoy. Finally, for God’s sake stop trying to force my kid to eat organic sprout patties at the Valentine’s Day party at school because of your food-related issues. I can’t prevent you from turning your kid into a neurotic and guilt-ridden food-phobe, but I can ask you (in the nicest possible way) to stay away from mine.