A Million Meals

Caring for children in today's confusing food environment

What Are Your Kids Eating When They Aren't With You?

And how (much) can you control it?

Good parents obsess over the minutiae of their children's eating. I've seen wonderful, loving parents forcibly shoving food into a young child's mouth, distracting their children with toys to trick them into eating, and pleading desperately with their kid to eat a slice of pizza. Pizza! We've all witnessed, and perhaps engaged in behavior like this; when regarded with a dispassionate eye, the way we feed our children seems, at best, irrational and, at worst, downright harmful. Yet when we're in the moment, we can feel impelled by an irresistible, primal force to get some food--any food!--down those tiny gullets. Clearly, this is ridiculous behavior, a result of misinformation about nutrition as well as the growing societal obsession with controlling our environment in any way possible. An additional irony is that many of us then turn our children over to other people and other places for many of their meals. And we have little or no control over what our children eat when they are away from us.

I thought about this recently as I sat outside my daughter's dance class and watched a group of young children with their nannies. One was the child of someone I know: a slender, pretty woman with a successful career who is highly invested in her children's success; she's the kind of mother who switched schools (at least once mid-year) three times by first grade in her quest to find the perfect spot for her daughter. As usual, watching the four nannies with these kids, I felt like a spy from the world of stay-at-home-mothers, and as usual, I felt my judgments forming like storm clouds. The nannies ignored the children, poring over catalogues and chatting volubly between themselves. I didn't see a single word exchanged between them and their charges in the 45 minutes I sat next to them. Of course, I was alternating between listening to my child reading a SpongeBob book and glancing at my iPhone, but as always, my behavior seemed less reprehensible than the nannies'--hey, I was at least pretending to give my daughter my whole attention. But I knew I was being a little hypocritical even as I uneasily noted the meager interaction between the children and their caregivers.

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Far more difficult to stifle were my reactions to what the kids were eating. One child nibbled a Pop Tart as she read her book--not as heinous as a Twinkie, in the food value system of my neighborhood, but still pretty bad. It definitely wasn't an organic facsimile of a Pop Tart, either, but the real deal. Yet this paled in significance beside the snack a younger child was eating, which had a galvanizing effect on me. Clutched in her little hand--she was 4 or 5 years old--was a Snickers Bar. Not a bite-sized, Halloween-appropriate kind of Snickers, but a regular, 271 calorie, 122 fat-calorie-laden Snickers Bar. It looked positively log-like in her tiny grasp. Honestly, for a moment I seriously considered whether I ought to email her mother, whom I know only casually. I started to imagine a possible post on Isawyournanny.com....

Luckily, I came to my senses and calmed myself instead with a Facebook post, surreptitiously typed on my phone while my daughter narrated Sponge Bob in my ear. I learned quite a while ago (the hard way) that even the best intentions can go terribly awry in these cases; like intervening in a lovers' quarrel, it's a Bad Idea to get involved in someone else's nanny relationship. But the experience did get me thinking about how crazy it is that so many (good) parents exert rigid control over their children's actual food intake, when I wish they (we? I?) could focus more on guiding children's internal food cues--eating when hungry, stopping when full, and so forth--than on what they eat. It would be the rare four-year-old who would decline a giant candy bar (and frankly, I might worry about that child even more!) but one would hope that at some point we can successfully teach a child that certain snacks are better choices than other.

But I think I felt particularly pained watching this adorable girl chowing down on a candy bar because I knew that someone else had made that choice for her, and it was a crummy choice, by any standard. It's the same feeling I get watching children eating Cool Ranch Doritos on the 8am bus with their parents sitting next to them. If even the most privileged and adored children--the Snickers muncher falls into this category, I know--are subject to the misguided, imperfect choices of the adults around them, then the dietary futures of all children are in dire trouble. Without necessarily advocating a fascistic, Bloombergian control over what we eat--banning candy bars and sodas completely, for example--we as adults must take far greater responsibility for helping children make better food choices. Don't shove food into your infant's mouth, however much you worry about their hunger; don't let someone else feed your child inappropriately when you aren't around, however much you worry about being a clichéd helicopter parent.  Let's keep seeking that middle ground where we teach children how to eat based on their own sense and sensibilities, so that when we aren't there they can still, literally, nourish themselves.

What I cooked this week (and last!):

  • Orrechiette with Pistachios (Frankies Kitchen Companion & Cooking Manual)
  • Beet and Avocado Salad (Frankies Kitchen Companion & Cooking Manual)
  • Polpettone: Beef and Veal Meatloaf (Gourmet Today)
  • Salmon with Soy-Honey and Wasabi Sauces
  • Salted Butter Caramels (The New York Times Essential Cookbook)
  • Fish Tacos (The New York Times Essential Cookbook)
  • Spaghetti Carbonara with Zucchini and Mint: 
  1. Slice several zucchini into 1/4-inch coins and sauté slices in olive oil over med high heat until tender and well browned. Salt and pepper to taste and set aside. 
  2. Beat two eggs with a heaping cup of freshly grated parmesan. 
  3. Cook a pot of spaghetti or linguine until al dente and drain. In a large bowl, stirring continuously, slowly mix cheese and egg mixture into hot pasta (don't allow eggs to clump). 
  4. Mix in zucchini slices and several tbsps of chopped fresh mint. Taste and correct for salt and serve.

Zanthe Taylor, M.F.A., is a former dramaturg and English teacher who is currently raising two daughters in Brooklyn, NY.

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