A Million Meals

Caring for children in today's confusing food environment

The Challenge of Agreeing Upon Food Rules to Live By

Is there such a thing as common sense food advice for parents?

One weakness of mine is that I tend to think of myself as being ruled by common sense. So it comes as a shock when I realize that my common sense is another person's crazy—or vice versa. Nowhere is this more true than in reviewing the choices parents make in feeding their children, and I have recently been confronted by how difficult it can be to let even what you think of as common sense rule the day.

Those of you who've been loyal readers will already know that my mantra is moderation informed by a love of food. I think you should cook for your family as often as you can manage—and if you have a full-time career, that probably won't be often. Don't feel guilty about this! It's also common sense that if you're working full- or even part-time you will have less time to lavish upon cooking and shopping for food.

Even if you find you're too busy and/or exhausted to cook, there are still plenty of choices you could make to mitigate your (misplaced) guilt. The ones that make sense to me: avoid processed foods (as much as possible); make sure your child eats fruits, vegetable, whole grains and other whole foods (as much as possible); shun high-fructose corn syrup, trans fats and fast foods (ok, this one I believe you can manage completely). Family mealtimes are also really important—again, I know this one is a challenge for hard-working parents; what is essential is for kids to have regular mealtimes and, ideally, to have one or both parents eating with them.

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My parenthetical qualifications above are also an attempt at moderation: I don't expect that anyone can or should follow food rules absolutely. Life happens and if you have to stray from even your own common sense rules, don't beat yourself up about it. We should aim to create a positive pattern of food behavior, not an ironclad template.

Another common sense rule for me has always been to beware of extending adult food issues to children: don't put kids on diets, unless there's a pressing medical reason to do so; don't ban sweets or treats entirely for fear of creating a forbidden fruit scenario; don't starve yourself in front of your children, and don't binge on junk foods when you think they aren't looking; don't discuss weight in front of your children—especially not theirs.

To me this all seems to make such sense that it hardly even bears saying, yet every week I hear about parents who break these seemingly sensible rules without a thought. Parents who severely restrict their kids' diets; parents who feed their children enormous quantities of soda and processed foods; parents who make no effort to shield their kids from their own disordered eating; parents who comment critically on their children's bodies. We now know the importance of modeling good behavior for our children—why do we often fall so short when it comes to food?

I suspect the answer lies in how out of control many adults feel when it comes to food—food "rules" are so amorphous and fluid from generation to generation, year to year and even community to community. We don't have any certainties to hold onto any more. Unlike appropriate social behavior—it's generally accepted that we ought to teach children to be kind and tolerant, for example—eating has become terribly loaded and fraught with confusion. And the questions parents face splinter us into factions. Is the villain obesity or anorexia? Strict dietary restrictions or inclusion of all foods regardless of health concerns? Should we worry more about the young child who is teased for being chubby or the one who's already internalized how much our society favors thinness?

And I think there's also some harmful blurring between child-appropriate and adult food behavior: If a "cleanse" is good for an adult, is it good for a growing child? How about for a teenager? Should young children be calculating the ratio of carbs to proteins in their daily meals? As children are increasingly exposed to age-inappropriate concerns and issues—and as adults continue to act like children well into adulthood—the rules of common sense when it comes to eating have become warped, lost or broken.

Ideally, all parents in a community would meet and agree upon some common sense food rules to live by—something like what Michael Pollan has been advocating in his work: pick a few simple eating rules to live by. However, if you've ever spoken to other parents you already know this is a laughable proposition; one child adores quinoa or sushi, while the next eats only white foods. One group of parents adhere to a vegan lifestyle while another group make sausage in their spare time. I would challenge you to find more than a handful of other parents, even within your community or school, with whom you could agree upon and actually follow five food rules, however commonsensical they may appear to you.

Finally, there are the challenges posed even within the micro-community of our own family. Think of how different your food rules are from your parents' or grandparents' for a quick illustration of what I'm talking about. Add to that the deep sense of worry and anxiety that are part and parcel of parenting, plus your own concerns about food and weight and body image, and it's not surprising how easy it can be for common sense to get lost in the food shuffle.

What are your common sense food rules? I don't mean the lofty goals we might aspire to but can only rarely meet. Are they the same ones that make sense to me? Chances are that they don't overlap with mine, either completely or at all. But there is one common sense rule I believe we can, and must, all agree upon: we want the best possible outcome for our children—and that is where we have to start.

What I cooked this week:

 

 

 

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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