A Million Meals

Caring for children in today's confusing food environment

Why Food Isn't an Addiction

Parents' job is managing, not eliminating, food cravings in children.

One of the reasons I love writing about children and food is the frequency with which it arises as a conversation topic between parents. Just this past weekend I had a conversation with a fellow parent that made me ponder the kind of food wisdom from which all parents can benefit.

We were chatting over dinner prep about kids' food preferences. My friend--a mother who is smart and thoughtful in the choices she makes for her children--was wondering why children always seem to choose the food that's bad for them over one that is "healthy" (a highly subjective term, despite protests to the contrary). We try so hard to educate our children, from the earliest opportunity, about which foods are best for them. Carrots, apples, yogurt--good. Candy, potato chips, fast food--bad. From the first mush we spoon into our babies' mouths, well-meaning parents these days obsess over making the best, most-informed choices for their child's health. So why is it that these self-same children, thoroughly inundated with positive messages about "healthy" foods, will reliably reach for the Oreo before the carrot stick? How can they not know better, after all the messages we've been teaching and modeling for them since birth?

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The answer is both simple and complex. People have a clear, primal preference for the kinds of foods that we know are terrible for us in excess: sugar, fat, and salt. No one can agree exactly why this preference exists, but one very plausible explanation is that, like all animals, people evolved to survive, and one essential to survival is food. One doesn't have to go back far to find a time when fat, sugar and salt were all in much more limited supply than in our current world. We all grew up marveling over the strange fact that salt was once worth more than gold, or that white sugar was once the privilege of kings and emperors alone--but the amount of time that's passed since those facts were true is a mere blink of the eye in humankind's existence. Fat and sugar are energy sources, and isn't it possible that our physical and mental cravings for them aren't a failure of will-power, as current dietary vogue would suggest, but actual survival mechanisms? It seems highly possible that human evolution hasn't yet caught up to our (very) recent abilities to produce a once unthinkably prodigious supply of these substances.

Other than how much it makes sense, the reason I like this theory is how it can inform your choices, both for yourself and for your children. First, it supports the concept of moderation rather than elimination. Short of returning to a caveman diet--an idea that would seem ludicrous if it hadn't already been in fashion--the most sensible choice is to view these "unhealthy" substances as what they are: essential parts of the human diet, in reasonable quantities. Eliminating all fat from one's diet--as many tried to do in the1990s (remember "Healthy Choice" cookies, fat-free and loaded with sugar to compensate?)--or all sugar, or even all salt merely leads us down dangerous paths. Anyone who's ever given up any of these substances can testify, more often than not, that the cravings intensify rather than disappear. And anyone trying to keep these things from children is also fighting a losing battle: either they will find goodies somewhere else, or they will indulge in them when they're no longer under your thumb. It's a much smoother path for parents to limit sweets and treats rather than ban them, and furthermore, it's a rule we've been following for as long as we can remember: dinner before dessert. It's still a battle of wills, but one based in reality, and thus a reasonable place for parents to put their foot down (something I generally believe children benefit from!).

Second, seeing "unhealthy"  foods as something we are built to need but oversupplied with in the modern world also absolves children from seeming willful or naughty when they reach for the Oreo before the apricot. They hear and may even comprehend our lessons about better food choices, but ancient preferences are still going to steer them quite powerfully in the other direction. Your children's incessant clamoring for junk food doesn't make them brats; it makes them human. Despite a growing understanding of the negative effects of all these foods on the health of both children and adults, we can't conquer our true natures. But we have primal drives that lead us towards other bad behaviors--lying, theft, murder, to name a few--and one of the central goals of civilization is to manage those drives. Parents, as the civilizing force that rules the home, need to manage their children's food intake in a way that takes primal urges into account while refusing to allow them to take over. No marshmallow fluff sandwiches for dinner, please, and let's get some fruits and vegetables into that child before he has a scoop of ice-cream.

Finally, understanding that we need quantities of fat, salt and sugar lets self-flagellating parents off the hook a bit. You aren't a failure if your child eats a cookie. You aren't a rotten parent if your well-meaning lectures on healthy choices seem to be falling on deaf ears. These substances aren't dangerous drugs, despite what the current fashion for referring to them as "addictions" would suggest. After all, we don't need nicotine, alcohol or THC to survive, but we do need food.

There's no miraculous way to ensure your child will grow up being a perfectly balanced eater, just as there's no way to guarantee he or she will be a good person: the important thing is to try to the best of your abilities, and to accept that there are always going to be forces beyond our understanding and our control. The diet industry has a major stake in making us believe that given the right tools we can hone our will power and conquer our innermost selves, but we can't. We aren't purely rational beings, and we can't treat food education like memorizing multiplication tables or overcoming an addiction: it's just not that simple.

What I cooked this week:

  • Easy Stovetop Macaroni with Peas, Bacon and Cheese à la Jamie Oliver (Melissa Clark's In the Kitchen with a Good Appetite): this is my children's favorite dinner at the moment; I leave out the lemon juice
  • Soba with Black-Eyed Peas and Spinach (New York Times, "Recipes for Health") 
  • Homemade Curry Powder (Patricia Wells' Vegetable Harvest)
  • Spicy Butternut Squash Soup (Patricia Wells' Vegetable Harvest)
  • Whole Wheat Bran Muffins with Apple and Cranberries (adapted from this New York Times recipe; I use 1.5 cups whole-wheat flour and 1 cup bran)
  • Olive-Oil Granola with Apricots and Pistachios (Melissa Clark's In the Kitchen with a Good Appetite)
  • Boiled Rice with Mozzarella, Pamesan and Basil (Marcella Hazan's Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking): the "cheesy rice" beloved by my older child, and a great comfort food
  • Rice with Pumpkin and Black-Eyed Peas (Madhur Jaffrey's World Vegetarian): great with mango chutney
  • Linguine with Sicilan Cauliflower Sauce (Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything)

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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