A Million Meals

Caring for children in today's confusing food environment

Why Mindless Eating May Be Healthier Than You Think

Don't make your child a nutritionist.

I last wrote about the now-notorious Vogue diet mommy, and I realized this week there's one major thought I omitted. Dara-Lynn Weiss was labelled "the worst mother ever" by many readers and bloggers, but the reason the piece hit home for so many parents—the reason Vogue published it, I presume, unless they were merely being cynical—is that Weiss is not “the worst mother ever” for being concerned about her daughter's weight. While I take issue both with her actions and her projecting her own body issues onto her young daughter, it's indisputable that her anxiety over having a chubby child is one shared by many, many parents. And in this age of growing public concern about rising childhood obesity rates, it's an anxiety many parents feel OK expressing and even embracing. But even if we don’t take drastic or downright cruel measures like Weiss’s, our concerns can still manifest themselves in harmful ways, despite our best intentions. The most widespread manifestation of this is how we’ve come to confuse “healthy eating” with having a healthy attitude towards food.

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My own daughter, as I've written in the past, is currently much rounder than she was in comparison to her peers. I’d be lying if I claimed I'd never come close to telling her she shouldn't have that second dessert or bag of chips she's begging for if she doesn't want to be fat. But I haven't. I seal my lips and bite those words back. Mind you, I still say no. I still exercise ultimate control over what my kids do and don't eat. I just try incredibly, sometimes painfully hard not to link those decisions with weight or body image.

This is, as all parents can agree, a tricky business—and it is why so many good parents have gratefully latched into the term "healthy eating." Exhorting  one's child to "eat healthily" seems vastly more acceptable and less dangerous than branding them as little pigs for wanting more dessert or eating junk food. But kids are smart—many of them will discern fairly quickly that "healthy" is a code word for "thin." And even those who don't are likely to fall into the trap of what Michael Pollan named "nutritionism": thinking primarily of food as fuel, or medicine, or as a combination of nutrients (read this if you have no idea what I'm talking about or haven't read The Omnivore's Dilemma—which you should, incidentally). This focus on food as nutrition can lead to disordered eating just as much as can explicitly linking food to body image.

I'm not saying that we shouldn't be aware of what we eat: there are better and worse choices. But isn't it possible to make those choices for our children without necessitating that they become mini nutrition experts? After all, until middle school and even beyond, much of what your child eats is either directly chosen or heavily influenced by you. And while I'm all in favor of education, I advocate different, age- and role-appropriate methods for teaching your child good eating habits. Namely: eat normally yourself; cook; teach them to cook when they're old enough; avoid processed and pre-made foods as much as possible. Above all, let your children enjoy good food without turning so-called "healthy choices" into a major factor of their day. If anything, our goal for our children's eating habits should be that they make good choices without thinking too much about them.

 What I cooked this week (lots of winners 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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