Tamar Haspel / The Washington Post
Go ahead, tweet about kid food. I dare you.
You’ll find that passions run high, which is understandable. We’ve all been kids, and we all eat. Many of us also have kids, and they eat, too. Each one of us has lived at the interface between children and food, and that makes it harder — not easier — to make sense of it. Passion rooted in personal experience is what makes us lousy at parsing controversial issues.
But here’s the thing about kid food: Dig into it a bit, and you find that it’s not really controversial at all. Just about everybody you would call an expert is singing out of the same hymn book.
For starters, pretty much nobody thinks kids should decide what’s for dinner. There are obvious reasons we don’t put kids in charge of stuff. Chicken nuggets for everyone! Also, no more school! We’ll stay home and run with scissors!
I also couldn’t find any expert recommending that you force your kid to eat — or even try — a food (though there are subtler strategies people argue about). Most experts sign on to some version of what Ellyn Satter, a dietitian and therapist focused on “positive and joyful feeding and eating,” calls the “division of responsibility.” Parents decide when to eat and which choices are available; kids decide whether and how much of those choices to eat.
The big kid-food question isn’t “How should we feed kids?” The big question is “Why do we not feed kids the way everybody knows we should?” I asked Bettina Elias Siegel, author of the new book, “Kid Food: The Challenge of Feeding Children in a Highly Processed World” (Oxford University Press).
Turns out, there are several reasons.
Reason 1: Kid power. “Parenting is more permissive, and parents want to be their kids’ friend,” Siegel told me. “There’s no question that kids have unprecedented autonomy over food choices.” For most of human history, the idea that kids could ask for something special for dinner would have been laughable, both because food was much harder to come by and kids didn’t have that kind of sway. Now, though, Siegel said, kids have a lot of control over what goes into the grocery cart. One study she cites in the book found that kids’ preferences “influenced 95% of parents’ food and beverage purchase decisions.”
Siegel is clear: This happens because people love their kids. We all want to empower our kids. We want to spend quality time with them. We want to feed them foods they like. “One mom told me processed foods was a soft place to land,” Siegel told me. “You come home at the end of the day, you’re tired, you want to enjoy the small amount of time you have with your kid.” You wouldn’t let him light up a cigarette, but a chicken nugget doesn’t seem so bad.
Reason 2: Marketing muscle. The food industry loves kid food! And they use a one-two punch to keep it going: Leverage pester power by selling to kids and use “permission marketing” when targeting parents.
We all know what pester power is. “Mommy, puleeeeeeeeeze …” By using familiar cartoon characters to get kids’ attention, placing kids’ products at their eye level in the supermarket, and making sure the taste is bland and sweet, marketers — who have all seen that study that says kids have input into 95% of food decisions — win kids over.
Permission marketing leverages confusion and uncertainty about what we should actually be eating to make parents feel better about buying the stuff their better judgment might otherwise nix. The tactics include earth-tone packaging and words like “natural,” the prominent featuring of fruits and vegetables on products that are really candy or salty snacks, and health claims for vitamin or fiber content. “‘Made with whole grain’ makes you feel better,” Siegel said. “No one’s putting the sticker on scissors, ‘OK to run with.’”
Reason 3: The treat loophole. Sure, we know kids should have candy or chicken nuggets or sugary cereal only sometimes, but sometimes we fall victim to mission creep. Siegel keeps a list of places that parents report as “regular sources of free sweets” in their kids’ lives, and it includes dance class, doctors’ offices, therapy, retail stores and even the post office.
The turning of treats into mainstays of kids’ diets has played out as the idea “gets endlessly reinforced in all the contexts where pleasing kids’ palates is seen as essential to the bottom line: restaurant kid menus, processed food products, school meal menus, summer camps, etc.”
So how do we fix all this? At the top of Siegel’s list is severe restrictions on marketing to kids, but she sees that as a long shot in today’s political environment.
Parents, though, aren’t powerless. If you’re trying to feed kids better, Siegel has several suggestions. First, “dispense with the idea that kids should eat something different.” Put one meal on the table for everyone, and don’t be a short-order cook.
It also helps if you have the time and resources to cook more. Siegel is acutely sensitive to the constraints parents face, but she says cooking is one of the best tools you have to improve family meals.
And those meals may play out better if kids don’t have unfettered access to snacks. “Hunger is the best sauce,” she said, and you lose that motivation to try something new if kids come to the table full of goldfish crackers.
She emphasizes, though, that the big problems are systemic. If you want to try your hand at advocacy in the hopes of changing what your kids encounter in schools or at sporting events or in grocery stores, her first piece of advice is not to fly solo. “One parent is a fruitcake,” she said. “Three are troublemakers.” Get 50, though, and you’ve got a powerful organization.
It’s obviously way more complicated than that, and “Kid Food” has an appendix full of resources to help parents navigate the kid food world better. I will shamelessly plug this book, which is well-written, well-researched, empathetic and practical, for any parent looking to make some changes.
I do, though, have a sticking point. What are the odds we can help our kids eat better when we can’t seem to help ourselves eat better? Adults have been told to eat more vegetables since the dawn of nutrition advice, but our consumption has flatlined since the 1970s. In the intervening decades, we’ve been eating more processed food, more refined grains, more sugar and more calories. We haven’t exactly carved out the moral high ground, and kids can spot a “Do as I say” closet Dorito-eater at 100 paces.
Although kids are a special case both in that their tastes are being formed and they’re particularly vulnerable to marketing and temptation, the story of kid food is, to a large extent, the story of food. Food manufacturers have been infantilizing us by selling calorie-dense, salty, sweet stuff in brightly colored packages with exciting punctuation for a very long time. And we’re buying it.
They’re using the same tricks — the earth-tone packaging, the beside-the-point health claims, the labels that push the latest diet fad — to help us shut down our common sense. For a half century, they’ve been feeding us a steady diet of pablum and disenfranchisement.
Maybe, just maybe, if we start doing better by our kids, they’ll grow into the first generation to just say no.