For a generation, many North American parents have indulged children’s picky eating tendencies by sticking them in an endlessly repeating loop of chicken fingers, burgers, pizza, plain pasta, mac and cheese, and grilled cheese sandwiches. Anyone who has sat down for a meal with youngsters over the past 25 years will recognize this list of typical “kids’ foods.” Pushed out of the picture, to varying degrees for different children, are fruits and vegetables and anything else that might challenge them, from spicy delicacies to unfamiliar proteins. To picture what this might look like to a visitor from almost anywhere else in the world, imagine we just mashed up some bread and cheese and mechanically separated chicken flesh together, called it Kiddy Chow, and bought it by the bag to rip open to feed the tots.
Mealtimes for children were quite different just a few decades ago. Over the past few months, I’ve spoken casually and in formal interviews with dozens of people about food and childhood. As a general rule, people who grew up in North America and are now over the age of 30 recall that when they were children, kids ate what the adults ate. Families usually dined together at the table. There might have been foods you didn’t like; depending on the rules of the house you might have been expected to try them or even finish them. Or you might have been free not to, as long as there weren’t too many foods you were refusing. Either way, it wouldn’t have occurred to you that an adult was going jump up from the table to prepare you something precisely to your liking. And if you didn’t eat, you might have to wait quite a while for the next opportunity: Studies show that North American kids snack more often and consume more calories than they did in the 1970s.
With a baby on the way, this is something that has been on my mind more and more. I want to be intentional about what my child eats, and make sure she doesn’t grow up like her dad.
I grew up eating a metric ton (wait, no, not metric) of bagel bites, lean cuisines, mac and cheese, and grilled cheeses. I always wanted the kids menu at restaurants and as embarrassing as it is, I still frequently do. If my wife isn’t around to make dinner or at least plan it, I will stuff my face with [BRAND NAME] mac and cheese. I absolutely believe that teaching good and varied eating habits to kids will turn them into healthier eaters as they grow up.
Aside: Mom. I love you. You did a great job raising me. You had to raise four of us at a time and it was a freaking war zone. I chewed on piano keys and carved angry messages into desks. I threw some monster tantrums. I really don’t know how you made it out alive.
Some of the strategies outlined here are going to be a good guide for how we want to raise our children to eat. I don’t want my child sucked into seductive kids menus. I’m not going to give her whatever she wants to eat all the time. I want her to try new and strange foods and grow up with that sort of culinary curiosity.
Of course there’s no doubt kids tend to emulate their parents. So if I want my kids to be more adventurous in their diets I’m going to have to do the same. I’m trying to do that right now. I’m saying yes to things with more tomatoes and onions than I’m used to. Often times, it turns out that I like what I’m eating just fine. I’d just refused to accept it because it had something that I didn’t like all that much as a kid. Plus, it wasn’t beige. I thrive on the beige to yellow-ish portion of the menu. But fatherhood changes you, and I think this is just one of many ways I’m going to change.