How to Break Out of the Children’s Menu Trap

This post was originally published on this site

In most restaurants in America, the children’s menu is where you’ll find the least nutritious foods: Chicken nuggets, grilled cheese, pizza and French fries are the standard “kid friendly” offerings.

But that wasn’t always the case. In the 1920s and ’30s, restaurants offered their youngest patrons their healthiest meals. Back then children’s menus were designed to promote healthy eating habits: They featured meals like poached eggs, vegetable soups, lamb chops and even “vegetable plates” with buttered peas, carrots and asparagus.

But as fast food became cheap and ubiquitous, the nutritional quality of children’s menus took a nose dive. Today many parents and caregivers take it for granted that kid-friendly foods must be fried, greasy, salty or sugary to win over their target audience.

This seismic shift in children’s eating habits is chronicled in a new book called “Kid Food,” which provides a blueprint for how to raise healthy eaters in a fast-food culture. The book’s author, Bettina Elias Siegel, a nationally recognized food writer, debunks myths about children’s eating habits and explains how parents can advocate for healthier food environments, whether by pushing legislators to regulate junk food ads that target kids, asking schools not to hand out candy as rewards, or encouraging sports teams not to give children sports drinks and sugary half-time snacks.

“I think a lot of parents feel beaten down and hopeless about these issues,” Ms. Siegel said. “They feel that all they can do is to try to keep their children on a healthy path but that there’s nothing they can do about the larger food environment.”

One of the widely held beliefs that Ms. Siegel challenges is the idea that children are naturally picky eaters who gravitate toward bland and highly processed foods. Many babies do become resistant to new foods when they transition to toddlerhood, Ms. Siegel explains, but it’s for good reason. Their bodies are particularly vulnerable to toxins, and their rejection of certain foods, especially the bitter flavors of some vegetables, is likely a protective mechanism which is also seen across a variety of species, including rats and gorillas.

“All kids are hard-wired at birth to have an aversion to bitter flavors, likely because bitterness is a clear signal in the wild that a plant might be poisonous,” Ms. Siegel writes in her book. “Some children are also ‘super-tasters,’ meaning they’re even more sensitive to bitterness in foods.”

This “food neophobia” is something that all children experience at some point, but it is often a phase that passes, like teething or night waking. Ms. Siegel recommends that parents skip bland foods like rice and challenge their children’s palates early and often, starting with the period from roughly 4 to 7 months old. This is the so-called flavor window when babies are receptive to a wide variety of flavors, a concept Bee Wilson explains in her book “First Bite: How We Learn to Eat.”

Another strategy is to feed children purées that contain single vegetables, rather than the combinations of vegetables and sweet fruits, like pear and broccoli, widely sold by baby and toddler food manufacturers. These odd combinations lead kids to believe that vegetables are enjoyable only when they are sweetened. Ms. Siegel also explains how the efforts of well-meaning parents can backfire. Scolding kids to clean their plates, bribing them to eat their vegetables, and applying other forms of pressure can make them even less likely to eat a given food.

Children take cues from adults, and it is best to expose them to nutritious foods in structured environments. Studies show that they are more receptive to new and unfamiliar foods when they sit at a table with adults and observe them eating those foods enthusiastically.

What parents should not do is throw in the towel and feed their kids a steady diet of chicken nuggets and buttered noodles. They should continue offering their kids a variety of foods, Ms. Siegel says, trusting that their palates will evolve. Many nutritious foods are acquired tastes and it can take a minimum of 15 exposures before children appreciate them.

But food companies know that this is a vulnerable time for parents, and many try to capitalize on it. Kellogg’s has marketed its Eggo waffles to parents as a product that will “win over the pickiest eaters,” while Kraft Heinz ran an ad showing a young boy gagging when his parents offered him freshly baked salmon for dinner and then smiling happily when they gave him tacos drenched in Kraft shredded cheese instead.

“It serves the processed food industry to lead you to think that this is the way kids are,” Ms. Siegel said, “and that’s a destructive and easy trap to fall into.”

A former food industry lawyer turned food advocate, Ms. Siegel sent her kids to public school in Houston and began to push for reforms after she joined a committee to review her school district’s food menus. Ms. Siegel started a popular blog, the Lunch Tray, where she writes about children and food. She started petitions that garnered national attention, including one that famously called for schools to stop serving beef scraps known as “pink slime” in cafeterias. Another petition criticized McDonald’s for its in-school marketing efforts.

While researching the National School Lunch Program, Ms. Siegel discovered the enormous constraints that school nutrition programs often face, like chronic underfunding, labor shortages and inadequate school kitchens. One consequence of this is that many school districts see little choice but to open their doors to fast and processed food companies, allowing them to stock their cafeterias and vending machines with the branded junk foods that children find irresistible.

Ms. Siegel writes in her book that at least 6,000 school districts in 47 states partner with Domino’s, the pizza chain, allowing the company to deliver its special “Smart Slice” pizzas directly to their cafeterias. The pies are designed to meet school nutrition standards. But according to Ms. Siegel they send mixed messages to students because they look no different from regular Domino’s pizza and are even delivered in the company’s branded cardboard boxes. “Each time they see these products in their schools,” Ms. Siegel writes, “kids receive a powerful, implicit message that this kind of branded fast food and junk food should be a normal part of their daily or weekly diet.”

Some districts allow an array of other “copy cat” junk foods that meet school nutrition standards, like Cheetos, Doritos, Funyuns, Rice Krispies Treats, and Pop-Tarts.

Ultimately “Kid Food” shines a light on all the ways that kids are bombarded with junk food from the time they are babies. But it also provides solutions for parents who want to improve the food environment. Food companies pay attention when people sign petitions demanding that they remove questionable ingredients from their products. Schools listen when parents ask them to stop handing out candy in classrooms. And politicians make food policy changes when their constituents demand it.

“One of my beliefs is that parents are a big source of untapped political power,” Ms. Siegel said. “These things are not impossible by any means. It just takes collective action.”