Talking Food with your Kids

Over the past century the basic social structure we live in has changed from isolated communities to a hyperintegrated world. This has had a profound effect on raising children. Parents dismiss the guidance and wisdom of the older generation: how can they understand the brave, new world? In a community of so much homogeneity, the experience of peers is meaningless: why should they know more than anyone else? Even commiserating with like-minded parents has become a thing of the past. Although mothers share many of their own frustrations and worries with each other, it is almost taboo to reveal too much. The most basic struggles of parenting remain a dirty secret borne by isolated mothers.

This void leaves ample room for experts--via self-help books, talk shows and practitioner specialists--to swoop in and provide relief with often unsubstantiated advice. Nowhere is this more evident than in feeding children. Local cuisine is overrun by omnipresent fast food. Parents and children are bombarded simultaneously with junk food
marketing and contradictory nutrition advice. Meanwhile, the societal pressure about food and weight is spreading like wildfire all over the globe. Numerous studies have shown that when fast food enters a new country, obesity, striving for thinness and eating disorders are sure to follow. It's clear who is most influenced by these cultural shifts: kids. It's equally clear who feels powerless as a result: parents.

Many food writers have started to ask a simple question. What did we all do before the food industry, agribusiness and nutritionism decided what we should eat? I think the same can be said for families. How did we all feed our children before carbonated beverages, marketing to children, childhood feeding specialists and childhood obesity and diabetes? When it comes to the culture of food, the global community has stripped people of a sense of identity and, by proxy, a sense of belonging. The spreading influence of capitalism and marketing into our food supply and our food choices has replaced tradition with brand loyalty, family recipes with the local fast-food joint. For generation upon generation, food has represented culture and country on a large scale and home for the individual. Embedded in the identity of food is the knowledge of nutrition and healthful eating. Recipes and meals
represent the good feeling of spending time together and the generational knowledge of how to eat well. Feeding children was a shared family and community responsibility to teach them about culture, heritage and health. Food was a source of pride, not a repository of endless shame. There was no need to seek expert advice because everything we needed to know was right in front of us on the dining room table.

Cut off from family and culture, kids look more and more to peers and school for an identity through what they eat. The marketing machine relentlessly exploits the absence of parental oversight by connecting kids to brands. The food industry has self-righteously edged its way into schools and labelled their marketing strategies as educational. Schools then provide junk foods--the only thing kids apparently will eat--while the company justifies the profit-taking by providing schools with sorely needed funds. In this food environment, peer pressure only encourages pursuit of the tastiest morsels of processed foods now available to kids throughout the day. Meanwhile, family dinners, home-cooked meals and a culture of food has largely evaporated. Kids have become the most coveted capitalist asset: an investment paid back with years of brand loyalty.

These external pressures can feel suffocating. The covert message from the food industry is that parents are powerless to affect children's food choices and are simultaneously responsible for childhood obesity. Government interventions also undermine parents' authority by suggesting a meal plan that kowtows to nutritional standards directly influenced by the food industry lobbyists. The overall effect is that parents feel as if they cannot trust anyone, least of all themselves, to know anything about food. The fallacy of this argument is that parents still decide what takes place inside the home.

How does a parent change the conversation in the big, bad world of food capitalism? The answer lies within the home, perhaps no longer on the dining room table but in recent--and easily accessible--family memory. Children remain fascinated by understanding their place in the world. Marketing experts have learned how to manipulate that desire in children into connecting through consumerism. Kids can get a sense of identity from the latest caffeinated, sweetened beverage, or parents can steer the conversation about food to tradition and heritage and
reopen the door for children to belong in a different way. This may mean cooking and eating recipes passed down from older generations. It may mean talking about the role food and cooking played in the family. Or perhaps it is just making grandma's favorite dish for dinner. Parents have the ability to shift the childrens' focus on food to
tradition and culture. Although children will still feel the societal pressures, they will have a different way of thinking about food. Parents can create a home influenced but not dominated by our current culture of food. In a way, each time a parent's voice is heard eliminates a marketing opportunity for the food industry.

One thing I still have not addressed is how parents can feel less isolated when it comes to feeding children. Bringing new ideas about food into the home opens new opportunities for conversation, but the families are still alone. The bigger question--to be addressed in the next post--is how to recreate a community around food.


How Not to Pass Your Food Issues onto to Your Kids

Every parent wants her child to eat normally and healthfully. Every parent wants her child to be free of the societal pressures to eat less and lose weight. However, most parents struggle with their own demons when it comes to eating. No one is immune from the pressures to be thin, the newest fad diet, the endless stream of food advertising or the onslaught of confusing nutritional advice. The unspoken truth is that children carefully observe their parents' behavior around everything, including food. Kids will be aware of the discrepancy between how their parents eat and how they eat. They will notice how daddy skips breakfast or how mommy sneaks dessert or how daddy is always on a diet or how mommy is ashamed of how she looks.
The obvious answer is for parents to fix their own food issues. But parents, at age 30 or 35 or 40, have been trying to solve their eating problems for years. Although parents often report a shift in their eating habits after having children, there is no magic fix. Sooner or later, parents will find the same old thoughts and behaviors creeping up on them combined with the added pressure of trying to hide these embarrassing habits from their children.
So is this just another unavoidable source of parental guilt? Are children doomed to the same endless cycle of food and weight preoccupation? Are parents not equipped to teach their children a new way of eating? Based on the last post, I laid out the concept that children have an innate sense of when to eat and when to stop. A parent's job is to teach kids how to identify and recognize their bodies' needs and then act accordingly. It isn't necessary for the parent to solve her own food issues in order to teach her children about their own internal cues. The parent doesn't have to be perfect because it is not about modelling behavior but learning about your body. The conversation shifts from junk food and thinness to healthful eating and hunger. Every family will have to handle the same outside pressures, but creating a new avenue for discussion will allow children an alternate way to talk about food inside the home.
As the parent refocuses the discussion from conforming to societal norms to child-based learning, she needs to know how to handle her own food issues. Any parent will be tempted to do one of two things. The first is to hide her concerns about food because they are too shameful. The second is to impose her own rules on the child. This would simultaneously lift the pressure on the parent and confuse the child by obfuscating her ability to learn how to eat.
The most effective strategy is to expect that food and weight are complicated topics any family will tackle slowly over time. Parents will struggle how to explain this issue to the best of their ability, just as with the age-old discussion about where babies come from. Success rests on two points: sharing just enough information appropriate to the child's age and showing just enough humility. Children will be curious but usually need a simple answer to satisfy them. Too much information confuses them and too little only piques their curiousity. Many parents will either avoid the topic completely or feel obligated to have a long discussion which goes way over the child's head. In this instance, the parents' clue to stop the conversation comes from the child. Children will ask questions until they understand enough and then move on. Parents should move on too. The conversation is likely to continue on and off for years. Once children know their parents are open to discussing food and weight, they will understand it's all right to ask more questions. 
There is no need to hide that the parent is still learning about food or thinks about weight. It can be comforting to the child when a parent is honest. Since the child will observe a parent's behaviors or hear her discuss her worries, a sincere response will match the child's thoughts. Hiding or lying forces a child to reconcile her confusion often in deleterious ways. This approach to discussing food won't shelter children but instead will allow them to understand and hopefully, in time, find a different way to think about food.  
Younger kids need to learn about food and their bodies. Older kids are more curious how people think about eating or why others talk about being thin. As kids get even older, outside pressures will become more powerful. How can a parent even begin to compete? What do these conversations with kids look like? This information rests in the home, family and community. And that is the topic of the next post.