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.

No comments:

Post a Comment