Abandon sushi and coffee. Eat spicy and the baby will like spicy (but not too spicy). Beer = bad. They drink wine in utero in France. Breast, right? Go organic. Get a blender. Put food in front of them and hope for the best. Make separate meals. They have to eat more. Together. They’re eating too much. Trans fats. Hide the avocado in the cupcakes. Sign up that teen for cooking classes. You do what? You don’t do what? You know nothing about motherly love.
The voices, internal and external, start in pregnancy and continue through to your progeny’s high-school graduation. How to feed a child is a huge, primal responsibility — I made this body, now I must sustain this body — that’s lately become a mystifying labyrinth. So much so that negotiating the care and feeding of offspring now comes with a slew of books and blogs advising anxious parents. My favourite title is the doomed-before-you-start How to Get Your Kid to Eat … But Not Too Much.
Of course, the source of the panic is serious. In Canada, childhood-obesity rates are on the rise. A 2007 government report concluded that one in four Canadian children is either overweight or obese, and the sobering ramifications include increased illness, a stressed-out health-care system and a generation that might not live as long as its parents.
Yet we receive this information from within a strange cultural divide: Fatty, processed foods and a screen-centric lifestyle may be making us hefty, but healthy, elaborately prepared food is as trendy as Twitter. Two decades ago, there was only one celebrity chef, Julia Child — back in vogue, thanks to Meryl Streep —but now a fleet of TV stars like Nigella Lawson advocate locally sourced, lovingly designed, slow-cooked family meals. Naked Chef Jamie Oliver campaigned to overthrow the British government’s flabby school-lunch programs, and two successful TV shows recorded the battle as entertainment.
This ideal of a locavore’s (preferably organic) home-cooked meal may be fashionable, and yet, as always with fashion, it’s mostly meaningless in real life. Earnest foodies worship Alice Waters, the California restaurateur and mother of the slow-food movement, but most of us bow down to Kraft, and a few of us to something in between, like Annie’s Organic Macaroni & Cheese, a brand whose slogan should be Feeble Gestures for Those Who Know Better But Are So Freakin’ Tired. Confronted with the buy-local movement, a hard-working friend who’s the father of a two-year-old sighed: “I wanted to try the 100-Mile Diet, but it turns out it doesn’t mean shopping within 100 miles of my house.” Choosing between the knowledge of eating right for the planet and our kids, and the slimness of our wallets, a sheepish hand might reach for the canned-in-Mexico corn (99 cents) instead of its pesticide-free, grown-next-door sibling ($3 an ear).
Yet all this guilt may be baseless: Research on creating healthy eaters is filled with contradiction and counter-intuitive results. According to a study of 7,000 inner-city children, physical proximity to a fast-food restaurant or to a playground doesn’t change rates of overweight kids. A separate study of more than 1,500 Native American children — a group at high risk of obesity — found that encouraging exercise at school has no effect on weight either.
Despite all we don’t know, feeding children continues to shift from a private concern to a public one. Super-chef Gordon Ramsay has suggested that parents of obese kids should be fined. Last year, in Scotland, a couple with six heavy children (the 12-year-old weighed 224 pounds) were told they had to slim down three of their kids or child services would remove them all, a literal interpretation of the idea that fat is child abuse.
I wonder how this free-floating angst about weight is affecting our families. What is it like to grow up being told you are destined to be (or already are) part of an epidemic? What’s it like to know only frozen yogourt and never ice cream, or to view the peanut as a mortal enemy? If those Scottish parents love their kids, is foster care less of a threat to their future than fat? I read recently about “no-food birthday parties,” some people’s solution to allergies and food preferences. It’s as if food has become so complicated for kids, we’re finally just cutting it out entirely.
In another endeavour that stinks of defeat, schools in 14 states in the U.S. have implemented a program called Lunchprepay.com, which records all food purchases made at school by a child so parents can monitor their eating from home. So we can’t teach our kids how to control their eating, but we can show them what control looks like. If self-esteem is a key issue surrounding weight — and most researchers agree it is — then treating your kid like a food-sneaking criminal with an onion-ring ankle bracelet doesn’t exactly seem like a helpful ego boost.
But weight is always about scrutiny, and girls still bear the brunt of judgement: A 2007 study in Canadian Family Physician found that parents are less likely to notice weight problems in their sons than in their daughters.
When we analyze our kids’ eating at every juncture, food becomes joyless, and joylessness around food is a central component of an eating disorder. I can remember precisely when all pleasure fell away from food for me. In Grade 11, with a nervous eye on adulthood and a rage for control, I made some diversions into an eating disorder that lasted into my early twenties. I emerged, through luck and determination, relatively unscathed. But when I encounter yet another online post about “nine ways to get your toddler to eat vegetables,” or hear the umpteenth expert on morning TV lecturing on trans fats — even when I know that all such information is sound — I’m taken back to that time: An eating-disordered life is defined by dullness and repetition, a hectoring inner voice that’s angry and disappointed, weighing good food against bad food, the good body against the bad body. It is a life of futility, based on unattainable goals of perfection: How to Get Your Kid to Eat … But Not Too Much. It is the voice we use far too often when we talk about feeding our kids.
One of the most uncontested pieces of research on healthy eating holds that children model their parents’ eating and exercise habits. In our house, we try to feed our two young children healthy food (okay, so we also have a meaningful relationship with the nugget, but it’s soy). We don’t banish treats, and I have never uttered the word diet in the presence of my kids. But I still wonder if the occasional battles at the table have more to do with me than with them. The most sound advice on feeding one’s kids is “Put healthy food out there and shut your mouth,” wisdom fuelled by the fact that most children served healthy food will, over the course of a week, get the nutrients they need. But oh, it can be difficult to stay silent when a skinny little boy you love turns away a full plate of food for the third night in a row. With my adolescent experience, it’s what’s not eaten that strikes fear, more so than what is.
The best family meals we have are the ones where we laugh the most, and no comment besides “Delicious” is uttered about the food. So I am working — inching — toward the goal of silence, or at least toward a calm conversation about health and food. Food needs to be linked to pleasure again, a reminder of all the possible worlds out there available through that great, contested sensory organ, the mouth. Health can’t simply be about eating consciously; it’s about eating joyfully across the table and the generations.