Nov 7, 2011

What Happened To Children's Menus?


If You Won't Eat It.
Why Make Your Kids?
I spent the good part of my first 36 years choosing the meals I wanted.  When I was young, however, it was up to my folks.  They rarely ate out, so often I had to eat what they served up.  From what I remember, it was always healthy, rarely fried or processed, and typically included meat and vegetable, and sometimes a very small desert, often fruit.  If I didn’t eat what I was served, I went hungry.  Pretty straight forward.  It wasn’t until I got hitched and inherited my wonderful stepson, Christopher, that I was suddenly catapulted to head children’s food critic for our family.
Now, I consider myself somewhat of a food snob, in that I watch carefully what I put into my body.  Years of studying and reading nutrition and countless hours of food documentaries have made me understand that most food we are exposed to in the US is marginally nutritious at best.  And, genetically modified, hormone or antibiotic treated food pretty much scares me silly.  My wife is a recent food snob convert, which was easy considering I love to cook and often do so as if the kitchen was my lectern.  She is originally from a moderately large city in Russia, where typically only the freshest produce, dairy and bread is available for purchase.  Where food labels (if they were required) would consist of four ingredients, not 27 as they often are here.  Where if you didn’t eat your food in three days, some other furry, green culture would do it for you.   The idea of watching what you ate was new, because until she moved to the US, she never had to worry about petroleum-based ingredients in her food.

With the obesity problem continuing to grow and becoming one of the most significant health issues in our society, it’s difficult to ignore the warning signs.  Food portions have increased dramatically, and cheap, convenient food has ingrained itself in our daily landscape and routine.  We have all come to expect to purchase a 6-month supply of cornbread stuffing and for it to stay edible for five years.  In the end, however, we are responsible for our own choices.  If our belt sizes and dependency on pharmaceuticals to control our blood pressure isn’t warning enough, then when we die of heart failure, we have nobody to blame but ourselves.

But children are not adults.   They do not have the savvy ability to know good nutrition from bad.  They know not the consequences of what they put in their bodies, which is the reason a child can eat an entire Costco size bag of M&Ms without thinking twice.  We, as adults, are their mentors, their educators, their enforcers.  It is our responsibility and obligation to assure the welfare of our children by providing nutritional options and encouraging proper eating habits.

So then, what is up with children’s menus at restaurants?  When was it decided that a children’s meal should include fried processed meat parts, cheesy processed grains and sugar-ladened drinks?  Why is that when nutrition is absolutely most important, during the critical developmental stages of a child’s life, we are feeding and encouraging absolute crap when eating out?

This first struck me when my wife and I first started dating and taking little Christopher, 3 years old at the time, to a few local restaurant chains.  In almost every incidence, we were greeted by a happy and hardy server who would turn to Christopher and ask, “Can I get you something to drink?  Sprite?  Chocolate milk?”

Sprite?  Chocolate milk?  Let me get this straight … high-fructose corn syrup fizzy water or over-sugared hormone-laden milk?   Seriously?  When did these become the default offerings to children? To add fuel to my already growing angst and dislike of this practice, there are several restaurants where we live that offer white milk or juice as a substitute … for an additional charge!  Are you freaking kidding me?  Now they actually encourage the consumption of high-sugary drinks with zero nutritional value through monetary incentive?  That should be illegal.  And, don’t even get me started on Happy Meals!

Then, look at what is consistently offered up on every kid’s meal menu.  Chicken nuggets, French fries, pizza, macaroni and cheese.  Where are the pure proteins, complex carbohydrates, healthy fats?  I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been met with a completely blank and puzzled look when I asked if we could get grilled chicken for our kid.  I know it’s not on the menu, but can you grill a piece of chicken for my kid?  Do you even offer vegetables in anything less than one-pound portions?  Funny story … we have actually had a server ask us sincerely, as if she felt true concern for our child’s well-being, if Christopher might like some French fries or Ranch dressing to help make his food more pleasurable.  We’ve also had servers look at us as if we should have child protective services called.  All we want to do is give our kid a healthy meal that tastes good … how did we become the bad guys?

Don’t get me wrong, we don’t run a military-style feeding routine, and for the most part, Christopher enjoys his meals.  I’m a persuasive cook, what can I say?  In fact, I’ve never seen anybody eat as many greens and as much fruit as this kid.  We do indulge from time to time, for instance pizza (wheat bread and healthy toppings, of course) or REAL mac and cheese, but for the most part, we just make eating healthy enjoyable … and we keep the unhealthy alternatives out of the equation altogether.

Now, I understand how convenient fast food can be to satisfy a hungry, grumpy child.  I understand how easy it is to throw frozen French fries in the oven instead of baking a fresh potato and making it flavorful.  I understand that a jar of Jiffy peanut butter costs $3, while a jar of all-natural organic peanut butter, with no salt or sugar added, costs $6, and requires you to stir the damn thing before you eat it!  And, I understand now how difficult it is to say “no” to a child when he or she sweetly, authentically and sincerely looks you in the eyes and asks, “Pwease, may I have macaroni and cheese?!?!”

But nothing that was ever good for us was ever easy, and nutrition is definitely no different.  And since when do we skimp on providing our children with the best source of a healthy diet?  During their early years, children are constantly growing and developing physically and physiologically.  They do not know that proper nutrition, vitamins and minerals are essential for providing the body the proper building blocks for growth and maturity.  They do not know where or how to get these vital building blocks.  And, maybe more important, they don’t understand which sources to avoid.  It’s up to us to guide them along.  It’s up to societies and communities to encourage it.

So, next time you are at dinner with your kids, opt for the white milk, grilled meat and vegetables, even if it means sharing a plate with them.  A LITTLE ketchup will help, but don’t be liberal in your serving size.  You will be doing both of you a favor, because let’s face it … do YOU really need that cheese burger and fries with a super-sized Sprite?

(Join Jamie Oliver’ Food Revolution and support better meals in schools.  It’s our children’s right and our obligation)