Damage control

Our 6-year old goes to kindergarten at a public charter school. When we moved to Indianapolis, the school question was a pretty big one — as it can be for most first-time-parents-of-a-school-aged-child. The thing about the education dilemma is that there truly are positives and negatives with all options (those being: public, private, and home — and we have good friends in all three). So, you’re in a position of choosing the one that has the least amount of negatives for you, while knowing that there will still be drawbacks no matter where you land — ones you might have to work at home to counter.

We have been uber-happy with our daughter’s school, as is she. It’s a great fit for her personality, and the teachers and administration are intelligent, motivated, and actually want to be there. But in any school setting where someone else is teaching your children, you know that at some point your children will be taught something you might disagree with. We know this; the key is realizing how to dialogue with your child at home to help them see that there might be more than one side to the story. But our daughter is in kindergarten — so in some ways I think I had a few years before I faced these potentially difficult conversations. And I expected them to be on more hot-button issues — things such as the origins of the universe or birth control. So I’ve been a little caught off-guard the past couple of weeks, realizing I was already needing to have a damage-control-type conversation with her. I was also a bit surprised at the subject that was starting off this whole give-and-take relationship with public education: the food pyramid.

I began prepping for dinner last weekend, and was about to start our typical Sunday-night catch-all skillet frittata by cooking some bacon. Since I knew I’d be cooking a separate omelet for my daughter, I asked her if she wanted a side of bacon. “Sure!” was her initial response. Then, a moment of hesitation, and she said, “Nevermind. Bacon isn’t healthy.”


“Why do you say that?” I asked casually (though my insides were already fuming).

“Well, the bacon part is ok, but it’s all the fat that’s not healthy,” she replied.

Oh, right. All the fat.

Tim heard this conversation, so he starts to counter by telling her that, for one, we don’t eat bacon at every meal, or even every day, for that matter (though I easily could). Then I start down the road of all-fats-not-being-equal, and trying to only eat animal fats that are from healthy, happy animals, etc. But immediately I realized this was falling on ears that had moved on to something else entirely. In a whimper of defeat, I found myself mumbling reasons to myself with no audience other than the bacon already sizzling in my skillet.

And, you know, it’s a difficult argument. The old food pyramid has fats way up at the very top — the pinnacle — and says we should “use them sparingly,” as if they are something not unlike the cherry on top of our menu sundae, and we should put a few drops on our food if we must. The new pyramid is a bit friendlier, telling us to “make most of our fat choices from fish, nuts, and oils,” but it’s even more confusing, with its awkward vertical stripes (are they supposed to make us all look thinner? or are they metaphorical paths to some sort of health heaven?). So here I am, having to convince my 6-year old that not only is it ok to have fats, but we really and truly need them — even those of the animal variety. We need them way more than we need that “one piece of candy a day” that the school health gurus told her was a “healthy” amount.

Really though. I do understand the battle that educators are up against in giving eating tips to these elementary-aged kids, many of whom might feed themselves dinner on a daily basis. But I was one of those kids, too — and I’m here to tell you that having the food pyramid handed to me when I was ten years old probably wouldn’t have made much difference in how I fed myself. Kids know that apples are healthier than microwave pizza — but that information doesn’t inform dinner because oftentimes the only apples they ever eat are mealy, out-of-season varieties shipped bruised from cross-country — and why eat an apple when the pizza is easy, tastes better, and fills your belly? All that to say — like many areas of education — exposure to information doesn’t necessarily change habits. The fact that this information is misleading only adds another level of misfortune to the situation.

But while I often ponder the challenge of educating and providing healthy food choices for kids who are feeding themselves at an early age, right now my responsibility is to feed my own kids. And it is disturbing to me that my daughter is worried about fat consumption at age 6. I had all of these flashbacks to the early 90’s, when in college, fat-free was king. If something had fat in it, I would pass, instead choosing to partake of copious amounts of sugar in its place (and I wondered why I managed to gain 20 pounds my freshman year). And, yes — I know my daughter is 6, not 19. So these things don’t have the power over her that they did me. But still — how early do these things begin?

It all just got me thinking (I hate it when that happens), about how to talk with her about why we eat the way we do. I’ve historically been a bit reticent to emphasize terms like “organic,” for fear that she’ll become a food prima donna, rejecting food that is offered to her because it is somehow below her.  By the same token, I want to explain to her why I send her lunch to school rather than depend on the school cafeteria. I want her to know where her food comes from, know how it by turns can damage or nourish her body, know why we eat, know that it’s a gift to enjoy our food. I want her to know that all “grains” aren’t equal, that seasonality is important for nutrients and flavor, and that giving your body what it needs is key to eating the right amount. But truly — even before all that — right now, I just want her to feel free to eat bacon.

Are you a parent who is concerned about the challenge of teaching our kids how to eat? What solutions have worked for you?

This post is part of Fight Back Friday at Food Renegade.

15 thoughts on “Damage control

  1. the irony for us is that amos is free to eat junk food FOR its fat, and thankfully, will still eat a big pile of broccoli! We do limit the sweets, though. For us theconversation will probably be more about why we eat, since he really can’t be bothered most meals and would rather do something more interesting!

  2. When I was in college (studying nutrition) we used that good ol food pyramid…and you are right about the fat thing. However, and trust me in this, the general public does not shy away from fat….most people really do get WAY too much…and all the wrong kinds. So, Im still critical of the pyramid, but I can also see why they might have set it up that way.

    My strategy for my kids is to model what I want them to value. (I dont do this perfectly). I talk to them about why we eat certain things and not others. I try to get them to listen to their bodies when they are full and to encourage them to try new things. I take them to the farmer’s market (they know Farmer Brown diligently raises great hens for our eggs) and let them help us in the garden. I also try to involve them in cooking whenever I can.

    Pyramid or no pyramid, they will get it:)

  3. Sarah, that’s pretty amazing that he’ll eat a pile of broccoli. I can’t get T. to eat ANYTHING green.

    Jenn, ’tis true that we Americans get lots of fat in all our processed foods. I think my frustration with the pyramid is, for one, its complication of certain things and over-simplification of others. So, not many people are going to count their servings each day of a given food group (that’s the complication). On the other hand, grains are all lumped together (it does suggest a certain amount of “whole,” but even that is confusing now since everything at the grocery store claims to be whole grain), and fats and sweets are lumped together. And what counts as fish fat? A filet-o-fish from McDs?
    I think, for me, as a fan of good fats for kids’ development, it hit a raw nerve when fat was the thing that A. was afraid of consuming.
    Although, when I begin to think about it too hard, my head spins, because there’s no easy answer. Perhaps the rant was more about the pyramid being presented as if it was the key to a healthy life? When, in reality, that goal is both much simpler and much more complex than the pyramid.
    Maybe by the time she’s in middle school, Omnivore’s Dilemma will be on her reading list…

  4. only if you put Omnivore’s Dilemma on her list:) do you know they have a kids version of it. Seriously, I was at a book store and there was the kids version of Omnivores dilemma…..
    now…if only my mother knew I was writing under her alias……
    and yes…the other company sent me an email sending the other dress.

  5. Wow SJ — a kids version of OD — sounds interesting, might have to check it. I can’t believe about the dress — I was sort of joking. That makes me kind of sick.

  6. I was talking to my friend last night- on our way home from yoga- about food. She was worried about fat and not getting enough exercise and I mentioned that some science doesn’t back that up. I told her a little (very little) about what I’d read in Good calories, bad calories by Gary Taubes, and she looked at me like I was crazy. I mention this here because what you and I, and all the rest of us real foodies believe is so not the mainstream. You can’t convince everyone. It would probably be useless for example, to go tell the school how you feel. But your kids will get it. I feed my kids information all the time while we’re eating, even though they’re young. I’ll say, “this egg came from a happy chicken that lives outside and gets to see the sun and eat bugs. And that makes the egg healthier for us. It has more omega-3 fats and we need those for our bodies to be healthy.” You are surely teaching your kids the same kind of things, and if all of your good information doesn’t win your kids over at first, the delicious smell of bacon surely will!

  7. I think it’s important to keep in mind that the bacon that most people eat is not necessarily that healthy- I believe that a lot of grocery store bacon is treated with some chemicals in the curing process. I myself am a vegetarian and so don’t claim to be an expert at all- but I have a lot of friends who, like you, eat really high quality food (some of them even cure their own bacon!) and I think that when you’re getting really high quality meat you’re talking about a different thing altogether.

    I talk a lot about food with my son and even though he doesn’t seem that interested most of the time I inevitably hear him repeat some of the things I’ve taught him to friends or other people.

    I really do think kids listen to their parents more than they do to things they learn at school. Just keep teaching her what you know about healthy eating and I think it’ll get through.

  8. Chanelle, I’ve had lots of similar conversations — and the thing is, the first time you hear it, it does sound crazy! — a product of our generation’s upbringing on food. And Angelina, you are so right about the bacon — it’s important for me to stress with my daughter why the bacon we eat is ok to use in moderation (we don’t cure our own, unfortunately, so we purchase uncured to avoid corn-based processes).

    The more I think about it, I realize I’m more upset about all these school kids being taught the pyramid (more so than being worried about my own kid — this, I know, we can counter at home, even if it’s hard). As a person who grew up knowing absolutely nothing about food, it was hard to un-learn all those “facts” that were, in fact, wrong. Nutrition science is so steeped in trends that end up being “wrong” — think margarine, fat-free, aspartame, etc. — I just wish there was a way to teach more tradition-based nutrition in schools without it seeming completely irrelevant (i.e., when a kid is making his own dinner at age 8, does grass-fed beef really matter? probably not — but what true nutrition information would stick with him and help inform his choices?).

  9. I think a parent’s repetition is key. My first grader recently balked at eating the fat on the edge of a pork chop. I explained that our bodies need fat for certain functions and that eating fat does not make a person fat. I took the opportunity to reiterate that over consumption and lack of exercise are the largest contributors to unhealthy weight gain. I also reemphasized the importance of healthy snacks and how he should avoid junk food.

  10. Oh, Katy. It chills me to the bone. Waits isn’t quite there yet, although he is just beginning to vocalize the difference between healthy and unhealthy (but, like your little man, he won’t often touch green foods). I love our little hippie preschool, where the kids help prepare homemade barley soup and processed snacks and lunches are verboten. He came home one day declaring that he LOVED broccoli, and I was all: WHOO the power of positive peer pressure!

  11. I also wanted to say — but got interrupted by a hungry 6-month-old — I’m not at all sure that parental guidance has as strong an impact as we might like to think on how our children eat. I mean, obviously we have a lot of control over it while they’re kids, but will they continue to make healthy decisions as they grow older? Are we instilling lifelong eating habits? I don’t know. The evidence points to the contrary. I became a vegetarian much to my parents’ chagrin. But then, my little brother lives off of processed sugar and fast food, and they didn’t want that, either. Two extremes, born out of the same family.

    I think that our peers have more influence over our eating habits than we’d like to admit. But maybe there’s still hope. With the growing awareness about the food industry, and the widespread push to eat more local/organic/seasonal, maybe our kids will have more opportunity/desire to eat in a healthy way. It’s obvious that young adults are a lot more conscious about it now than my generation was.

  12. CK, I see your point. ‘Tis true, that our children will eventually listen to their friends more than (gasp) us. But I’m wondering — if they really understand food, from eating and conversations and being part of decisions — won’t it be hard to turn away? I mean, did you and your brother turn away from the words and example of really healthy food (you know, between your mom’s smoke breaks? teehee)?

    If anything, I could see my kids turning to vegetarianism. But take a hard left, and head down the road of total junk food and sugar? I don’t know, maybe. That would be the perfect setup, though, for me becoming the Meddling Mom from Hell.

    And, C, you know — you, too, are free to eat bacon ; )

  13. ha ha ha

    I think you’re right in that if our kids learn to understand food, they probably won’t veer too far from a good course (pun intended). It’s probably a lot like learning to love learning …

    But I also think that some of our kids may never catch the desire to understand food. And they will eat Cheetos on occasion, and (horror of horrors, seriously, it scares me to death) they will worry about their weight and go on a Slimfast diet. And we’re gonna have to be OK with that. Or at least not let them know that they’ve committed the unpardonable sin.

    I think it’s funny that what I’m most concerned about right now is not healthy eating habits, but my son’s play-acting about guns. Everything becomes a gun. And according to him, the gun (or cannon, or rocket launcher) smashes and breaks things (and people) into pieces. And this horrifies me deep down in my gut. I feel completely out of control, like, how did I let this happen? What am I doing wrong? Where is he getting this? This is not my beautiful son. Damage control, inDEED.

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