I’m not such a big fan of being sneaky with kids’ food. I mean, okay, in general I’ve got no intellectual or moral issue with putting broccoli into the mac and cheese or sweet potatoes into the pancakes, or whatever other crafty little trick you might have to amp up the nutritional value of a food your kids otherwise enjoy. And I’ll even go so far as to say that you don’t necessarily have to TELL them when you do that, as long as you are also serving ON A DAILY BASIS actual, recognizable, named fruits and vegetables. But all this business of making some complex puree of spinach and whatnot and slipping it into brownies so your kids never have to know they’ve eaten something that grows on a tree… it doesn’t sit well with me.
Believe me, I get the temptation, and I’ve done more than my fair share of slipping extra fruits and vegetables into food, especially when my kids have gone through their food-avoidance phases (otherwise known as “toddlerhood”). It’s just that I’ve generally made the effort to either tell them what’s in the food they’re eating, or to serve them enough other pure produce that they’re aware that eating fruits and vegetables is a mandatory part of life, not some kind of NBA-worthy negotiation (“I’ll trade you the peas for the chicken, Mom, and first rights to demand that I eat something green tomorrow”).
Generally, it’s worked out okay, and my kids and I have a relatively honest relationship about the food they eat. Regardless, I sometimes find myself having to be a little bit crafty with what I say and how I say it; or with presentation; or with some other aspect of getting them to either a) try a new food, or b) continue eating something they’ve eaten before, but are not super-happy about seeing on their plates. Those occasions are few and far between, but they do come up. The most recent act of Mommy stealth has centered around L.’s growing awareness of the difference between his lunches and the packed lunches of his Pre-K pals.
Although L. occasionally tells me that this friend had hot dogs for lunch, or another friend ate mac and cheese every day all week, I don’t have much of a sense anymore what’s in his classmates’ lunchboxes. When he was in the younger room at day care, the kids’ lunches were taken out of their packages and put into little bins to conserve fridge space, so it was easy to see what his peers were eating. Now, the lunches stay concealed, and unless either he or another parent happen to mention to me what kinds of things are being served up each day at the lunch tables, I haven’t got the faintest clue. It’s a good thing, really, because I don’t want or need to know in order to pack a lunch for L. that satisfies me; but in another sense, it’s a disadvantage, because it means I can be blindsided by my son’s sudden desire to adhere to some food trend he’s picked up on at school.
The big one of the moment: froot snax. (Yes, I know it’s not really spelled that way; I’m taking a bit of poetic license to try to help differentiate things here. Bear with me.) L. usually sits with two little girls at the lunch table — he’s closer to most of the girls in his class than the boys — and they both apparently enjoy character-branded froot snax as part of their lunches. L. started bugging me about froot snax about three weeks ago, more, it seemed, for the character branding (a-ha! hello, food marketing demons) than for the actual snax, which I’m relatively sure he has never tasted.
I started with the Honest Conversation About Real Food vs. Fake Food. Or, more accurately, said something very serious like, “L., I know you like the way those look, but they are not Good Body Food and Mommy only wants you to have Good Body Food in your lunchboxes so you can save treats for at home, okay?” He seemed agreeable enough (L.’s heard about Mommy’s theories of Good Body Food ad nauseam), but it didn’t stop him from redoubling his efforts to “casually” bring up the froot snax issue again and again:
“Mommy, let’s play my Go Fish game.”
Me: “Okay, L.”
As we played: “So. Mommy. You know what (insert names of classmates here) had for lunch today?”
Me: “No. What?”
L: “Go Fish, Mommy. Oh. Just more of those princess froot snax. And everybody shared. But I don’t get princess froot snax in my lunch because they are not good body food.”
Oh, the guilt.
A day or so later, L. was having a snack at home, and I served up some freeze-dried mango chunks. As he contemplated the crispy little bits, he asked me, “Mommy. Are mango snacks like fruit snacks?”
That sound you just heard, by the way, was the heavens opening up and a beacon of light shining down upon me as I stood amazed at the simplicity of the answer to our froot snax woes. I replied, “Well, they’re not exactly the same as the ones your friends have, honey, but yes. They’re a fruit snack.”
“Mommy. I think I should take these in my lunch to school, OK?”
Oh, yes, dear child, it’s more than okay. Realizing that the snack itself was a resolvable issue, I dug into the kids’ art supplies and found endless sheets of…stickers. Character stickers. Fairies, princesses, Mickey Mouse, Thomas the Train, characters as far as the eye could see. And although it may not be environmentally friendly, or a perfect packaging choice, I grabbed some plastic snack bags and stuck those darned characters all over them. Voila. Branded fruit snack packaging.
Yes. I know that it would be better to start teaching my son, now, at the tender age of 4, that character branding is not the answer to desirable food, and that in fact, most foods branded with characters are to be avoided. Yes, I know I copped out a little bit on the teachable moment. But we’ve had three weeks of bliss under this system. Even when L. came home and said to me, “(So-and-so) says froot snax are chewy, not crunchy like mine,” I simply went to the store, purchased some dried dates, and encouraged him to try a “chewy-style” fruit snack. Now he’s popping dried dates and freeze-dried mangoes like crazy, getting a total kick out of the fact that he can pick which characters are on his snack bags, and I’m happy with the compromise we’ve got.
Yep. Call me a hypocrite. I don’t really care. All I know is, my kid feels like part of the crowd, and I’m happy with the items we’ve chosen as his “fruit snacks” from a nutritional perspective. Better yet, I’ve made sure to tell L. that the fruit snacks he has are good-for-you snacks, so he’s fully aware that I’m not caving in and offering total junk just to let him be one of the gang. Crafty? Yep. Totally deceitful? Nope. I call that one good day’s work, in parenting land.