When it comes to feeding our children, I’d say we parents are probably more invested than many people think we are. Most parents I know say they’re concerned about feeding their kids well; most of them say they’d like to do better than they do; most of them, predictably, want the best for their children in every sense, including nutritionally. Even when I worked in a setting where undereducated teens were raising their babies on bottles of Coke or Kool-Aid, those mothers proclaimed that they wanted to feed their children healthy food. Desire isn’t generally the problem. Resources, maybe. Education, maybe. Tools, maybe. Desire to do well by our kids — not so much.
Yet, in the midst of all these good intentions, it sure does seem like it’s getting harder and harder for parents to actually remain the ones in control of their own childrens’ diets. Between the government, school districts, pediatricians, nutritionists, food marketers, peer pressure, and even — yes — bloggers and activists like me, it seems as though everybody has an opinion about what ought to be going into kids’ mouths. Today I felt the spiraling lack of control from two ends of the spectrum, and both were shockingly annoying to me for different reasons.
First, there was the major news story of the Chicago elementary school where all home-packed lunches have been banned — one I saw on several websites, as well as on The Lunch Tray. As I’m quoted in Bettina’s post, I won’t bore you terrifically with my entire philosophy on this particular subject, but to sum it up: Despite the fact that I’m absolutely positive that school principal saw more than her fair share of soda-and-Cheetos lunches, I don’t think telling parents that they’re essentially less well-equipped to feed their kids than the school is happens to be the best solution to the issue. Not by a long shot. The whole thing left a bad taste in my mouth, the more I thought about it; I’m not the type of person who’d say “Keep your government hands off my Doritos” or anything of the sort, but on the other hand, I think it’s one thing to have some rules and regulations around what goes INTO the food parents feed their children, and another to say that those parents should really stop being the ones to feed those children.
So it was in that state of disgruntlement with the status of food reform in this country that I came home from work to get the update from J. about the boys’ day with their grandparents. On Mondays, J.’s folks — G. and P. — come to our house and watch the kids for us, saving us on the cost of a day’s worth of daycare, and giving them and the boys valuable time together. At least, that’s what we’ve always told ourselves. And I won’t say that they haven’t helped tremendously in the years since L.’s birth, or that we’re not lucky to have them close by, or that the boys haven’t benefitted from a good relationship with their grandparents.
Lately J. and I have been seeing fewer and fewer benefits to this arrangement, and more and more drawbacks. One major drawback just happens to be the G. and P. Child Care Routine. To keep everyone occupied, G. and P. always take the boys out for a late breakfast at about 9 or 10 a.m., then over to the mall for a few rides on the carousel and some shopping, then home for the afternoon. At first, breakfast was a once in a while thing; then twice a month; then once a week, but at various different local restaurants. (Breakfast and brunch are quite popular in our area; there are several restaurants close to our house that serve a very decent menu early in the day.)
Then, citing basically 1) finances and 2) ease of behavior management, G. and P. switched the outing to a local Friendly’s restaurant. It should be said that I have nothing against Friendly’s…for ice cream. For other meals, I find it questionable. But once in a while, I thought, okay. Or even once a week, for a pancake and a strip of bacon, okay. J. and I were still on board. Until we started hearing from L. about chocolate milk at breakfast, and sharing chocolate muffins at the mall, and eating cookies (“But they’re organic,” G. and P. justified) for snacks. All in the same day.
J. put his foot down with his parents. “Please,” he said to them. “Please, cool it with the junk. They don’t eat like that. We don’t want them to eat like that. You can take them to breakfast, but give them plain milk. Plain pancakes. No muffins and cookies and stuff later.” And, playing a card we thought would help them understand our position without too much explanation: “You know we’re watching what L. eats so he doesn’t get too heavy. Help us out.”
They agreed, or so we thought. They said they’d cut back. And for a while, it seemed, they had. Then last week came, and L. told me with ecstasy that he’d had M&M PANCAKES AND CHOCOLATE MILK for breakfast. I raged about it to J. He was as horrified as I was. We decided to see what this week would bring before going back to G. and P. with our disapproval.
Today’s menu, according to L.: M&M PANCAKES with ICE CREAM. For breakfast. I don’t know what he had to drink. I don’t want to know what he had to drink. I have had it.
For the record, I checked out the Friendly’s website, and in fact, these are legitimate items on the kids’ breakfast menu — meaning that L. isn’t just being fanciful, which is what I originally thought. No, these are the offerings. P. apparently usually gets the French Toast Stix (there’s that purposeful misspelling again! Have to watch out for that!) with lots of (artificial) maple syrup. So I ran the nutritional information, helpfully provided by the restaurant, for the items my kids are being served at these “breakfasts.”
L.’s M&M pancake (listed as the “Tie-Dyed pancake” on the menu)? 600 calories. Even more appalling is the 63 grams of sugar in that one item. Seriously? I know desserts with less sugar than that. (Yes, I know…this IS a dessert.) Add all of that to the kids’ portion of chocolate milk, and in one sitting, L. is consuming 990 calories and…wait for it…121 grams of sugar. P.’s not faring any better; if he eats a serving of the French Toast Stix and a chocolate milk, he’s taking down 1030 calories and 111 grams of sugar.
No. No, no, no.
Not on my watch. Not on ANYBODY’S watch should this be happening. J. and I are absolutely furious (and yes, we’ll be having a talk with G. and P. — a very serious one). But here’s what truly galls me. It’s not just the sugar. It’s not just the astronomical calories or the total lack of common sense. It’s not even the fact that a restaurant could have these things on their kids’ menu without a second thought, and nobody is going in there and saying “Um, excuse me…wrong.”
It’s that even when we, as parents, tried to take a stand against this kind of food for our kids, we weren’t listened to. On the one hand, there’s this school principal in Chicago basically telling parents that they’re not to be trusted with feeding their own kids; on the other, J. and I are point-blank setting out expectations, as parents, for what our children should and should not eat, and we’re being blatantly ignored. When did it become acceptable to totally disregard the role of the parents in the care and feeding of their kids?
Whose responsibility is it, anyway? It can’t be the schools’ — not totally — not with all the ranting and raving in the court of public opinion about the abysmal state of so many school meal programs. It can’t be the restaurants’ — not at all — not when they’re in business to simply offer items that they think will sell, and leave the choices up to the patrons who choose to eat in their establishments. It can’t be the parents’ — not anymore — not if we’re going to be essentially hog-tied by regulations, or outright ignored.
Could it be that we’re driving ourselves further and further down a path where there will be no return, no option, other than total governmental regulation of every food item available to us, so there’s no opportunity for royal screw-ups like 121 grams of sugar in a breakfast menu for a 4-year-old? Could it be that we’re becoming so vastly incapable of making sound, reasonable choices about food (or just totally unwilling to do so) that the only thing that will save us from ourselves is the removal of all those “junk” items from store shelves, menus, and cafeterias nationwide? Is it possible that we’re sabotaging ourselves even in the midst of crying out for change?
I don’t want to think about it. I don’t favor the idea of total regulation; I don’t like the concept of legislating people’s choices within such a narrow window that there’s no margin for error (or even, for Pete’s sake, the occasional wanton TREAT). All I want is to be able to decide, using my own criteria, my own brain, and the values system J. and I have set up for our family, what my children should and should not be eating on a regular basis. And not have those decisions compromised by well-meaning schools, activity providers, other parents, or even our own family members.
It’s a goal that sometimes feels totally within my grasp, and at other times, seems absolutely elusive. In these days of nutritional crisis, no one trusts the parents to make good choices anymore; sometimes I think we don’t even trust ourselves.