Feeding Kids: Whose Responsibility is it?

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.

But.

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.

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23 Responses to Feeding Kids: Whose Responsibility is it?

  1. Kim B. says:

    once again, late to the party. All I can say is “yikes.” I’ve had friends who have had similar battles when their childcare provider is a relative. Particularly, grandparents, whose job, as they may see it, is to spoil the kids. But, clearly, regular Monday morning binges are not okay – they are particularly NOT okay for your family (and not just because of L.’s potential weight issue, but because of your strong family values around food and nutrition).

    • You may be late, but you’re always fashionably so. 😉 It’s so hard when it’s somebody like a grandparent, because you don’t want to alienate anybody or strain family bonds; but then again, there’s that growing up and individuating thing that has to happen where you become a parent of your own children, not a child of your parents, if that makes any sense at all. It can be relatively easy, as it is with my parents — or it can be more complex. We’ll see. We’ll keep navigating the waters, and we’ll see.

  2. TB says:

    Thank you for the glimpse into our future *sigh*. We both come from families with parents who bow down to the margarine and sweet-n-low god, because it’s “healthier”. My niece grew up knowing that Nana had a special drawer in her fridge with the latest and greatest neon blue drinks, just for her. My little guy is 18 months and hasn’t a clue what he’s “missing”. I did have a wake up call when I bought a box of organic cookies for him as a treat, and after giving them to him 2 days, he started pointing and whining at the cabinet they were kept. Can you say crack for kids??? No thanks!

    • I know, right?!?!?! Margarine, sweet n low, Snackwell’s cookies, low-fat chips made with that godawful Olestra crap…there are still so many people who think “healthy” means “low calorie” or “low fat.” Think of how many older people you know who would still never touch an avocado because they’ve been trained to believe that avocados make you fat.
      And I totally hear you on the crack for kids thing. We do often have some sort of homemade cookies or something like that around, so even though the boys don’t get them all the time — not even once a day, generally — they aren’t as crazed about going for them. But P. is NUTS about things like Goldfish crackers, which we allow in moderation as the occasional snack. The more I try to get away from giving him a small dish of fishies, the more he will try to get into the pantry and get the box himself.

  3. Mike in DC says:

    My wife C. and I just had our first real experience with the “good-intentioned Grandparent” on Sunday. Seemingly out of nowhere, (which is not completely unusual for her) my mother-in-law said to my wife and I about our 2 week old, “You know, you better get him started on soda and ginger ale early.” We looked at each other like an alien had just landed in our family room. She explained that C. had not had soda or ginger ale when she was young, so that when the doctor suggested that as a remedy for an upset stomach during her childhood, C. wouldn’t drink it. Obviously sensing the need for more clarification, C’s mother went on to further explain, “Well, not all the time, obviously, but you don’t want T. (my son) gettting dehydrated like C. got when she was a kid. She didn’t like them because she never drank them.” Obviously during C’s childhood, cola and ginger ale were the prefered methods of queesy-stomach quelling, at least in my mother-in-law’s experience. But, even after a thorough explination, it seemed genuinely foreign to her why C. and I thought this was a terrible idea. I can only wonder what well-intentioned culinary disasters are in store for T. when he is old enough to eat real food. Hopefully, we can all become more educated before it becomes a problem.

    • GAAAAHHHH. I mean, okay. L. is allowed to drink a little ginger ale as a very special thing once in a while, like when he goes out to lunch with my parents at their country club — it’s a rare occasion, and he feels very grown-up ordering his own food and drink and getting something that is sweet and sparkly. He knows it’s a treat and has told us as much. But we didn’t do that until he was at LEAST 3 years old, and certainly not in a way that we thought would make him “accustomed” to it! P.’s still not had a sip and won’t for a while. As far as the “medicinal” properties go, I admit that there’s something special about ginger ale for a very upset tummy; but 1) plain seltzer water does almost the same thing; 2) dehydration doesn’t have to be an issue when there are whole-fruit ice pops and other enticing things around; and 3) I’ve been amazed, and maybe it’s just good fortune…but the more whole, unprocessed foods we give the kids, especially things that are high in fiber and nutrients, the fewer tummy things they have. It’s rare for either of the boys to have enough of a tummy bug to wipe them out. I do hope you can all work as a family to educate yourselves and each other as you raise T. (Congratulations, by the way!)

  4. Pingback: Thoughts, Confessions, Catching Up | Red, Round, or Green

  5. B says:

    Standing ovation. I completely feel the frustration of everyone having a say in what is best or OK for your child to consume. Whether it be food, morals, religion, discipline, education, etc. As a parent, you feel like your hands are tied. In regards to nutrition, it becomes even more frustrating when outsiders give your children junk food and while at home you’re still struggling to get them to eat their super foods like veggies. I’ve told my parents many times, I’m not keeping my children from what they perceive as a “normal childhood” by not stocking junk food in my pantry. I’m just not making it readily available. I’d be more open to occasional IF I could get them through eating what has nutritional value first! They need a base and no one is helping them out by enforcing they have ice cream, sodas, etc because that’s what children “should” have. My 2 year to this day has not had a single candy (which will go out the window this month w/ Easter around the corner) or a sip of soda (my parents have tried to give her many, many times and laugh when she ask me if she could have a sip knowing I’ll say no…of course, making me look like the bad guy). She’s had her share of cake, ice cream, and other treats, why add more? Look, I don’t want to get to a point where all sweets/ junk are forbidden as I know this will only make them try harder to have access to it elsewhere. I just want a balance where my kids enjoy eating items that have nutritional value over toxic empty calories. They are too young to know that the sweets/ junk will get them sick or won’t fuel their body to function to its potential. They drive by wants and not needs. So as a parent you have to make those choices for them and ensure they enjoy and appreciate it as they grow.

    • “They drive by wants and not needs.” Perfectly said, Blanca. And I agree about childhood not being a state of “deprivation” just because you’re not letting them load up on commercially processed sugary crap all the time. BTW…as far as Easter goes…I’m planning to do mainly homemade baskets, and easy on the food-based items…if it would help I can offer you some ideas and maybe you’ll still be able to avoid (or at least limit to a great extent) the candy she does eat! Oh… and if you end up letting her have the commercial candy, I say, go for the chocolate. It’s more satisfying and has fewer nasties than things like jelly beans!

  6. Eve says:

    I really empathise with you on this one – My youngest son is completely gluten intolerant, and if I leave him with my mother, he eats what she eats – despite having spoken clearly about what happens to him if he eats gluten, and packing him food that she can quickly substitute her bread with. At the end of the day, we the parents are responsible for what our children eat. My mom doesnt stay up all night tending to my son with stomach ache and the runs, I do. I was so surprised that she just wouldnt support his needs, and then my husband pointed out that it was not worth it for him or for us. So she doesnt take care of him anymore. We all still see grandma, but I have to be there when they do. No help is sometimes better than bad help.

    • It’s terrifying to me that in your son’s case, we’re talking about an actual physiological need, not just a preference or a philosophy. And yet…
      Your husband was right to say that it was not worth it in any sense. Of course you want to maintain a good relationship with your family; but that doesn’t mean turning a blind eye to what could be a potentially dangerous medical situation down the line. Good for you for standing up for yourselves and your son.

  7. I can certainly be empathetic with you. My youngest spends most of the day with my in-laws while I am at work. Today he had a can of ginger-ale with lunch because they were having pizza and that’s what you have with pizza. Or at least that’s the rules at their house. This is after we have emphasized over and over that we don’t want my son to eat junk food especially since he’s recently needed to have several cavities filled at the dentist. They just completely ignore us. I’m curious to find out what your solution is.

  8. Justin says:

    An interesting outlook…especially with respect to the grandparent issue. Grandparents, in my experience at least, are all about special treats and spoiling the kids but how do you deal with it when it’s gone too far and not offend anyone?

    It occurs to me that, with all the dialogue about childhood obesity and the state of food in schools, few if any folks are looking at the problem from the educational perspective. Take the Chicago school, for example. The whole concept of telling parents, “We’ll feed your kids. We know better than you,” may have some truth to it but it’s a slap-in-the-face approach. A better approach, IMHO (especially if they’re going to foot the bill for free lunch for everyone), would be to offer free lunch to everyone on a voluntary basis and make it part of the curriculum to educate the kids and the parents about food choices. Send home flyers explaining what the meals are that week and why those choices were made (or better yet, let the children and parents choose between two options if that’s possible). If the parent needs educating in nutrition, let it be by absorbing it in a natural way like that rather than “preaching” or taking their parenting rights away. In school, bring that same information into the classroom in the morning and let the kids learn about the meal choices for the day, why certain choices are better than others, and let them choose what they want to “order” for lunch (or let them self-select from two choices in the lunch line).

    IMO (and I’m not a parent…yet), neither the parent-only approach–where you and you alone get to decide what your kid eats, nor the school playing the authoritarian are going to work for the kid long-term in life, nor is it going to teach the parent better parenting skills. Both the school and the parent should be looking to educate the kids about making good choices. That’s the kind of behavior that one would think will transfer better outside the classroom. Maybe when the kid goes out with Grandma, he or she will choose the fruit or vegetable side dish instead of the cookies or fries if the cookies and fries aren’t portrayed as “the bad food.” Or maybe kids are capable of understanding the concept of a balanced meal alongside a snack or basic portion control.

    All that said, I know kids need limits and I know kids aren’t going to understand this stuff the way an adult would. You can’t say to a very young kid, “What do you want to wear today?” and expect a coordinated outfit. You can say, however, “Do you want to wear outfit A or outfit B?” and then explain why that’s a great choice. We learn by example and by feeling that we’re a part of the decision making process. The same should apply to food if we’re to let our schools educate our kids and us about nutrition.

    • Choices and education are two key points, Justin. Exactly. We’re conditioned somehow to think that offering kids a FALSE choice — “do you want french fries or an apple?” is somehow educational and/or empowering of them as eaters, when in fact, that sets up a doomed paradigm from the beginning. In fact, offering the french fries — occasionally — isn’t the problem; it’s that they must be treated as an OCCASION and also offered in ADDITION to the better choices, not instead of. And in the case of the school in Chicago, it’s especially thorny, I think, because the school is not paying for the students’ lunches — the families must pay for lunch every day. For the $2.25 a hot lunch costs, many parents would be able to make a very nice, nutritious lunch that satisfies their own kids’ particular likes and dislikes. So it’s as much a financial issue, in some ways, as it is a health or responsibility issue.

  9. Renee says:

    Wow. We have no family support system where we live –our families live in other states. I’ve always thought that was a shame, but maybe not, huh? I’d be furious too. Good luck with that talk.

  10. Danielle says:

    I’m reminded of a certain hot dog meal…

  11. Another excellent post thanks for sharing! I enjoy reading your blog very much. Spending time with my family is something I love to do. Feel free to stop by Easy Lifestyles sometime. We would love to see you there

  12. Ms. Joy says:

    Oh, I feel for you. My in-laws did the same thing. “The kids ate so much! Pancakes, toast with jam, eggs, juice (sugary) and hashbrowns for breakfast!” Excuse me, that’s all carbs and sugar save for the eggs which were fried in bacon fat. I nearly died. Just because a child will eat it doesn’t mean we ought to give it to them.

    I don’t know if we need to regulate, education certainly helps but it can only do so much. I do think schools should not have pop machines or vending machines stuffed with chocolate bars but sometimes even the “healthy snacks” are not that healthy. It’s a difficult situation. On the one hand there is nothing more humiliating to a parent than being told they are doing a crap job but we are in the midst of a frightening epidemic, our children are obese and it’s getting worse. I don’t know what the answer is but I do know that if I keep feeding my children healthful food and bringing them in the kitchen with me, they can make a difference.

    At the same time my daughter’s teacher has been approved for a grant to bring in a CSA to her classroom and develop recipes (I’m helping her!) to teach to the children so they can take that knowledge home. These are five year olds who have never made the connection between apples and apple sauce until she came into their lives and more than half the class went home and made apple sauce with their parents. That’s how we’ll make the biggest change.

    • You’re right — it IS a difficult situation all around. And obesity is only one aspect of the issue, truth be told. In some ways I think it obscures the importance of the whole kid-and-food debate to concentrate on weight; I think that leaves parents whose kids are still skinny (though probably undernourished, if they’re filled up with junk) the opportunity to proclaim that there’s no problem with THEIR kids. THEIR kids must be eating just fine, if they’re not fat. Of course the underlying health issues, especially the ones that will likely materialize later in life, are far worse than a few extra pounds.
      Good for your daughter’s teacher for getting that grant! (And good for you for helping!) It is astonishing how eager kids are to learn about food and healthy eating when given the chance. Good luck in that endeavor!

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