Did We Really Need an App for That?

I’m not a super-techie person.  (I know, I know – shocking given the pristine condition of my blog and my stunning photography.  Groan.)  I don’t even own a smartphone.  Scratch that – I don’t even own a CAMERAPHONE.  My 10-year-old nephew’s phone takes pictures, but nope, mine doesn’t.  It’s probably about 7 years old, making it the triceratops of cell phones, which is okay considering that I don’t actually use it.  Pretty much, well, ever.  I don’t text, I don’t talk on the thing, and it’s rarely even on.  Sometimes I remember to charge the battery.  Sometimes.

So…I’m not a super-techie person.  The new world, in which there is an “app” for apparently EVERYTHING, is passing me by, and I don’t really care.  It does not bother me that I don’t have apps to help me do things, because most of the things I do every day are things I have figured out how to do without the help of technology.  I’m actually somewhat dreading the day when I inevitably obtain better technology, become addicted to some particular app, and realize that I can’t comprehend how I ever lived without it.  I know it’s coming.  But I’m going to try to live in the 20th century for as long as I can, damn it, and I’m not relinquishing my VHS tapes, CD player, or any other cherished relics of the bygone era anytime soon.

I do, however, enjoy playing around on the interwebs from time to time, and when I found this post from It’s Not About Nutrition, I had to check out the new fun internet excitement called the “Healthy Lunch Maker.”  It was my mistake, truly.  I should have known better.  But I took the bait and went to the Parents’ magazine site anyway, cursing the evil lure of computer playtime that I could pawn off as blogger research.

I’m…predictably underwhelmed by the HLM.  Almost to the point of malaise, actually.  And all I could think, at first, was: Did we really need an app for this?

Yes, I know it’s not technically an “app” (although I didn’t look closely – can you GET an app for the HLM?  Maybe?).  But my question stands.  Who among us – be honest – really NEEDS an online calculator tool that tells us how many calories, grams of protein, etc. are in our kids’ lunches?

It might be one thing, I suppose, if the tool were well-built – i.e., if it were at all useful.  Frankly, it’s not, at least not in my humble opinion.  I saw in some of the comments on the It’s Not About Nutrition post that a few people appear to have found some value in the thing, as it at least illuminates the fact that contrary to much popular belief, our young kids don’t need to eat an entire steer every day to meet the relatively modest guidelines for protein intake.  (That’s a relief.  I was getting tired of stewing up a venison haunch every time the kids got peckish.)  But seriously, a few useful tidbits of information here and there do not a truly helpful application make…and there are so many flaws with this HLM calculator business that I’m not sure I’ll be able to enumerate them all.

The short list of issues, as I see it:
1) The options are woefully limited.  A sandwich, a piece of fruit, and a drink?  That’s all I can ever pack in my kids’ “healthy” lunches?

2) The options are even more limited than they appear.  Bread options are almost nonexistent, and even though you can choose “whole wheat bread,” you can’t choose “whole wheat pita.”  Automatically, the calculations are going to be wrong if you’re packing something that varies at all from whatever standard brand they’re using.

3) If you make most of your food homemade, it doesn’t matter to the calculator.  The calculator doesn’t know.  So your homemade wheat sandwich bread will be whacked with the same sodium and sugar contents as the commercial stuff, which is almost assuredly a completely off-base comparison.

4) If you use pastured meats or nitrate-free lunch meats, or use fewer slices than they’re calculating, or use more cheese than they would, or any other possible variation…the calculator will be wrong.  You can’t set values, so who knows how your ham and cheese stacks up against their ham and cheese?

5) If you feed your child half a sandwich (as I do) rather than a whole sandwich, the calculator doesn’t know, because it doesn’t ask.  And sure, you could figure that out, theoretically…but why should you have to take extra steps when you’re using a tool that’s supposed to somehow “simplify” your life?

There are a lot more issues, some of them glaring (like the total lack of vegetable options)…but I’m stopping right here.  I’ve reached the real point, as I think about it, looking at the word “simplify.”

How in the world have we gotten so mixed up and so unsure of ourselves as parents that we feel any desire, any need, to seek validation of our lunch-making skills from some pre-programmed computer gizmo that doesn’t really tell us anything?  Is it simplifying our lives to plug lunch after lunch into this calculator and receive its critique of our food choices for our kids…or is it just another way to distance ourselves from the whole process of eating?

I could plug in a ham-and-cheese on pita, a banana, and some milk, and I could get some result that tells me how I’m doing “nutritionally” for my kids, relative to some guidelines, and based on a statistical average of nutrient values and caloric quantities that may or may not even apply to the food I’ve bought and prepared.  Or I could bake some whole-wheat pita bread with L. and P., and watch them get really excited about handling the dough and using the rolling pin, and see how L. hangs around next to the stove while it’s baking so he can beg for the first piece as it comes out of the oven.  I could think carefully and critically about the way our meat is sourced and handled and bring home a nitrate-free, uncured, pastured ham, cook it, slice it, and enjoy it with my family, knowing that there will be plenty of tasty leftovers for our sandwiches.  I could talk to my kids about whether they’d even want the banana today, or whether they’d prefer apples, oranges, pomegranates, dried dates, or any other fruit under the sun.  I could even (gasp) taste some vegetables with them, and pack up some green beans and carrots in that lunchbox, WITHOUT KNOWING WHAT THE CALCULATOR THINKS OF THOSE ITEMS, and see my boys’ healthy, smiling faces at the end of the day as they help me unpack their lunchboxes and show me that they ate their vegetables, with pride and enthusiasm.

I could even, heaven forbid, skip the sandwiches altogether and pack SOUP.  Or meatballs.  Or pasta.  I could pack anything my boys like, whatever they want me to pack for them, because a “healthy lunch” means SO many different things.  And if I, as a parent, engage with my kids around food and experience it with them, how much easier and more rewarding the lunch-packing process becomes!

So, Healthy Lunch Maker, I’m sorry.  I know you want me to use you to make the lunch-packing process “simpler.”  But truth be told, it’s already as simple as I want it to be.  I actually have to think about what goes into my children’s lunchboxes, and that’s a good thing.  Even better is the fact that without you, I don’t have to think TOO MUCH.  It’s too much information for me to have to wonder about calories and sodium and the recommended daily value for protein in a 3-year-old’s diet.  I hate to break it to you, HLM, but it’s actually much simpler to look at the colors, the variety, and the freshness of that 3-year-old’s food options, and let my gut tell me whether or not the lunch is healthy enough for him.

Food is not a “thing.”  It is an activity, a lifestyle, a daily ritual.  And for that, no, I don’t think we need an app.

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6 Responses to Did We Really Need an App for That?

  1. Jennifer says:

    I share your opinions about the limitations of the HLM.

    That said, I would agree that it’s not for you, or for me, or probably for a lot of people who read this post because we’re already “there”, or on our way “there”, if “there” is a sort of awakening and understanding and awareness of food, how it works in our lives, and how to wrap our heads around and sort out the staggering amount of information and choices and options that are out there.

    But not everyone is “there”. So my reaction is, that if a parent finds the HLM and plugs in their intended lunch for their child, and finds out that they could make a “better” lunch for their child based on what it spits out, then that parent is a step closer to “there” and we should probably applaud that effort. Somehow, somewhere a message got through that we should be thinking about what we (and our children) eat.

    For me, my food epiphany began with an organic tomato. Sounds cheesy, right? But it’s absolutely true, and I can actually tell you the exact date, time, and tomato that started it all, for me. Before that point I wasn’t ready, my mind wasn’t open to really thinking about the food I was eating and feeding my family. I was focused on saving money, and what I valued most at the grocery store was a low price. “Made in China” didn’t mean anything to me when I saw it on a food label. HFCS didn’t register. “10 for $10” was what I was looking for, and I felt as if I’d done a good job if my grocery bill was super low. That’s just how I saw it. If I think about it now I cringe (a lot.)

    So, while the HLM certainly has flaws and isn’t going to save a lot of lunches, if it makes people think, a little, and makes them pause, a bit, and if for someone it ends up being their organic tomato, then it’s just the teeny-tiniest step in the right direction.

    As an aside, I have a friend who posts a lot of articles about food dyes and makes comments about how she thinks food dyes are bad and avoids them for her children. But she also “checks-in” (often) at Burger King. There’s a part of me that wants to say, “ummm. . . ” but for whatever reason, she hasn’t made that leap yet.

    It’s kind of like being a parent and finding out that someone you know is expecting their first, and you want to tell them everything but you realize that they’re not “there” yet, and that you have to wait for them to get there on their own, or else you’re going to scare them to death and sound a little like a lunatic. In the meantime you’re overly excited about every step that they discover for themselves.

    • I love hearing your perspective on this, Jennifer.
      You’re so right that each of us has had our “organic tomato moment.” And it wasn’t so long ago that a low number on the grocery receipt meant success to me, too. I can only hope that the HLM can be the organic tomato in the lives of some people; but I just don’t know if I share your optimism.
      Certainly it’s not meant for me, nor for you, nor for most RRG readers — and that’s okay. That’s good. But I can’t help wondering whether giving people a half-baked resource that only covers SOME ground is almost worse than no resource at all. What I mean is, we’ve grown a culture of people who feed their kids mac and cheese and chicken nuggets every single day simply by presenting them with the messaging that children are supposed to eat mac and cheese and chicken nuggets. We’ve made chocolate milk a divisive national issue because somewhere along the way, we sent the message to parents,children, and educators that chocolate milk was a nutritious and appropriate daily beverage choice for kids. So if we have a nationally trusted and respected resource like Parents Magazine offering up this “healthy lunch” tool, I’d rather that the message weren’t the following:
      1) Sandwich, “snack,” and beverage = healthy lunch, full stop.
      2) Vegetables? What are those? Unless you mean celery, or lettuce/tomato for a sandwich, that is.
      3) Only some fruits are really appropriate for kids’ lunches.
      4) Soda, chocolate milk, brownies, cookies, chips, candy, and processed meats are all possible choices for your child’s healthy lunch.

      Now, you may argue that this is not the message the website is trying to send — and I agree that it’s probably not. But if we’re talking about people who are truly in need of education and support in packing good lunches for their kids, then I would tend to say that we have to be very careful about what we include and what we omit, because even subtle messages are powerful. And by the very virtue of their inclusion in a tool called the “Healthy Lunch Maker,” each of the options in #4 gains legitimacy in the minds of those who are truly nutrition-confused; by their omission, varied fruits and vegetables become even more solidly entrenched in those same minds as “inappropriate” for children’s consumption. That’s the biggest thing, I think, in offering support and guidance to people who really need it — you’ve got to do so with thoroughness, with attention to detail, and with an eye towards the inadvertent messages you may be sending.

  2. Fleur says:

    I’d agree. I’m not impressed. I think such a calculator might be useful to some parents if it had more features, but I’m not a big techie person either.

  3. James says:

    It’s as simple as: it’s not meant for you.

    Based on my little spin around the block with it, it’s designed for arm-chair calorie counters. Not obsessive enough to actually weigh, measure, or calculate potential calories as they prepare lunch, but aware enough of calorie counts to consider using a nifty little web app that will give them a ballpark number so they can pat themselves on the back. “In nutrition labels we trust.”

    Also… there are thousands upon thousands of apps (web or phone) out there that no one needs, and yet someone took the time to develop it. It’s likely that the app was developed to simply draw people to the site, which will increase the potential for revenues from their sponsored ads or subscriptions. “If we make it easy to use and moderately informational, they will come.”

    • I think you’re right, James, but what troubles me about it is the whole idea of measuring the success of your child’s lunch in terms of fat and calories anyway. Certainly these are things that we should take into account; but with children, they should hardly be our primary focus. If we’re going to grow eaters rather than serial dieters, it’s exactly this kind of validation of a calorie-obsessed view of food that I think will do more long-term harm than good.
      You’re correct about the apps, though. They’re like any other form of entertainment (yes, apps are really for entertainment, or at least some of them are) in that they need only hold out a small promise of added value to become reality.

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