Let’s get one thing out of the way up front: I love Jamie Oliver.
I admire his vision and commitment to making school lunches – and American families – healthier. I love how he’s taken on the powers that be in challenging schools, administrators, and government bodies to do better for our kids, and turned that effort into entertaining and inspiring TV that captivated parents across the nation.
And mostly, I can get on board with his strategies for making school lunches healthier.
Except, there’s this.
My kids drink chocolate milk.
Not with every meal, of course. Not even with every lunch. Most weeks, my kids bring home-packed lunches to school with the exception of one day a week, when they get to choose a “hot lunch” off the menu. And I admit it: there’s usually a month or so after the holidays when I totally fall off the lunch-packing wagon.
But on those occasions? I don’t really care if they drink chocolate milk.
My kids also have the option of ordering chocolate milk on the occasion – and I do mean occasion, because it doesn’t happen that often - that we go out to eat at a restaurant or hit a drive-thru. Most of the time, they opt for chocolate milk.
Except, of course, when they want hot chocolate instead.
When I was a kid, hot chocolate, chocolate milk, and chocolate-chip pancakes smothered in whipped cream – along with other sugary, salty, and fatty “junk” foods – were the stuff of special meals out.
My mom never derided the Golden Arches; she just made it clear that we’d only be walking through its doors about once a month, when she got a hankering for a Big Mac.
When my dad came to pick us up every other weekend, I knew we’d be heading to Big Boy where I’d be allowed to order some whipped-cream covered creation.
Our house, on the other hand, was pretty much absent of sweets and chips.
My kids eat more fast food and sugary stuff than I did as a kid, but I’ve still been careful not to let those once-a-week drive-thru runs turn into every other day. I can count the number of times I’ve served chocolate milk at home in the last year on one hand. And while I green-light the occasional soda, it’s never allowed with dinner, or as an after-school snack.
When I look at the big picture of my kids’ diets, I’m satisfied. Their snacks are reasonably healthy, they almost always eat a homemade, dinner consisting of Real Food, and at home, their beverage of choice is either white milk or water.
So a single carton of chocolate milk, tops, per day? I have to say, it really doesn’t bother me.
I appreciate that kids don’t need chocolate milk, and maybe offering sugary drinks with school lunch is pointless at best. But in the big picture of my kids’ diet, it doesn’t seem worth getting worked up over.
I feel like somewhere along the way, the message has turned from “How can we make school lunches healthier by making this change?” to the point where we’ve demonized chocolate milk – or other treats which are meant to be, you know, treats - themselves. Which is kind of silly, when you look at the big picture.
Maybe the point is that we’ve blurred the line between “treat” and “everyday food” to the point where we have to practically outlaw treats to get people to recognize the difference again?
It’s not any single beverage or food that’s to blame for childhood obesity or type-2 diabetes; it’s a uniquely American lifestyle that starts with sugar cereal for breakfast (yes, often served right at the child’s desk), chips and cookies for snacks, a high-fat, highly-processed lunch (with chocolate milk or without), and yes, lots and lots and lots of sugary drinks.
And sure, chocolate milk is sort of symbolic of finding sugar in places it doesn’t need to be. I respect that. But I don’t agree that fussing over sweetened milk – and other treats that represent, or should represent, a small percentage of our kids’ diets – is an effective way to create a healthier population.
Instead, it’s reinforcing the idea that sweet drinks, fries and nuggets, and those whipped-cream-chocolate-chip pancakes are special treats to be eaten once in a while. And then finding a way to get real food into time- and cash-strapped families’ homes.
I think Oliver, and other food revolutionaries, are doing great things to make this happen. And if chocolate milk disappears from our school menu, I won’t complain.
But while it’s still there? My kids are allowed to drink it.
And it doesn’t bother me a bit.