How Unlimited Oreos Can Teach Children to Eat Healthy Food

good healthy food, eating disorders
Dinnertime! Yes, that's dinner.

I’m pretty much the gatekeeper of all things edible in our house. I’ve got my reasons. Mainly (at least I tell myself), it’s because I do most of the cooking, so I know what we need, what we run out of, what we’ll eat and what will just rot in the bottom of the fridge. Also, our house is small — teeny tiny. Very little shelf space, no pantry, apartment-size fridge. So I know what we can (actually, can’t) accommodate.

I’m also the gatekeeper, I’m afraid, because I like being able to influence (read: dictate) what my kids eat. I don’t say that lightly or with pride. It’s just, I was raised in an a home with an exorbitant amount of food freedom and I used that freedom for all it was worth. I think it might be for that reason, even more than the tiny kitchen, that I give myself veto power on what comes in the house and when it will get consumed.

We’re kind of the opposite of Margot Magowan’s family.

A recent post on Magowan’s ReelGirl blog, which is usually about girls and media, fascinated me, made me envious, reminded me that, especially as my kids get older, I need to rethink my fascist kitchen.

Magowan’s post, which linked to older posts, were the instructions she left for her babysitters before she and her husband set out on a child-free weekend. She left guidelines for food and it’s not just a list of allergies and heating instructions. It’s her family’s eating (or feeding) philosophy, one that Magowan hopes will keep her three girls from going the route of eating disorders as their mother did.

From Notes to the Babysitter:

They cannot keep asking for food or ask you to keep making food. You are not a short order cook or servant. If they do not like what you made or do not feel like eating it, they can get whatever they want from their foodshelves, bring it to the table and eat it. I don’t care if they eat cereal for dinner or oreos for breakfast. Just make sure you put something healthy out.

As if that doesn’t take me out of my mom-freak comfort zone, check out some of the contents of the shelves:

The kids food shelves have granola bars, tangerines, carrots, M n Ms, cashews, rice cakes, raisins, cheese, lollipops, yogurt etc. They have another cereal shelf that has sugary cereal and cheerios etc they can access. They have an abundance of food, more than they could eat. I don’t give them trouble about wasting food. I feel like they have enough to worry about just learning how to eat right now.

I’m with her on the clean plate club. I tell my kids all the time that if they’re not hungry or if they’re feeling full, they shouldn’t feel obligated to finish their food — whether it’s a restaurant dinner, a home one or even a snack. But that my kids could have M&Ms, or Cap’n Crunch or Oreos (she mentions those later) for dinner — yikes!

But that’s exactly the point. On good healthy foods and bad foods, she also writes:


The idea is that there is no “good” food or “bad” food. Forbidding certain foods, calling certain foods dessert that kids are only allowed to eat when they finish other food, using food as a reward or a way to feel better after a cut or a scrape gives food all kinds of power.


No bad food, no bad food, no bad food. Come on! Oreos are bad food!

But it works for them. She says they rarely go to their food shelves for alterna-dinner (or “family time,” which is what they call it instead of dinner, I guess to take the obligation to eat out of the equation? I’m not sure). She also tells them that family time is their last opportunity to eat before breakfast the next morning.

The strategy is one she picked up from a book called Preventing Childhood Eating Problems, by Jane Hirshmann and Lela Zaphiropoulos. The idea is to let kids eat what the want when they want. Of course, from early on, you help them learn to recognize when they’re hungry and when they’re full. And then you don’t fight about food.

I remember when my daughter was 3, a child development expert talked about how important that kids be able to have a food shelf that they have unfettered access to. I tried it, but (1) we lived in a super small place then, too — couldn’t spare a low drawer in the cabinets and (2) I copped out and put “good” crap in there that she wasn’t all that jazzed about (which I’m sure was exactly my plan!).

I know I need to share my kitchen, my shopping list and my food, and let my kids drive their own eating. We have very little junk in the house and lots of fresh stuff, which they like. Sure, my kids rave about junky sweets, etc., but they also ask for fruit to snack on, don’t blanch at whole grain pasta or bread and one even orders up lentils whenever she gets to pick what’s for dinner. All good!

So it’s really me who is in the way. I’m not particularly worried about eating disorders — whether or not I change my ways — but I think it can’t be anything but infantalizing for older kids to have to ask if they can have a popsicle. It’s got to start sometime. It might as well be now.

Of course, I’d love to know the rest of you do it. Include kids ages, please and give me your food strategy. Anyone else do the food shelf?

Photo: Terrwilliger911 via flickr

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