My two children, ages 8 and 5, know damn well there’s a good chance I’ll say “no” before I say “yes” when it comes to ordering fast food. While there’s no doubt that it’s quick and convenient (and I’ll admit, it sure seems like a good idea when that chicken pot pie didn’t come out the way I’d hoped), I still won’t order take-out or pick up fast food if I don’t absolutely have to.
I’d honestly rather have my children eat plain bread with butter than hit the McDonald’s Drive Thru for a Happy Meal of chicken nuggets and fries. At least then I know the nutritional benefits that come with that a slice of bread and butter from my fridge than anything that comes with a side of grease and peanut oil and God knows how much MSG.
Call me crazy, call me neurotic, call me every horrible name in the book, but I’ll say what everyone else is generally too polite to say: Our kids are getting fat. Obese. Overweight. Whatever you want to call it, our kids are at least (in some cases, but not all) 15 to 20 pounds heavier than we were at their age, because they are eating more and doing less.
If you don’t believe me on that one, just consider the stats: According to the CDC, childhood obesity has more than doubled in kids and quadrupled in adolescents in the last 30 years alone. And while obesity can be tied to certain genetic factors, it is also, by its very definition, largely caused by a “caloric imbalance” — in other words, when the amount of calories consumed is vastly greater than the calories burned.
So yeah; that is why I am a little bat shit crazy over keeping an eye on the calories — and quality of food — my kids put in their mouths. I figure at this stage, their nutritional health is one of the only things I can control, and maybe, just maybe, setting these patterns early will help them make better decisions for themselves in the future.
Of course, sometimes this makes me, how shall I put this … an “unfun” mom.
Case in point: I’ve totally broken one of those delicious-looking Panera Bread cookies in half so my kids can split it — and divvy up the 400 calories each one of them comes along with. I also buy gluten-free snacks whenever I can and never allow them to order food from the school cafeteria (with the exception of the occasional pizza Friday, because even I’m not that cruel). And juice? Yeah, that doesn’t exist at our house. I know some of those “kid-friendly” grab-and-go boxes look convenient and even pretty cute sitting on the grocery shelf, but no. Just, no. Honestly, the sugar content most juices pack inside of them isn’t worth it.
I know how all of this comes off; really, I do. And I know that you may be reading this and thinking, Sheesh, calm down, lady. But I don’t care.
I’m also aware that accepting each other and our bodies for what they are and what they can do is important, and that setting up aversions or negative relationships to food during childhood can be damaging, long-term. But I’m not exactly standing over them, meticulously adding up their every bite in a calorie tracking app or something. I’m merely giving them a real-world “eat this, not that” lesson they can hopefully take with them for life. I’d be doing my kids a huge disservice by giving in and allowing them to eat whatever they want, whenever they want it. (And believe me, if it were up to our kids, they’d all be existing solely on Fruit Roll-Ups and M&Ms.)
Isn’t it our job to show them the way? To teach them life-long healthy habits early, so they’ll hopefully continue following into adulthood? So far, the science points to yes. A 2012 study examined just how much a parent’s influence has on their child’s relationship to food, and it was pretty telling. Specifically, researchers found that the food preferences of young children had a strong link to their risk of becoming obese later in life, according to the European Food Information Council, and that the role parents play the foods their children eat could help or hinder them.
No matter what people might say, encouraging unhealthy eating habits in kids just isn’t right. And that’s perhaps why more dining establishments and fast food franchises are adding calorie counts to the menu — the numbers are right there, in black and white, and hard to ignore.
Jessica Shepard, a certified holistic health consultant who has studied nutrition, spoke to the New York Times about the new menu trend earlier this year, saying that when it comes to our children, we absolutely should teach them calories is a way to measure the things we eat; and that it’s a measurement of limits. “Calories are a guideline,” said Shephard. “But we need to think about things like nutritional density and the value our body gets as a whole.”
She’s right. But honestly, children’s meal selections at most restaurants have always been craptastic at best. And it’s not just because of the calorie count or the sugar content — it’s because by any guidelines, processed chicken fingers, hot dogs ,and buttered noodles have such poor nutritional value. Same goes for most packaged foods, for that matter. And as much as our kids love their morning cereal (complete with fun toy surprise inside), the fact is, most just aren’t subtable substitutes for a hearty breakfast.
So whether we’re eating at home or out at a restaurant, I’ll continue to monitor what my children eat — from fat grams and calories to protein and other important nutrients — and I don’t care if that makes me seem “controlling.” If we’re on the road, I sure as heck appreciate the menus that now come along with calorie counts before ordering lunch. That goes for kids’ meals as well as mine. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve opted for a salad over a burger myself, after seeing how many calories I’d inhale in one sitting, or skipped the Frappucino because OMG they’re loaded with more sugar than I ever expected.
I’m not being neurotic (hopefully), I’m just trying to be a good mom who sets good examples. And at the end of the day, that’s really all I care about.More On