(No) Judgment Day. Pass it on.

by Christina on August 17, 2011

On the road this summer, I was struck, as I always am while traveling, by what other kids eat. For all the junk food in everyday life, there’s something astonishing about vacation. Maybe it’s the sheer volume of really bad food. Or the vacation-treat mentality. Or all those wiped-out parents desperate for something, anything, edible. All I know is that it gets to me.

I know better. I know about rampant bad options and insidious marketing. I know it takes time to educate ourselves and steely resolve to reject the status quo. And I personally know lots of people who just years — even months — ago had epiphanies about the state of our food supply and now wonder how they could have been so blind for so long. And I’m still learning, too. Every. Single. Day. So I know that many people are at their own points on their own journeys.

But as much as I believe in the importance of small steps, as much as I preach and practice tact and humor when dealing with tricky situations, as much as we’ve worked hard to raise Tess to be non-judgmental, I still sometimes have to fight the urge to walk up to complete strangers and roar about the Coke-Cheetos-McFried-bits they’re feeding their kids.

The longer I’m a parent, the more I have actual visceral reactions to seeing children eat this way. At a living-history museum last month, I was pleasantly surprised by the cafeteria’s a la carte salads, fruit-and-cheese plates and hummus packs. It was enough that we could cobble together a decent lunch when we decided to stay longer than planned. But still I heard nearly every other parent ask: “Where’s your kids’ menu?” Which of course had the usual substandard fare. Call me melodramatic, but I wanted to scream.

Instead, I did what I always do and mumbled to my husband. Other times it’s my friends who get an earful. And other times, if the opportunity comes up to weigh in, if another parent somehow invites my advice (like that mother at Starbucks who wanted me to tell her 5-year-old that he’d be more satisfied with a juice box and donut than with “just water”… um, no), I am diplomacy personified, because I really do believe that’s more effective. But does that stop me from having crazy thoughts? Hell no.

And let me tell you: I read a lot of food blogs. I track a lot of food news. I talk to a lot of people. And my surreptitious judging seems quaint by comparison. There’s a whole lot of judging when it comes to parenting in general, but food in particular. And the interwebs have made it far too easy for folks comfy in their convictions to sit back and let the snark flow.

So here’s what I propose: Can we all promise to do one thing (each month?) to help increase access to good food and educate others about our food supply? Send someone to a local farm or farmers’ market or natural-foods store. Invite a friend to dinner. Tell someone about your CSA. Volunteer to teach a cooking class at a food pantry, or your church or community center. Get into your kids’ school, plant a garden and come up with ideas for increasing food literacy. Do something, anything.* Less judging, more helping.

Off to pick at the CSA farm

The start of a school year is in many ways like the start of a new year, filled with promise and renewal, beginnings and opportunities. So as the new school year approaches, let’s take the opportunity to make a difference. One way to start: Pass this on. Help other parents make good choices. Be their tipping point. Because we all were there once.

*A reader suggested volunteering to drive low-income folks to affordable grocery stores. That gave me a few more ideas (which I also shared in the comments): Research local CSAs that offer sliding scales or discounts, then pass that info on to food banks and social-service agencies. Donate excess garden produce through AmpleHarvest.org. Check with local food pantries to see if you can volunteer to glean (pick leftover crops) at a local farm.

Spoonfed is on Facebook. You’ll find links to blog posts, news and commentary on raising food-literate kids, questions and comments from readers, voices, viewpoints, the works. Stop by, like the page, chime in, spread the word. (Thanks.)

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{ 22 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Not Stupid or Uninformed, Just Low-Income August 17, 2011 at 6:24 pm

I appreciate your common-sense suggestions. However, there is still a LOT of judgment going on in your non-judgment. When I ask for a kids’ menu at a restaurant, it’s not because my kids won’t or don’t eat foods like hummus and celery; it’s because the kids’ menus are generally packaged together in an affordable way that allows my family to enjoy occasionally eating out. Start to cobble things together from the regular menu and you’re easily outpricing a kids’ menu item by more than 100 percent.

I strongly believe that the number-one reason that many Americans do not eat as well as they would like to is not a lack of will but a lack of money and time. It takes time to prepare a weekly meal plan, shop for it, prepare it, and clean up afterwards. It takes money to do that, too. I can do that for my family because my husband and I share the duties and have two incomes that combine to make enough money to allow us to. At the moment, it’s a privilege to eat this way. It’s a privilege to have a CSA for which you must pay hundreds of dollars upfront. It’s a privilege to live near enough to a grocery store and/or have access to a car to get there. It’s a privilege to have the time to take cooking classes.

Please don’t send me to a natural foods store where I can barely afford to walk in the door. Not helpful. Helpful would be donating some of those foods to a local food pantry. Helpful would be providing transportation to affordable stores for low-income people. Helpful would be recognizing your own privilege.

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2 Christina August 17, 2011 at 11:10 pm

Anon: Actually, that’s my point… How the heck do I know why someone chooses a kids’ menu? The thing is, though, that money and time don’t have to be obstacles. They can be, sure. But, more often than not, that’s perception, not reality. Just a little while ago, The Lunch Tray blog asked readers for ideas on eating real, wholesome food on a seriously small budget. You’ll see from the responses that money is not the problem. And, as Amber described so perfectly below, many CSAs offer subsidized shares or discounts for farm work. So, again, perception vs. reality.

The other reality is that we all determine our own priorities, and there are plenty of people who think nothing of spending money on expensive cars, but balk at the price of organic milk. Or who spend hours watching television, yet think half an hour is too long to cook a meal. So I have a hard time believing that money and time are significant obstacles for most people.

But that’s an excellent suggestion about volunteering to provide transportation to grocery stores. Another idea along the same lines: Research local CSAs that do offer sliding scales or discounts, then pass that info on to food banks and social-service agencies. Or donate excess garden produce through AmpleHarvest.org. Or check with your local food pantries to see if you can volunteer to glean (pick leftover crops) at a local farm.

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3 Christina August 17, 2011 at 11:20 pm

Oh, Anon, one more thing: You mentioned donating healthy foods to a food pantry. I advocate that exact thing in this post: Would you feed your own kid the same food you donate to food pantries? (And the comments include some interesting discussion of cooking classes offered through food pantries.)

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4 Uly August 24, 2011 at 4:32 pm

“When I ask for a kids’ menu at a restaurant, it’s not because my kids won’t or don’t eat foods like hummus and celery; it’s because the kids’ menus are generally packaged together in an affordable way that allows my family to enjoy occasionally eating out.”

When we eat out, we don’t do a kid’s menu thing. Instead, we have the nieces split a meal. The three adults (me, my mom, my sister) will usually split two meals. Same savings, better food.

As for CSAs, we’re lucky in that our CSA not only allows a payment plan, but also accepts food stamps.

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5 Barefeet In The Kitchen August 17, 2011 at 6:28 pm

Awesome post, Christina. Showing friends and family that it really doesn’t require 29 hours in a day to feed your family healthier whole foods, is hugely important to me. I’m still appalled by the number of friends I have that consider opening 5 cans and a bag of lettuce and then tossing it with a bag of Doritos a home-made taco salad.

One convert at a time, I’m determined to convince people around me to try something new completely from scratch.

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6 Bettina at The Lunch Tray August 17, 2011 at 6:54 pm

When we were on a road trip this summer I brought along a favorite t-shirt, one given to me by a dear friend for my birthday, emblazoned with the slogan “Eat More Kale.” And because we were on the road, I was inevitably walking into one fast food restaurant after another to use the bathroom and wearing this shirt (let me hasten to add we were able to do laundry on this trip, which is why the shirt had repeat wearings.) Every time I did so, I’d first be taken aback by someone’s dark, hostile glare and then I’d realize what I was wearing. It started to feel like a bold political act, wearing that shirt into a McDonald’s! Clearly, people felt judged by me and they weren’t happy about it.

At any rate, your point is a good one. You have to meet people where they are before you can educate them. Judging people only makes people feel defensive. And I say this as someone who is also learning all the time . . . .

- Bettina

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7 treen August 17, 2011 at 8:22 pm

We’ve had a few “teaching” moments about food this summer that just slid in there. Opportunities are there – you don’t have to be heavy handed about it.

1. Some friends were here for dinner and my husband showed their teenage daughter how to make croutons for the salad. She liked them enough to say that she’ll never go back to the hard-as-a-rock bagged croutons at the store.

2. A cousin asked me for some reading recommendations of books I’ve found interesting recently. I gave her a wide variety in genre, and threw in “In Defense of Food” because yes, I did find it very interesting. My husband and I quote from it all the time, particularly the phrase “edible food-like substances.”

3. My husband volunteered to do ALL the menu planning and cooking at a 4-day family reunion last month, primarily because he figured other members of the family would provide processed junk rather than “the good stuff.” (i.e. jarred pasta sauce vs. homemade from the garden) Everyone raved about the meals.

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8 Amber @ Au Coeur August 17, 2011 at 9:39 pm

I have a hard time not judging, too. The supermarket especially is awful for me — I try to get in and out as quickly as possible, because invariably my daughter is going to ask for something that is not on our approved food list. The thing about it is, I don’t just want to say “No,” I want to teach her why we aren’t buying it, which often means using the words “icky,” “unhealthy,” or “bad for you” since I’m talking to a not-quite-two year old. I try to do it quietly, but things can get awkward when the person next to me has just put the same item in their cart.

As far as restaurants, because of price we eat out at only one place, my chef husband’s restaurant (it’s free). We go once a week and they now know that she only drinks water out of a regular glass (not plastic kids cup, not juice, not milk, certainly not pop) and that veggies will be substituted for french fries. I think my husband is a great chef, and he does what he can, but there is still so much pressure from parents that can’t be ignored if they want to be successful. Just yesterday, I saw on his Facebook page a post from a mom who asked that they never remove the grilled cheese & fries off the menu because her son loves it. It’s not even wheat bread. I would never, ever order that for my daughter (and for that matter, neither would my husband). Yes, I judged. I still am judging. He and I have had long talks about how to get through to these people and I’m just not sure.

Even my family is this way; I just returned from a vacation with my dad and grown brothers, and we basically had separate shopping trips and I often had to steer my daughter away from their food. I spoke with one of my brothers about it and he basically said that he doesn’t care what the ingredients are it’s all about “taste.” He works out and is in good shape otherwise, so it’s beyond me how one cannot care what goes into one’s body. He also doesn’t read and consumes only mainstream media, including very little news, so it’s also that he is intentionally ignorant.

This is becoming a very long comment, but I also wanted to add a note to the person who wrote the first comment. My three person family is pretty squarely in the low-income bracket. We currently qualify for free government healthcare, yet we have made healthy eating a priority and so we make it work with our budget. I feed our family for $3/person/day or less and the only pre-packaged food that enters our house is an occasional bag of tortilla chips, organic applesauce, sometimes stoned wheat crackers, pastas, and an occasional pint of Ben & Jerry’s (my weakness). I bake our bread and tortillas; everything else is fresh, seasonal produce (not always organic), organic eggs and dairy, dried beans, and grains, peanut butter, etc. If you shop smartly, it is actually cheaper to eat healthy than not.

We also have been a member of a CSA for five years now. You’re right, coming up with hundreds of dollars at the beginning of the season is hard on a limited budget, but I’ve found that most farms are willing to work with members who cannot pay it all or all at once. The first CSA we joined, we qualified for a subsidized share which allowed me to pay them $10 every week to get the full share. After the first year, we paid more but were still able to make weekly payments. Last year we tried a new farm (we had moved) and paid the most we’ve ever paid but it was still worth it. This year, I found a farm that was willing to reduce the price for every hour that I volunteered. I go Saturday afternoon (with my daughter since I don’t have childcare) and work for 2-3 hours. I actually really enjoy helping produce my own food, and by the end of the summer, I will have only paid a little over $300 for a full CSA.

If you really can’t join a CSA, why not grow your own? Huge amounts of food can be grown in small areas, even in cities (have you heard of Truck Farm?). We don’t pay for things like TV, Netflicks, fancy cell phone plans, etc.; we live in less than 800 sq ft and we only have one car. You have to choose what’s important to you and we’ve chosen food. Unless you are completely relying on food banks, I just don’t buy that money is the reason most people aren’t eating healthy.

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9 Magda August 18, 2011 at 10:17 am

“I spoke with one of my brothers about it and he basically said that he doesn’t care what the ingredients are it’s all about “taste.” ”
This describes DH to a T. He does eat my homecooked meals but there are a few things he will not give up. One is store-bought ranch dressing, the other an MSG-laden seasoning. I’m getting ready to switch him over to homemade ranch but I let him use the seasoning on his own food if he so chooses. I can only educate him and let him make his own choices.
This post was awesome BTW!!

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10 Christina August 25, 2011 at 1:00 am

The funny thing about “taste” is that, once you get used to real food, it’s hard to eat conventionally packaged foods without detecting weird aftertastes. So taste is relative…

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11 Bri August 19, 2011 at 2:34 pm

Amber, I hear you on so many things, but I was struck by your talk of having to use negative words like “Icky” or “bad for you” when telling your 2 year old about unapproved foods. I have a five-year-old and a 2-year-old myself, so I understand about limited vocabulary, but I think it’s really important to try to speak positively whenever possible. An approach I try to take with my kids is to say gently, “No, we don’t buy/eat xyz food because we want to fill up on our ‘good-body’ foods. This one is not a healthy body choice, but we can eat THIS instead.” (Oreos are not a healthy choice or a choice that Mommy will buy, but if you are going to have a treat we can make frozen banana pops together; that cereal is not a healthy choice, but let’s talk about all the breakfast foods you like to eat and remember that we have lots of wonderful foods at home!) Even with the 2-year-old, it works, and I’m always mindful of setting up a “no! Bad!” association with any food item, if for no other reason than I don’t want my kids to come off as judgmental and rude should those foods be offered to them at a party or somewhere else outside our home.

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12 Amber @ Au Coeur August 21, 2011 at 12:10 pm

Thanks for the thoughts, Bri. I do provide an example of an approved substitute…”let’s get this instead,” and I try to be positive about it. But I also think it’s okay for her to know that in our family, for example, we don’t consume artificial colors. I usually show her the label and tell her we are going to read the ingredients. Perhaps it would be better to say that it’s “an unhealthy choice” or “not healthy choice” rather than using the word “icky,” but I wonder if that term would really be any less offensive if she were to say it when the food were offered to her elsewhere. I think no matter what, if a grown up offers a food to a child who turns it down by saying it’s icky or unhealthy there’s the possibility of offense or that the adult will feel judged (or at the least thinking the child is a know-it-all). I’m not really sure what the solution is since kids don’t have a filter. Unless you were to only tell your child not to eat it without giving a reason, there’s no way to guarantee that children don’t repeat the reasoning.

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13 Christina August 25, 2011 at 1:36 am

Amber and Bri: My strategy here is to explain exactly why we’re not buying something. We’ve tried to educate Tess from a very young age about chemical additives, pesticides, GMOs, etc. So I tap that history when we read labels, pointing to ingredients rather than calling the food bad or unhealthy or whatever. Sometimes something is so truly unbelievable that the word “icky” is all that fits. But then it’s almost a game, like: “Can you believe they want people to eat this?!”

Knock wood, but so far, so good on the judgment front. When someone offers Tess something she knows I’d veto, she just says “no, thank you” without commentary. (Well, or sometimes she eats it anyway.)

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14 Maryann August 18, 2011 at 3:50 am

I agree that there is way too much judgement when it comes to food and feeding kids. I’m always observing and watching parents interact with their children when it comes to food. Some parents are too permissive like the ones you describe but some are also too controlling. There’s a lot of pressure these days to raise healthy kids so parents often demand kids eat their vegetables or “healthy” items in order to get the treats they want, creating value in the wrong foods. I tell parents all that time if I weren’t a dietitian, I would make a ton of feeding mistakes. You are right. We need to help people and lose the judgement because if any of our circumstances were different, we could be doing the same exact thing.

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15 Clair August 18, 2011 at 9:00 am

I have a passion for healthy food. And sometimes, especially with family members, I think people misunderstand my passion as judgement or preaching when in reality I want to help them because I LOVE them and want to make sure they live a long, healthy life. It’s a fine line to walk. You want to be encouraging and help others to want to research and learn on their own time so they can make an informed decision, rather than just take someone else’s word for it. We are all on our own food journeys, learning as we go. But in the end, I’ve learned to not talk about food (in person) unless specifically asked. Opinions, as non-judgmental as they may seem, will still be responded by others defensively or with guilt. Food is a very controversial subject.

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16 Bettina at The Lunch Tray August 18, 2011 at 10:31 am

Me again! Thanks for the link above to the Lunch Tray post about eating well on a tight budget. It is indeed hard for many people to feed their families well when money is tight, taking a lot more creativity, thought and hands-on food prep than many are willing to devote. In that regard, I just wanted to pass on this, from Slow Food USA – - a nationwide challenge to feed your family on less than $5 per person. If you sign up, you’ll receive tips on eating well cheaply: https://secure3.convio.net/sfusa/site/SPageServer?pagename=5Challenge_Home.

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17 Anne August 20, 2011 at 6:54 pm

I really enjoyed this post. I had slowly switched my family over to a “whole foods” diet, and successfully eliminated all HFCS and artificial flavors. I was feeling pretty smug and quietly judging all those fools who feed their kids crap. THEN my son was put on a strict elimination diet and I realized I had to make some compromises. Due to a disease called Eosinophilic Esophagitis (or EoE for short) my son can not have any wheat, milk, soy, eggs, fish, shellfish, peanuts, or treenuts. He is 7 years old, and emotionally the abrubt diet change has been difficult for him. He wants “treats” like every other kid does. I now buy him skittles and slurpees as treats. He sometimes has potato chips with his lunch, especially if we are having a picnic. I am very conflicted about it. I certainly wish all of life didn’t revolve around food, but it does. Any tips or advice?

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18 Christina August 25, 2011 at 1:16 am

Anne: Nothing wrong with treats! But instead of artificially colored (and then some) candy, perhaps keep some natural candies on hand? The Natural Candy Store has a great selection of additive-free treats. And instead of slurpees, how about making fruit smoothies? Or homemade snow cones? You can make homemade chips, too, or buy better brands. Kids are capable from a young age of understanding that even treats should have good ingredients. So it doesn’t have to be about denial. Not at all.

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19 Cyndi September 9, 2011 at 3:24 pm

Hi Anne,

We have multiple food reactions too, though my daughter also reacts to the artificial additives so we never have them (she’ll tantrum all evening). Not that we would anyway.

There are still tons of treats your son can have. First, try to redefine the word “treat.” For my daughter, the biggest treat in the universe is lox. Another used to be canned sardines. Some fruits are special to her like mangos. Not all those things are safe for your son but I am offering them as examples.

As for candy, do you know about Yummy Earth? They really delicious and not very expensive when you buy a bag and divide it by the number of servings. They are free of all your son’s reactive foods listed in your comment. They make lollipops and hard candies. I recommend the mixed flavor bags.

There are plenty of organic, nothing but salt and potatoes, chips. So they may have a lot of plastic and not be very nutritional, but they’re not particularly “icky” either. You can get other chips like that made out of other root veggies, corn, and a bunch of other stuff. Or you could make your own chips in the oven or deep fryer or stovetop.

We like Nana’s cookies for one-serving, individually wrapped, cookies that meet her dietary needs. We don’t have them at home. They are kept at school (she’s in 1st grade) so that when a kid’s parents brings in the seemingly obligitory birthday cupcakes, my daughter has a treat she enjoys (we brought safe cupcakes from a mix for her birthday last year and her birthday cake at home was completely from scratch (vegan, gluten-free, and delicious)).

So yes we rely on some packaged products but mostly do make food from scratch. And we eat very well and affordably (though we budget more for good food and less for other things).

Look at your son’s diagnosis as an opportunity to *expand* your diet and eat more healthily. Yes I said expand. It’s so easy to get into ruts and the Standard American Diet is one big fat rut. If you’re forced to give up the most common ingredient building blocks of your food, you can either look for other processed replacements or you can look to see all the other foods around you that you might not have noticed before. For example, before going gluten-free I never would have known about besan. That’s chickpea flour. I make wonderful pancake/crepe roll-ups with it and you can use it for tons of stuff.

A great place to learn more about this sort of stuff is the Yahoo Group called Foodlab. There are also a lot of blogs and etc. No books really, unfortunately.

We ate pretty healthy before discovering my daughter’s food reactions (and some new ones of my own) but giving some foods up made us eat even more healthfully. And not just because I stopped foods we were reacting to. Also, cooking from scratch means fewer reactions because there is less possibility of cross-contamination.

Good luck!

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20 Anne September 10, 2011 at 2:08 pm

Thank you for your thoughtful reply and encouragement! Any kind of change is a slow process for me. . . .I was overwhelmed and discouraged by so much change, but it is getting easier. It’s funny you mention Nana’s cookies. . . . I JUST bought two of these at Whole Foods for my son to keep in his classroom in case of b-day treats! I’ll have to look into the candy suggestions next. I want all of us to be healthy, and I want everything our family eats to be safe and welcoming for my son. I have a lot of work ahead of me, but we’ll get there!

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21 Ruth August 27, 2011 at 10:36 am

Actually I get completely what you are saying. in your post. The industry has us marketed to death targeting busy parents and low income households with “cheap” foods that are empty calories – but filling. They are starting to be called on the carpet. But free enterprise is such. So if you have the money to bombard the market with bad food to make more money ie McDonalds and all the other fast food chains.

We are wising up to HFCS.

Volunteering more positive messages to your friends and family, encouraging involvement in local food pantries to sample healthy recipes works. l run one. I also work with low income families by a new project called VICTORY GARDEN 100 – connecting 100 households in my county with gardens and education resources to grow them. I connect Head Start kids with the pumpkins they carve and growing the vines the next summer. Little bits of connecting positive experiences is one small step that makes a huge leap. Keep it up. I love your blog.

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22 Christina August 29, 2011 at 11:51 pm

Ruth: What a terrific project. You’re so right about those connections. And the more, the better.

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