Kids eat processed food because parents give it to them (for the most part)

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One thing we expected to gain from our family’s strict “100 Days of Real Food” pledge was a new perspective. And a new perspective we got. I am convinced that before cutting out all highly processed food – including white flour and sugar – I was going through life completely oblivious to what I was eating and feeding my family. Not only was I ignoring the ingredients on the packaged stuff I was buying, but for some reason the long list of refined grains, artificial additives, and sweeteners wouldn’t have raised a red flag for me anyway.

But more than halfway into our real food pledge things were suddenly different. Thanks to Michael Pollan, we now understood that most of what we used to eat – including pasta made from scratch using white flour – was not the best choice. And after completely making over the way our family shops for food, cooks, and eats I cannot not help but observe what food choices others are making in this processed food world that we live in. Call it nosey, call it judgmental, but regardless - I am incredibly curious about what others are eating.

I am especially curious about what other parents choose to feed their children. If you hand your kid a bag of chips, sure they are going to eat it and probably enjoy every last bite (I know my kids would). If you hand your kid some Pirate’s Booty or Veggie Straws because for some reason – that you might not be able to explain exactly – you think it’s a “healthier” alternative than chips I am sure they would eat that as well. But what if you went through a little extra effort and sliced up a few pieces of their favorite organic fruit? Wouldn’t they most likely dig right into that too?

It seems to me as though young children have to rely on their parents to make the right food choices for them. My daughters certainly can’t go to the grocery store, pick out food, and make purchases without me leading the charge. I am their “enabler” if you will. And, like most moms, I know what food – both “real” and processed – that my children will likely eat. I know they would enjoy some cold apple slices with a little peanut butter on them just as much as a bag of chips – especially if they never even knew the chips were an alternative. So, as their mother, I am learning that it is my responsibility to buy and provide them with the right whole food choices even if it might require a little extra work on my part.

Following is a July 2010 excerpt from our “100 Days of Real Food” pledge:

The other night after dinner I let my daughters dig into a homemade freezie pop, which was basically frozen organic applesauce inside a colorful silicone mold. It was the perfect messy treat to eat outside on a hot summer day. Once we got outside not one, not two, but three little friends on our street came right over. Each child separately indicated they wanted to try “one” too – even though I’m sure they didn’t even know what it was. So luckily, I had exactly three extra homemade freezie pops ready to go, and I was happy to divvy them up. All of the kids sucked them down with pleasure, and the only thing they were eating was frozen organic applesauce!

Yes, it took a little effort on my part to order the freezie pop molds, pour in some store bought applesauce, and stick them in the freezer, but once all of that was taken care of these kids were thrilled to eat exactly what was offered to them. And these are the very same kids that are usually walking up and down our street with artificially colored, high-fructose corn syrup filled, factory-made frozen treats from the grocery store. Because of course that’s what was available and given to them.

Note: This was originally published in my weekly syndicated newspaper column, but I wanted to revisit it today since it’s a topic I touch on often.

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173 comments to Kids eat processed food because parents give it to them (for the most part)

  • Kate

    I totally agree with you, it’s a parent’s choice what goes into a kid’s mouth. While we do not feed our kids 100% non-processed, we try our best (goldfish crackers will always have a place in our lives). Our kids basically subsist on fruit and ‘real’ peanut butter on whole wheat bread.

    I do have to say that this post reminded me of one you wrote in the past, where you discussed going to a free kid’s night at your grocery store, and seeing parents giving their kids nuggets and chocolate milk. In the post, you suggested this must be how those kids eat all the time. My children have a great diet at home (using many of your recipes), but on the rare occasion that we go out, they do get to have chocolate milk and nuggets. It’s a treat for them, and not a reflection on their diet in general.

    • AlisonT

      I am on the same page as Kate. We are trying our best to reduce the amount of processed food in our family, but have not gone all the way. We have included more organic food in our diet (including milk, sour cream, butter, most meat and many veggies during growing season), and limit the junk food. I admit to eating junk after the kids are in bed, though, and I hope to work on that bad habit soon!

      I do, however, let my daughters have a treat when we are out to eat or traveling. Chocolate milk is a special treat, and they occasionally eat fast food, which they don’t even really enjoy. Most of the time, we offer them nutritious choices and they eat them happily. The occasional treat isn’t going to worry me.

      • Susan

        The other day me teenage daughter and I were out running errands. She told me kept seeing commercials for Shamrock shakes at McD’s and could we please go get one. Ewwww. I thought as I remembered there are like 43 chemicals in fast food shakes. But once she pointed out to me that we haven’t had a “treat” in 4 years, I relented. I hated it, but I relented.

        Well, imagine my surprise when she got 1/4 of it down and then said she didn’t want it because it tasted like chemicals! She threw it out at our next stop. When we switched to real food 4 years ago, she was 12 and went along with my reasoning pretty well. I just kept telling her over and over again what these fake foods do to our bodies and brains. I never even realy knew if she was even listening! How pleased I am that she had been.

        The beauty of eating real food is that you become so accustomed to the fresh taste that nothing else will do. Its neat to know that a teenager even noticed!

      • 100 Days of Real Food

        AlisonT – I also eat a little treat (dark chocolate) when my kids are in bed or when they aren’t looking! No one here is perfect…which is not what this is about anyway. Just being aware and making the right decisions the majority of the time can go a long way…

    • 100 Days of Real Food

      Kate – I remember what post you are talking about and yes there are absolutely always exceptions to the rule. But at the same time since we live in a world where processed food rules I think it’s safe to say the majority of the patrons eat that way all the time. Which is honestly fine…but since I used to feed my kids that stuff because I just didn’t know any better I feel the need to spread the word! :)

  • MyPeaceOfFood

    This is so hard for me. I recently wrote a post about it too, which spawned from a comment of yours on facebook, because I totally agree but am struggling! I know “I’m the mama,” but my kid is the 2-year-old in the supermarket having a tantrum because I won’t let him take home a box of sugary cereal — which he’s never had before anyways. It’s just the colorful packaging and cartoon characters that catch his eye. I’d love to either bring my husband as a reinforcement — he knows once we get home if I actually DO give in and let my son take home a “treat” he’ll maybe eat 2 bites of it, so he more often says no and can help me control the tantrum — or go shopping alone, but that’s just not always practical. Even Target has temptation lurking in every aisle — and that means more tantrums for things he doesn’t even know he doesn’t like.

    I’m not a picky eater, nor is my husband, but of course our 2-year-old is. He hates nut butters, chokes on apples, will eat string cheese and raisins one day but spits them out the next. I’m hoping all of this is just a temporary battle, a call for attention, but the rest of the kids in my family (and my parents) are bad examples — they’ll sometimes eat yogurt and cereal for dinner, and their pantries are always stocked with sugary treats that at any visit my son wants.

    It’s a daily struggle but one I’m trying to surpass — not caring if people stare when he has a tantrum and setting a good example with what I’m eating are things I can and need to do NOW. Next, I suppose, will come saying no to treats at other peoples’ houses and again ignoring the tantrums! With another new baby coming in May I know I should start being stronger now. At least he likes organic meat!

    • Gretchen

      been there – done that. Now we have a 4 year old, 2 year old, and one on the way. Occasionally i will bring dried fruit, fresh fruit slices, or some sort of favorite “treat” for the kids and wait to give it to them during the times we HAVE to go down the bad aisles (otherwise we avoid or have no need to go down the processed food aisles) Cereal aisles were once bad (even though we never bought the sugary stuff – kids just knew they were supposed to beg for it). Now I can go and grab my oatmeal without a whine (an occasional request). Sometimes it helps to run down the aisle as a distraction – lol. It is just consistency and being confidant in your choice. If your kid tried to run across a busy street you would firmly refuse despite the protests – you just have to start thinking of food in the same way.
      I have a strong-willed child that would leave me haggard and tired at the end of each day (she still does!) but eventually she learns and now she is a health food promoter and tells her friends and grandparents about the benefits of healthy eating – not that she won’t eat bad stuff if i let her! (we have new battles we are working on now – I am victorious on the food front though it took a little time) Your child will not starve. Eventually the most picky eater will eat something. Just make that something healthy when they do give in and their palate will eventually change (reasonably) Mine love salad as a pre-dinner snakc now. They used to only want crackers or other processed crap for a snack.

      • MyPeaceOfFood

        Thank you, Gretchen — you give me hope! I know I am worlds ahead of other moms when it comes to this topic, not that it’s a competition or anything, but I also try not to be too hard on myself for having Goldfish in the house (rather than Goldfish, chicken nuggets, chocolate milk, cookies, ice cream etc)…I just feel like there’s so much more I need to do at the same time, like yes, finally get rid of the Goldfish too! I dread even walking into Trader Joe’s because all he wants is bread made from white flour. Even the one-change-at-a-time philosophy kills me, because I don’t know where to start with the few things left to eliminate on our list! It’s a constant battle and everywhere I turn there’s another no-no — the hamburger buns have more than 5 ingredients; I can’t find organic ground turkey; I myself have significant food allergies (corn, peas, peanuts, soy, shellfish and walnuts) and my husband is supposed to stay away from saturated/animal fats. Sometimes it feels like our food options are dwindling. But we won’t starve either, I suppose — it just takes discipline and that first step, like an addict — once you’re off sugar, for example, you really do stop craving it!

    • 100 Days of Real Food

      This might be a little off-topic, but as I was reading your comment I was thinking about the free parenting seminars that Amy McCready is doing for my readers. She has some great parenting tips for dealing with tantrums and such (we have all been there…you are not alone!). But yes, I agree…you should not care what anyone in the store thinks and not give in (easier said than done…I know!). Also, you can create your own idea of “treats” that aren’t really that bad. For example I rarely buy apple juice, but occasionally my 4-year-old will beg for it so occasionaly I say okay. I feel as though (and hope) that satisfies her need for something special/exciting/etc. The same goes with cheese sticks…she has a strange infatuation with cheese, but cheese sticks are more expensive so every time we are at the store she asks for them, but I only occasionally “give in” and get them. Hope that makes sense and help

      • Emily

        I agree with you – Amy is AWESOME! I am only reading her book, not online, but it’s great. :) And my boys are weird about food treats, too – they love string cheese. It’s just mozzarella! So I get a big chunk & cut it myself, into cubes or long sticks; just as good. I love your not above about the applesauce frozen treats. They sound great! I’m going to have to try them.

        As with all things, moderation and sensible choices. :) Good luck everyone on dealing with toddler tantrums – we’re over that, thank goodness! Now I just have the teen years to look forward to…

      • MyPeaceOfFood

        Thanks Lisa! I will look more into your seminars, I never put that together before in my head! Don’t we all just think we have the perfect child and don’t need any help… ;)

        • 100 Days of Real Food

          My Peace of Food – Oh I know I need help…the minute my daughter turned 7 it was like someone taught her how to talk back! That’s okay though…they really are good kids for the most part, but there is always room for improvement that’s for sure. :)

    • Mary

      Kids are actually way more understanding than they are given credit for. I think a firm “No. We don’t eat that, it is bad for us” would satisfy a lot of kids, even 2 yr olds. They deserve to know the “why” behind the no. And then the parents need to follow it up by not having the (sugary cereal, or whatever) in the house, ever. I know it is hard but you need to make the decision and not be wishy washy about it. Going back and forth with ‘you can have the sugary cereal today, but you can’t have the sugary cereal next time we go to the grocery store’ is very confusing to a child and is probably what spurs tantrums.
      Know that what you are doing by cutting out the processed foods is a great decision and what is best for you and your family. You are doing a great job, Mom! Now just make that leap!

  • It is so true- they do eat what is served. If you don’t buy it you can’t eat it. Of course it’s best if you start young, if you raise them on processed junk and then try to switch it’s more difficult, but if you start young they don’t know any different. My boys love fruits and veggies because it’s what I’ve always given them. Even when I used to give them processed mac & cheese I filled it full of chopped broccoli, carrots and frozen peas. There may be one or two veggies that they don’t care for, but if you serve it they will learn to like it (and make sure no one tells them it’s yuck). Give them a choice between fruit snacks and real fruit and they might choose the fruit snacks, but if you only give them real fruit they will eat it and like it.

    • 100 Days of Real Food

      Exactly!! Don’t even give them that choice…

    • Rachel

      Cari, I think you hit the nail on the head with “no one tells them it’s yuck”. My niece is almost done her 3rd year of school and one of the biggest changes in her has been her eating habits. Gone is the child who would devour butter chicken, Spanish rice and lasagna. Now it’s peas are disgusting. Spinach is terrible. Mushrooms are the worst thing to happen to a person and everything is too spicy. Not a day goes by that she’s not asking for fruit snacks or to order plain cheese pizza for dinner. Many of her classmates live around me and I know that most of them eat a mostly processed food diet. I don’t give in to her ridiculous demands and I know her parents don’t either but everyone is sick of the constant fight over meals. It’s starting to rub off on the younger kids too, they hear her whining about the injustice that is scrambled eggs for breakfast and assume that she must be right.

      • Ange

        I love this! This is something I had to learn with my kids. I never told them things were yucky but I didn’t offer things I don’t like. Wouldn’t you know it, my daughter loves fish (I hate every variety, literally gag every time)! And instead of saying, “Oh, you won’t like that” to foods that sometimes have an acquired taste, letting them decide for themselves.

  • Sara Walsh

    I can’t tell u how many times I’ve said this…kids only know what you teach them and give them. However, when I say it’s out loud, most seem offended as though I am judging them. I hate that.

    • Amy

      I agree with you, but what about the times the kids are out of your sight? I don’t even have kids yet (and not sure I want them), but if I do it will be a no-win situation with my in-laws. Let the kids stay with the grandparents, and they will eat crap. Put my foot down and stand up for my kids and don’t let them stay with grandparents, and my in-laws will be mad. Urgh.

      • Emily

        Then don’t let them go over there unsupervised. That sounds harsh, doesn’t it? But it’s the only choice – either get a babysitter who will adhere to your rules for your family, and leave the kids with him/her, or take them with you. My FIL is the ruler of the household, and my DH grew up afraid of discipline because of it. When we had kids, he started down the same road with them – and I politely demanded of him that he leave the parenting to us. He was a little shocked at first, I think, but then backed down; it would be the same with foods. If they can’t feed your child the way you prefer, then they won’t get to eat together. I’m sorry that it might have to be that way! :( Hopefully they would come around to your way of thinking with enough persuasion & intelligence.

      • I do wince when I see the candy and processed food that my children are sometimes offered when they’re with their grandparents, but the love and nurture our children receive from our parents and the pleasure they bring to the grandparents’ lives far outweigh the occasionally negative food choices.

      • Dawnette

        My 9yo son had a busy day out yesterday and ate a bunch of “normal” American “food-like edible substances” (Thanks, Michael Pollan!) all day with his cousins and grandparents–hamburger, chips, pizza, movie popcorn, Icee, chicken strips, etc. Around 2 a.m., he woke with a stomachache and promptly lost his lunch, so to speak. I really AM sorry he felt so bad, but the silver lining is that the incident made for a very productive conversation this morning about the relationship between what (and how much!) we put into our bodies and how we feel. This review and the memory of throwing up may help him make better choices the next time I’m not around. I have no doubt that a similar conversation with my folks when I see them today will ensure they help steer him toward healthier choices the next time he’s out with them, too. (I have to admit that all that red food coloring from the Icee threw me for a loop when I was half asleep; I thought at first that he was bleeding!)

        • Leah

          Hey, at least it didn’t come out the other way ;) that food coloring is so nasty. Not that I’ve had experience with a green-colored slurpee or anything in the past… no, never ;)

    • 100 Days of Real Food

      Yes, I am sure some are offended by me saying it as well, but I decided this message is important enough to risk it.

  • [...] Kids eat processed food, well, because parents give it to em! Kids eat processed food because parents give it to them (for the most part) 100 Days of Real Food [...]

  • I totally agree with everything your wrote.

    I’ve read M.Pollan’s books, watched Food Inc & Supersize me and have lots of knowledge. Lots of head knowledge.

    But I must say that I am at the point in life when everything we SHOULD be doing is totally overwhelming. We should be eating organic, local and healthy. We should be exercising an hour a day. We should check over their homework at night. We should have a clean house. We should pray and read the bible every morning. We should, we should, we should.

    How do we choose the most important things? How do we fit it all in? How do we not live in guilt for all the things we find we aren’t doing… even in the midst of doing so many things so well?

    My point is this, I totally agree in my head. Living intentionally, in ALL the ways that we are “supposed” to starts feeling like a heavy weight after a while. Trying to think up super healthy dinners when we are juggling preteen schedules is hard.

    I am finding a way to walk a happy and less stressed midline. For the most part we are eating pretty well. But I do feel like it needs to be said that it’s ok if your kids drink an occasional chocolate milk. Or if you have to stop at Subway one night after ballet. It just has to be ok. Otherwise… well, otherwise it’s just too much. When we are all trying hard to move in the right direction what we DON’T need is to feel judged for the occasional “less than perfect” meal. :)

    Like I said, I completely agree with what you are saying. But I think we need to be careful that we aren’t beating people down with “judgement” who aren’t walking the walk perfectly.
    :) I do love your blog.

    • “I am finding a way to walk a happy and less stressed midline.”

      I feel ya! I defintely have a way to go, but I have come a way as well. We aren’t 100% at my house by any definition, but little by little we are making better choices. Our goal is making healthy choices right now. We’ll take it up a nothch here and there as we go.

      There is a lot of misinformation out there about “healthy”, but parents who make good choices should be proud of that even if the choices aren’t the best choices. Sometimes you do have to choose your battles. And sometimes you do have to balance other factors in besides what is the absolute most perfect food option at the moment.

      Kudos to anyone who tries! :)

    • Jen von Gradulewski

      I dont think anyone is judging for 1 less than perfect meal.

      I hear this one a lot, where there are so many things to avoid, where do you start? Yes there is lead in your makeup, and toxic chemicals in toys.. but if you want to start somewhere FOOD is the best place. Its the lifeforce that sustains you, you are what you eat. Every food you put in your mouthm breaks down and its basically forming what your childs body is made out of. So food is definitely the place to start! And dont worry about 1 bad meal. If you can follow the 80/20 then your body is getting enough nutrients and real food that it can help clean the crappy stuff out quickly.

      and I am not going to say you wont be judged, because people always judge, sometimes outwardly and often silently. But be comfortable with your decisions and the judging attitude wont bother you as much. As for this blog, and everyone on it. These people are here to support a real food diet, and back each other up. IF you want someone to tell you its okay to eat junk food, I just dont think this is the place . There is enough of that “out there” already. But dont take offense from everything either. Just be happy that your providing your children with excellent options!

      • Your reply is actually the sort of judgement that I’m talking about. My family does better in terms of our diet than most (statistical) Americans. I am committed to eating real food just like you. But if you notice the comments a lot of people here are struggling with trying to do better. Your comment is essentially telling me that maybe I shouldn’t be here if I am looking for people to back up unhealthy eating options. I’m not asking for that. I’m just saying that rather than beating ourselves up with these sometimes super lofty expectations that we can’t always meet or beating each other up for feeding our families certain “not okay” foods it just creates judgement and animosity rather than a supportive environment to encourage each other in every step forward. I have been criticized on blogs like this for not doing enough… even when I’m sharing an accomplishment I’ve made in terms of our diet. My comment is simply to encourage everyone is any little step they take. Not to condemn them for all the steps still left on the journey that they haven’t made it to (yet). :)

        • Jen

          I agree completely, and I am not 100% perfect and wasnt implying that. Just saying.. IMO out of all the things to aim for perfection (working out, praying, homework) food would/should be number 1. But its my opinion just putting it out there. Workign out is good for you, but I just think that the food that grows us has to come first.

          MY comment wasnt even judgemental, and I am not judging you, but just providing my opinion on your comment. You haven’t really said the things you do great so I can’t really say great job. But the fact that your on this blog makes me assume you are doing great things. Like I said above, I am a strong beleiver in the 80/20 rules, which I think is a great way to encourage people. You dont have to quit foods cold turkey, or worry that one imperfect meal will ruin everything. Everything in moderation right? including junk food.

          And I wasnt saying you shouldn’t be here, but just that comments that back up traditional ways of thinking (eat whatever you want) are already everywhere. Your post exactly shows that because instead of showing all the great things you have done, you focus on mentioning how you dont do it perfect… No one does! But doesnt mean we can’t strive for it!! So why not just supportive comments here for people to grow further. I dont think there needs to be pressure, but just support for real foods.

          My biggest struggle is not planning ahead, cause when I do my cooking life is sooo much simpler, and the need for quick foods is eliminated. But when I do think ahead I can prepare bulk foods that are convenient when needed. We just made perogies the other day using freshly ground wheat, potatoes, cheese, spinach, squash. Now when we need a quick meal I just pop them out of the freezer.. its awesome!

    • Carrie

      I completely agree with you Michelle. I love this blog and appreciate all that it contains. The best lesson for me was to stop feeling guilty when we eat out and continue to try to give my kids the best foods that I can afford / make home made. Great discussion!

    • Kaitrin

      I also agree with Michelle. This blog has completely transformed my thought process on “healthy” food and I have never once felt judged. That being said I do hope that this blog will continue to help all of us, the 100% real food eaters and those that are making our way towards 100%, feel supported by the commitment that we have made. I feel it is better to add real food, even if it is only 10%, rather than none at all and commend all of us making the effort. I am well on my way and am sooo thankful for the resources on this site and all the different views that go with it :)

    • Michelle,

      You put my thoughts into words so well, that I’ll just echo your comment (and add a few words of my own!)

      Yes, I’m learning and growing in this natural foods journey, but I also accept that there will be treats from grandparents, occasional processed snacks, and meals eaten in restaurants that will go against all the “rules.” Life – even one prolonged by not letting anything “evil” enter our bodies – is too short for me to stress over that.

      I really enjoy sites like this one that teach me and encourage me, even when every suggestion isn’t one that I follow.

    • Amy

      “But I must say that I am at the point in life when everything we SHOULD be doing is totally overwhelming!” OMG I totally feel this! Sometimes I just feel totally overwhelmed too. Reflecting on your comment, I realized that in the last 2 years, I have made a lot of changes as I a) have learned more but more b) as I got used to the changes it was habit so I felt like I could intentionally change another thing that I “should” be doing. Thanks for giving me the opportunity to reflect. Now, back to being overwhelmed :)

    • 100 Days of Real Food

      Michelle – I couldn’t agree with you more…we also occasionally eat junk food (anything from homemade cookies to Dunkin’ Donuts). Enjoying special treats in moderation is key and a fun part of life!

  • Joyce

    I work in a Donut shop it makes me sad every time an overweight child comes in there with their parents to buy a dozen or two.Groups are forcing restaurants to not include toys in their kids meals because it entices children to eat there.I told one parent awhile back that if she didnt want her kid to get fat from eating at Mcdonalds then she needed to either quit taking him there or stop giving him money to go.It is so easy to place the blame somewhere else than where it needs to be.

  • Jill

    Very true… However, I’m still waiting for my 4 yr old to get thru the “I don’t like it” without trying it stage… Some days are better than others. I got him to eat 4 bites of artichoke hearts knowing he could have mac-n-cheese if he did. At least I’m able to get some good in the belly and he’s trying things somewhat. I shop Whole Foods so at least the snacks don’t have high fructose and artificial dyes. But he’s getting ready to go to PUBLIC school which serves “cheetos” and such… yuck… I’m going to have to tell the school not to provide it during aftercare…. It was actually easier when he was a baby, I made almost all his food and rarely bought jar food. If I did, it was organic. One day…all that changed and the struggle began eating fruits. He only eats apples,grapes and bananas. Refuses to try anything else. Can’t even use the “one bite rule”… lol I know it will change one day, just wish that day was today!

    • I used to battle with my daughter about eating at every meal when she was younger. It was my least favorite time of day.
      Now at 14 she is a very healthy eater (who still occasionally indulges in treats like donuts or girl scout cookies). She is also totally adventurous and likes spicy and exotic foods. Don’t give up the hope. ;)

  • Kim Sealy

    I completely agree with this article. My husband and I have 2 children together ages 4 and 2. My husband has a 14 yr old daughter from a previous marriage. We mainly feed our children real foods. My stepdaughter has eaten junk since she was born. She has asthma, pres diabetes and weighs 195lbs (more than her dad) on her 5’1 frame. I do blame her mom (who stays at home). Unfortunately we only get her in the summers and its kind of out of our control. Without dieting every summer she loses about 25lbs just eating what we have in the house.

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