Thursday, February 26, 2009

What's Eating Our Kids? And What Are Our Kids Eating?

There are two interesting articles on relating to children and what they eat. The first What’s Eating Our Kids? Fears About Bad Foods cites a trend some experts see emerging about kids who have been so indoctrinated with ideas about what foods are “good” and what foods are “bad” that they sometimes develop eating disorders. Schools and parents are so adamant about the dangers of sugar, white rice, and sodium that kids become increasingly extreme and doctrinaire about their food choices.

It’s a controversial idea and one that I’m sure will drive many parents up the wall. I can hear it now: “First the experts tell us we need to educate our kids better and feed them well… Now they’re saying we’re doing too good a job!” To me, it’s the idea of complete avoidance that is problematic. I overheard a mother last month say that her four year-old daughter had never eaten a cookie. Never eaten a cookie?! I truly feel sorry for that little girl. A cookie is a small, but delightful, pleasure. And I wouldn’t be surprised if later on in life that girl couldn’t keep her hand out of the cookie jar. Personally, I’ve found that deprivation does not a good diet make.

But, I also feel sorry for the child whose parents stock the pantry with bags of Oreos, Mint Milanos, and Chips Ahoy and dole them out indiscriminately. Packaged junk food is not the basis for a healthy diet and these kids will likely grow up missing nutrients and possibly obese. Plus, they’ll grow up not knowing the sublime taste of homemade cookies, golden with butter and studded with raisins or chocolate chips, the pleasure of tasting a cookie right out of the oven.

So I guess it’s pretty clear that I’m not an absolutist when it comes to food. I believe in eating lots of the healthy stuff and a little of the less healthy (but delicious homemade) stuff. I also believe that we should teach our children about the pleasures of eating healthful, nourishing food without making them scared to ever touch a cookie.

The second Times piece that I enjoyed was an interview with Tom Colicchio, executive chef of the Craft family of restaurants and the head judge on Top Chef (which I love!). Colicchio is considered one of the best chefs in the country, and he spoke with the Times about his efforts to get his son to eat healthy food. For Colicchio the choice isn’t between healthy and unhealthy, but between processed and unprocessed. He says, “If food is well sourced and well prepared, I don’t think the word healthy needs to be brought into it. It’s healthy because it’s wholesome. That’s what we should focus on. You can buy a box of low-fat macaroni and cheese made with powdered nonsense. I’m not worried if I’m using four different cheeses and it’s high in fat. It’s real food. That’s what’s more important.”

The word “wholesome” is one of my favorite food words, and it goes back to the cookie question above. To me, eating a homemade chocolate chip cookie is wholesome, while eating a Chips Ahoy cookie just isn’t. (None of which is to say that our kids should be eating a dozen cookies every day.)

Click here for the whole Colicchio interview. It’s interesting and I agree with him in theory on just about everything. When asked about a quick recipe he prepares for his family on a weeknight he replies, “I can go out and buy clams and some shallots and garlic, chop it up, put some wine in it, olive oil. Let the clams steam open, add chopped up tomatoes and mustard greens and toss with pasta. That is going to take me 20 minutes. It’s a great simple pasta dish. It is that easy. Anybody can do it if they want to do it. It just takes practice.”

Bingo. The best way to ensure your family eats healthy food is to cook it from scratch in your own kitchen. And having those skills and the confidence that emanates from those skills doesn’t happen over night. It takes practice, but you don't have to be a top chef.

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