I recently had a tussle on a comment thread of a Huffington Post article. First Lady Michelle Obama, as part of her "Let's Move" campaign, the article explained, had hosted a State Dinner for Kids at the White House. Mrs. Obama and her team, in conjunction with epicurious.com and the departments of Education and Agriculture, had held a nationwide recipe competition, the Healthy Lunchtime Challenge, in which more than 1,200 entries flooded in from young people across the nation. The 54 recipes selected as winners of the competition, created by kids ages 8 through 12 years, were then prepared and served during the Dinner - to the winners themselves and their guests. Needless to say, the dishes chosen and served were as healthy as they were fun and delicious - the concept of the challenge - and included such things as cabbage Sloppy Joes with breaded baked zucchini, strawberry smoothies and fruit skewers, vegetable pizza, barbecue cheddar chickpea burgers, teriyaki salmon wrap and pesto pasta. Tasty, healthy and, yes, affordable was the name of the game. I mean, we all know about "Let's Move" by now, right? And Mrs. Obama, in her quest to teach children to eat better, knows that getting them involved in the cooking is part of the battle.
What in the world could anyone find wrong with this fun challenge and exciting event? And what could anyone find wrong about encouraging children to eat (be still my heart) vegetables? Or healthy food? But, yes, there is always one who writes something like:
Why the heck would anybody want their children being fed like RABBITS by the President's wife?
(Who serves their rabbit Curry Chicken Wraps or Fish Tacos? But that's getting away from the point....)
Following my comment that my own children would have enjoyed much of the food served at the Dinner and applauding our First Lady's efforts and influence, the commenter replied:
What's wrong with Sloppy Joes with meat? Or things that most kids like to eat?
What is wrong, indeed? Well, I might ask, what is wrong with vegetarian lasagne? But what disturbed me was that I felt as if the commenter was insinuating, or so it seemed to this mother, that kids only like to eat certain foods and not others, that serving a child a cheddar cheese chickpea burger or quinoa, black bean and corn salad is somehow tantamount to forcing them to eat foods they hate, or, as he seemed to infer, "adult food".
Where did we get this idea that there are "foods kids like" (kid food) and foods that adults like (adult food) and never the twain shall meet? Why do so many adults insist on sticking to stereotypes, feeding the same things over and over again to their children, demanding their little darlings find these same foods in the school lunchroom and at birthday parties or on restaurant menus? And are such things as grilled salmon and stuffed zucchini only to be eaten by adults? There seems to be a backlash against Michelle Obama, her "Let's Move" campaign and the many of us who want to teach our children a better, healthier way to eat and live. I see so many parents, both in the States and here in France, make the effort to plan and prepare separate meals for their children based on the idea that children don't like or won't eat (and shouldn't have to eat) this food or that and; in order to get them to eat, children must always be served that limited repertoire of burgers, fried food, pizza, plain pasta and overly sweet desserts.
I grew up being served and eating pre-packaged, boxed, frozen convenient foods, sugary cereals and fast food so I know where commenters like this are coming from. Yet my parents also raised us to appreciate (and expected us to eat) more healthy options, the meals they themselves ate, and allowed us to order other dishes than just the children's menu in restaurants. We were curious and happy eaters, as happy with burgers and fries as with broiled seafood, broccoli and vegetable soup. Food was never divided into "kid food" and "adult food".
Okay, I know that I will get my fair share of comments that I am being snobby, just an elitist trying to scold parents and teach them a lesson. Just as there are so many commenters and parents who criticize and make fun of Michelle Obama for her effort to teach America's children to eat better and exercise more. I have written about it before, about my disdain for food blogs that offer up ridiculous recipes made from industrially prepared packaged foodstuff and cloyingly sweet desserts in which cookies, candy and marshmallow fluff have been added to what would have been an otherwise fairly good treat, concluding that if we all put our heads together and made the effort, we could show that cooking and baking from scratch can be both simple and inexpensive. And better for us and for our families. And that our children may, in fact, like it.
But no matter the heckling, I still think it is worth the effort to talk about it, and it is still necessary to educate each other and our children. You don't need to hear again that childhood obesity and diabetes are reaching epidemic proportions. We don't need to discuss one more time the advantages of feeding our children less fast food and pre-packaged products and more healthy options. I just want to point out that we as parents, as a nation, should stop dividing the food we eat and prepare into categories of for kids and for adults. We should stop perpetuating the myth that children don't like or won't eat anything made with vegetables and grains, that we shouldn't even attempt to feed them anything healthy, exotic or new. Many of us do just that and it works out just fine.
There are many ways to start changing the way too many people think: we can actually begin by changing our children's attitudes towards food by changing our own:
1) Stop serving them only foods we assume are the only foods they like.
2) Food shouldn't be given as a reward, as a bargaining tool or seen as a punishment: Eat a bite of the broccoli and you'll get dessert. This basically sends the message that broccoli is bad, dessert is good! And that the goal is always dessert.
3) Stop telling kids this or that food should be eaten because it is good for you! What kid wants to hear this? How about Eat this because it is good!
4) Start cooking real food. At least occasionally. And by real food I don't mean using ready-made mixes and just tossing in ground beef or pouring it over pasta. Real food made with fresh ingredients. And let your children help shop for the ingredients and help cook.
No, I was not the perfect parent. I have been guilty of all of the above more times than I would like to admit. I often bowed down to the pressure of my younger son to prepare him what he liked (plain meat and rice or pasta) and not force him to eat vegetables of any sort (which he hated); but we did make the effort to find healthy foods that he would eat, create a balanced diet without force feeding him and without relying on fast food, junk food, or industrially-prepared packaged food. In raising - and feeding - our own children, my husband and I have always made a concerted effort to teach them the basics of nutrition, to understand what went into their bodies and encourage and educate them to eat well. Fresh fruits and vegetables, grilled foods rather than too much fried and balanced diets were the mainstay and fast or ready-made foods only came as a very rare treat. We simply had to get creative in the kitchen rather than relying on what we knew would be the easy solution. My sons, now all grown up, prefer homemade to fast food, rarely eat candy or drink sodas and when preparing their own meals always find their way to the vegetable crisper in the refrigerator.
The children who entered recipes in the Healthy Lunchtime Challenge have shown that healthy food can be fun and delicious. Michelle Obama's wonderful campaign has shown us that children are open to new taste sensations, culinary adventure and are excited to learn and discover better ways to eat. Teach your children to cook - or at least encourage them to help, help with choices, the shopping and the preparations. And don't think that all your children are capable of doing is dumping a powdery mix into a bowl, adding one egg and stirring. Children don't need to be fed a continual flow of overly sweet desserts overloaded with corn syrup and chemicals and that they will enjoy a slice of cake or a brownie without adding chopped candy into the batter. Children can be taught to enjoy eating fresh fruit, grilled foods instead of fried, grains and vegetables that haven't been smothered under cheese, barbecue sauce or ranch dressing. Children can - and do - enjoy eating foods other than Sloppy Joes if they are taught to enjoy them by adults.
Oh, and by the way, those Sloppy Joes had beef in them.
Jamie Schler lives, eats and writes in France. To read more of her work visit Life's a Feast.