Whether it's looking both ways when crossing the street or not touching their privates in public or making safe choices when it comes to drinking and drugs, it's a parent's job to instill in their kids the values and habits needed to make wise choices. The same is true when it comes to food and healthy eating.
When the ice cream truck ruckus in Brooklyn hit the news this week, with some parents wanting to evict ice cream vendors from a local park, it was hard not to feel a surge of compassion for those moms anxious to both protect their kids from empty sugar calories, and themselves from their toddler's ice-cream-craving tantrums.
After all, what mom hasn't been overwhelmed by the awesome responsibility of parenthood? What mom doesn't want to protect her kid from the world around them? But, it's impossible to screen out the real world, whether it's ice cream vendors in the park or fries at McDonald's. Soon enough they aren't toddlers and it's impossible to police what they eat (or do) when they aren't at home.
Like all other aspects of parenting, it's your job to model behavior and hope that when they are on their own, the habits of a healthy childhood are imprinted in their daily routines. The best a smart parent can do is consistently offer them great, fresh food so when they're on their own making choices, they'll know the difference between the good stuff and the junk. It's also your job to show them how to have fun, how to enjoy an occasional treat and to learn how to self-regulate and trust their own bodies and choices.
In the just-released, Smart Mama, Smart Money: Raising Happy Healthy Kids Without Breaking the Bank, I relate this experience from my childhood. My mom was a terrific, old-fashioned cook. Her mother grew up on a dairy farm and her dad owned a restaurant. She made simple food from fresh ingredients. With five kids and a limited budget, she rarely served the TV dinners we tortured her to buy. On occasion she caved and we would set up the folding TV tables in front of Star Trek to enjoy our treat. When we ate those TV dinners, it was like we'd left our country or were lost in space eating foreign foods. They tasted nothing like the roast chicken she made, or the applesauce that went through the old Foley mill, or the green beans that came from the garden or the hand-mashed potatoes. But man, we loved those dinners in the aluminum tray. But it wasn't real food. It was like the occasional candy bar, or made-for-astronauts dehydrated ice cream, or cotton candy at the amusement park.
As our kids grew up, just like my mom, I served them fresh food made from fresh ingredients. But on occasion we also stopped at the "evil empire" and bought them the Happy Meals they craved (and just like my mom crinkled her nose up when asked why she wasn't joining us in eating grizzled chicken and cardboard potatoes, I crinkled my nose up at the burgers and pies); we lined up at Dairy Queen for vanilla cones dipped in chocolate; we even kept a junk food drawer that was available pretty much whenever they wanted to dig into it. Guess what? While sometimes I'd tell them it was too close to dinnertime or they'd eaten enough, they rarely over-indulged. Mostly, it was their sugar-deprived friends who turned into junk-food-eating-vampires when they came to play.
Today, our daughters are grown and on their own. They shun Mickey D's and most processed foods, are mindful about what they eat and how it has been grown, appreciate great food and even know how to bake and enjoy a mean chocolate brownie.
So ladies in the park, believe in yourself and the values you are instilling at home. Learn to say no and suffer the consequences. And remember, there are worse things than an occasional ice cream cone.
Rosalyn Hoffman is the author of the newly released "Smart Mama, Smart Money: Raising Happy Healthy Kids Without Breaking the Bank"(NAL/Penguin March, '12).