Three times a day I was up against a devious force that had captured the hearts, minds, and mouths of my kids. The processed food industry was at play and it was feeding my kids a load of...well, crap.
Maybe if we lived in a sheltered world without school lunches, gameday snacks, birthday parties, and fast food restaurants so abundant that their drive-thrus are part of our roadway infrastructure, my kids might have acquired a better taste for leafy greens and bitter vegetables. Instead, they were constantly served the highly addictive sugar-salt-fat whammy found in most popular processed foods -- foods that we know provide little nourishment, but taste oh so good.
To make matters worse, my kids were lured by the relentless marketing campaigns put out by the food and beverage industry. The FTC estimates that the industry spends up to ten billion dollars each year in marketing to kids. Poor fruits and vegetables are nearly invisible without the advertising assault or the razzle-dazzle given to products such as Cap'n Crunch and Happy Meals. No one has composed a jingle for bok choy or nestled a toy prize into a bunch of arugula or created a movie promotion with spaghetti squash, although a tie-in to the movie Tangled is just plain obvious.
The sheer number of sales messages launched at my kids was enough to qualify as brainwashing. In fact, studies have shown that the less healthy the food product, the greater the marketing assault. Yale's Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity discovered that cereal having the least nutritional value and highest sugar content was marketed the most aggressively.
"But, Fruit Loops have fruit," my son said.
With that uttering, I pulled out the big guns. Using twenty years in entertainment marketing experience, I served as pitchman for the underdogs: the fruits, the vegetables; the foods without preservatives or ingredients I couldn't pronounce. If I couldn't market kale to my kids -- after all, I was the person who paid their allowance, drove them to the mall, and told them they're special on nobody-likes-me days -- then no one could.
So, I talked up the virtues of real food in terms they cared about. "Broccoli will give you strength to run faster than that kid with the big teeth." For every "magically delicious" promise thrown at them, I enhanced the taste of bitter foods with natural sweeteners and scant amounts of sea salts and freshly ground pepper. I countered movie promotions with our own themed dinners and celebrations. I served vivid fruits skewered in arrangements that amused them and presented foods on plates of different shapes and sizes to make leftovers and less flashy foods seem interesting. The most important step, I stocked the refrigerator with fresh foods and homemade snacks as ready-made weapons for hunger attacks. All this effort took more time, but it was much less work and heartache than dealing with a child who's undernourished, sick, or uncomfortably overweight.
Then one Sunday afternoon, my teenage daughter asked, "Can you make those peanut granola bars for class tomorrow? We're kinda getting sick of junk that everyone always brings."
Without erecting a Mission Accomplished banner or drawing attention to her brave decision, I whipped up a batch of Victory Bars made with real foods, unprocessed ingredients, nutrient rich grains, and a few organic tears.
Here are ten steps to winning the food fight in your home:
1. Pitch. Promote the value of real food in ways that will matter to kids: greens give you strength to jump higher, potatoes ease stomach aches, walnuts make your skin brighter, etc.
2. Reinforce. Be relentless, but not overbearing, in your positive messages about real foods. Your consistency will reinforce kids' attitudes toward food.
3. Amuse. Give names and character to real food: Big Guy Broccoli, Cukes & Zukes, Peter Piper Peppers, etc. If you're really committed, or maybe should be committed, make up songs. I sing to the theme of Jimmy Crack Corn: baby bok choy and I don't care, baby bok choy and I don't care...you get the idea.
4. Entertain. Tie-in real foods to holidays and events i.e. make a trail of bite-size veggie cubes on the plate for the release of Hansel & Gretel or red pepper and white jicama sticks on Valentine's Day.
5. Present. Make the veggies and fruits look appetizing on the plate -- skewers, little bowls, toothpicks, lines, patterns, unique plates, etc.
6. Involve. Give them sauces and dips to engage them in the activity of eating or let them eat without utensils.
7. Balance. Improve the strong taste of bitter foods on kids' sensitive palates by adding slight amounts of agave syrup or honey.
8. Prep. Have real food fast food ready. It takes just thirty minutes on a Sunday, to load up your refrigerator with fresh cut vegetables and fruits. Make and freeze granola bars and smoothie popsicles for instant snacks.
9. Commit. Don't let the complaints sway you. They don't love you for the treats, they love you for a happy, healthy life. You're in it for the long haul.
10. Relax. Don't entirely limit processed foods. Rigidity can lead to rebellion and then they're right back to Cap'n Crunch, only this time it's behind your back.
Sources: Whybrow, S., Mazlan, N., & Stubbs, R. J. (2005).Energy density and weight control. In Food, diet, and obesity (D. Mela, ed.), pp. 179-203. Abington Hall, Cambridge, Canada. 2008 study by the Federal Trade Commission.