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Eating on the Run Starts Early

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Life is hectic. Nothing's new about that. As a result, families find it increasingly hard, if not outright impossible, to make time for an old-fashioned sit-down meal at any time of the week, even on weekends. Food manufacturers know this all too well and are eager to provide time-strapped parents with ever more options to feed hungry mouths in an instant and without much effort.

Take, for example, the growing popularity of food pouches that hit the market not too long ago and are quickly becoming a must-have staple in the snack arsenal of moms all over the country. These pouches, equipped with little plastic spouts at the top, allow young children to suck on mixes of fruit, vegetable and grain purees whenever they feel like it. No chopping or blenderizing needed. And no spoon-feeding either! Fighting over every bite when the picky eater refuses to cooperate? Thing of the past.

One producer of these pouches is Plum Organics from Emeryville, California. Its C.E.O., Neil Grimmer, sees his products as a tool that frees parents from the burden of having to observe structured mealtimes. "Regular mealtimes just add one more item to the schedule," he said in an interview with the New York Times (6/21/2012). Mobile food technology for the modern family, as he calls it, can change all that. "It's on-the-go snacking, on-the go nourishment. It moves with kids and puts control in their hands."

Critics have questioned whether the ubiquitous availability of food in lieu of regular sit-down meals is a desirable move. Dr. Brian Wansink, a professor at Cornell University and best-selling author of Mindless Eating - Why We Eat More Than We Think, cautioned that innovations like the pouch move us "away from a generation of a certain kind of discipline and of a clean-your-plate attitude." (New York Times ibid.) His concern is that eliminating structure around eating may also have negative consequences beyond issues of nutrition. "It's going to create a lot of self-absorbed kids," he said.

Scheduled meals, by their very nature, set boundaries that are otherwise missing. Kids learn to wait for their turn to be served and to eat, they acquire important social skills such as table manners, and they get a sense of the value their food has.

All-day snacking, on the other hand, offers none of that. It can also easily lead to weight gain, even from relatively healthy foods, due to loss of control over one's calorie intake. Kids who grow up nibbling all day will likely continue to be grazers as adults.

Once these habits are formed, parents will find it hard to make positive changes. "While I recognize that kids get hungry and a well-timed snack can head off a world of problems, I often lament the fact that my kids have learned to expect a snack every time we go away from home for longer than an hour," wrote Betsy Shaw, a mother and writer for BabyCenter.com. The expectation is that food is available at all times and without delay. Its existence is never questioned. And because it is there, it gets consumed, often mindlessly, as Dr. Wansink would say.

Giving kids more control over their eating patterns with the help of food pouches and the likes may be convenient and time-saving. But it also has the potential of making bad things worse in the fight against childhood obesity. Parents who use these items should be advised to do so with caution, just as they must limit snack foods and sodas. Their children's nutritional health deserves absolute priority.