10/20/2013 08:35 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

What Message Are You Sending in That Care Package?

"Thanks for the cookies!!! Pretty much made my day."

My son is a freshman at a college across the country, and I got that text from him a few weeks ago. Sending a box of goodies is about as out of character as this nutrition mom could get, but sending a box of love from home was a no-brainer. However, when it came time to actually send that kid a care package I found myself questioning exactly what kind of message was wrapped up in that box. Calories? Attention? Stuff? Love?

What about all of those years of helping my kids to develop good eating habits? Was I throwing it all out by sending a box full of sugar, butter, white flour, and chocolate? With my career and interests heavily focused on nutrition and public health, I worried about the message I might be sending with a box of cookies. What does it say about our culture if the public health community works so hard to embrace messages of healthy eating, and then we turn around and tell our kids we love them with a box of cookies? We engage school children in nutrition education, but when they become college students we are bombarded with opportunities to send the very things we have been teaching them to avoid.

For the record, I love to cook and I do it well, but I ceded all baking duties to that kid when he was about 8 years old and his baking skills surpassed mine. He was, and is, an excellent cook with a repertoire that spans breakfast through dessert. We ate well and both of my children developed excellent eating habits. They like to "joke" that care packages from mom would likely be full of kale and sauerkraut. I suspect the cookies came as a bit of a pleasant surprise.

I know plenty of moms who won't send caloric goodies because they worry about weight gain, or the nutrition message they are sending to their college-aged children. I like to think that by embracing healthy eating, offering a wide variety of nutritious foods, and setting a good example, my kids were launched into adulthood with the ability to make good food decisions and enjoy goodies as they should be enjoyed: with moderation. By sending my son cookies, I was also sending him the message that I trust him to eat well and make smart food decisions. He is 18 after all. If he can't do it yet, I really blew my chance. Nutrition education programs should ensure that all students are ready and able to make wise food decisions by the time they are young adults?

Perhaps it shouldn't have surprised me, but I was astonished to get an advertisement in the mail over the summer from a care package service for parents of college students. I read the brochure, shook my head in disbelief, and tossed it in the trash. Have we really gotten to the point where even care packages from home are outsourced? Am I the last person to know about this? With just a click and a credit card, I can get various goodies packaged in some warehouse sent to him on a schedule of my choosing. As I sat down to write this post, I assumed Google would be able to jog my memory with details of the trashed brochure. I was horrified to realize that there are dozens of these care package services. And And And Really? Is this how we show our kids we love and miss them? I like to think that my kids would see right through any "caring" done from the couch with a credit card.

Yesterday, I got this text: "Can you send out some oranges once our trees get going this year? Do you think they would survive the journey?" Yep, that kid just needs a little bit of home in a box. It doesn't need to be decadent sweets. It doesn't need to come from a store. And I smiled with a bit of pride that his memories of home obviously include his fruits and veggies.