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What the Kids Want to Eat?

October 13, 2010
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The New York Times last week invited its readers to submit pictures and stories about “unusual dishes their children have had them cook.” The slideshow is an odd cultural document, a diary of what we feed our children, and what we let our children feed themselves. The dishes range from the nutrition-free (bread with jarred tomato sauce covered in Goldfish crackers, a plate of whipped topping with a canned peach half on top) to the processed (a parent who made Tater Tot casserole “healthier” by swapping “regular cheese for reduced fat, us[ing] a lower-fat, lower-sodium cream of mushroom soup”) to the cute (a plate of fruit arranged in the shape of a face). While this is hardly a representative sample of what American parents feed their children—the Times asked for unusual dishes, not representative ones—it is interesting to see what these images do and do not tell us about what children eat.

What was striking about the images was how many parents felt the need to “dress up” food in order to convince their children to eat it. Parents cut quesadillas into cats and stegasauri and stuffed peanut butter and jelly into ice cream cones. They put peas on toothpicks or hid kale in chocolate chip pancakes. They covered farina in so many colored sprinkles that it looked like any pre-packaged breakfast cereal. In few other cultures do parents need to engage in such acts of prestidigitation in order to convince hungry children to eat a meal.

Equally striking was the fact that parents seemed to feel they had little control over their children’s eating habits. According to the parent who covered his children’s farina in sprinkles:

My kids used to beg me — now it’s a must — to add lots and lots of colorful sprinkles of every possible shape and size that they could find in my sprinkles collection saved for birthday and holiday cakes. I cringed at the amounts of sugar they added to the already sweetened porridge but seeing their excitement, I gave in.

Similarly, the mother who snuck kale into pancakes also added chocolate chips. According to her, “The chocolate chips are the compromise and, of course, I also let them use plenty of syrup!” In the words of another parent, “[D]ad lives only to serve the young master.”

Considering the readership of the Times, it is unlikely that these parents are unaware of the behavioral and health problems associated with too much sugar. The fundamental question, then, is what has convinced them that their role is to feed kids what they want need to eat, rather than what they need to eat.

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