Fast food, food habits and kids’ nutrition in the U.S.

Photo by circler
According to a USA Today article, 19 U.S. chain restaurants have resolved to offer healthier meal choices to kids across the nation. Approximately 15,000 restaurants, including Burger King, Cracker Barrel, Carabba’s, Denny’s and IHOP locations, are taking part in Kids LiveWell, a corporate-driven initiative to get kids to eat better by offering “wholesome” meals of less than 600 calories and which have less than 35% calories from fat, 10% calories from saturated fat, 0.5 grams of trans fat, 35% of calories from sugar, and 770 milligrams of sodium.
The program focuses on meals that contain lean proteins, fruits, vegetables, whole grains and low-fat dairy. For example, Carabba’s offers an exemplary grilled chicken with steamed spinach, broccoli or asparagus (!), as well as a whole grain pasta and a choice of the three aforementioned sides (the caloric range is between 270 and 350 for these meals, which is not too shabby). Interestingly, Burger King’s kid’s hamburger is on the list at 420 calories, but only because it meets the nutrition guidelines for this particular program. Although the meal includes fat free milk and “apple fries” (apple slices), they come with a side of caramel sauce for dipping. Did I mention it’s a damn hamburger?! (what happened to the lean meats focus?) Not surprisingly, the nutritional guidelines page notes that most of the meals listed on the site are not considered “healthy” by the FDA, although I would say that some of them are definitely better than what’s offered on the standard kids menu. Take this very revealing statement about the guildines:
The criteria for this website focus on calories, fat and saturated fat, whereas the FDA’s criteria for “healthy” also include cholesterol and sodium. So that a sufficient variety of items can be listed, the criteria on this site do not include cholesterol and sodium. However, values for sodium and cholesterol are posted, so that consumers can make informed choices. (emphasis added)
The article got me thinking about how “healthier” meals are marketed to kids, many of whom can be super picky when it comes to eating due to the food habits they are acculturated with by their parents and the habits/desires they pick up from the media and their peers. For instance, there’s the linguistic labeling of apple slices as “apple fries”, and the inclusion of a not-so-healthy caramel sauce to make eating the fruit more bearable. The fact that we even have to make eating healthy more bearable exemplifies the sad state of nutritional affairs in this country, but anyway… On the topic, there’s an excellent discussion of the history and evolution of the consumption of apples in Michael Pollan’s (2001) The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World, which is appropriate here considering that apples were first consumed for their intense sweetness but have been increasingly replaced by sweets, high fructose corn syrup and other artificial sweeteners to satiate our sugary desires.
There are some inherently troubling questions that surface when it comes to these healthy new choices. Aside from the questionable corporate agenda behind this program, how exactly do you get kids to pick carrots or apples over fries, or how do you get kids to even consider eating these meals (again, grilled chicken and spinach?) when many are used to chicken nuggets, cheeseburgers, french fries and macaroni and cheese? Let’s not forget the omnipresence of soda and sugary juices (we’ve all witnessed the atrocity of toddlers drinking soda from sippy cups at one time or another, and we all know parents who think your standard box of juice is healthy because it tastes like fruit). No wonder so many billions of dollars is spent on packaging, advertising, convincing parents of the “nutrition” of processed foods, convincing kids that healthy foods can be fun, etc., etc. Is it really a wonder why health care costs continue to rise year after year?
It’s pretty clear that generally speaking, kids in the U.S. aren’t eating as healthily as they should be. I know I’m making it sound like there are no kids anywhere who eat well, which is obviously not the case. However, it’s definitely a problem that needs to be addressed more sincerely by parents, school districts, and policymakers. Skyrocketing rates of obesity in children are just one piece of evidence, since cultural and behavioral influences factor greatly into eating habits. In fact, kids who eat out, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, consume 1/3 of their calories at restaurants and fast-food joints, which highlights the importance of healthier options outside the home. Busy parents often use the drive-thru lane because of busy schedules and a lack of time to cook meals. Meals offered for lunch at schools are an abomination (greasy, salty french fries, processed meats, pizza, and tater tots were always to be found on the menu when I was a K-12 student, though I hear some school districts have attempted to offer a healthier menu of items). Parents with lower incomes have it the worst and must often deal with limited access to healthy, fresh foods for themselves and their families, not to mention institutionalized and racialized health disparities and limited access to resources and information. Food deserts force those living in impoverished neighborhoods to shop for meals at fast food places and convenience stores, the latter which charge higher prices and offer a limited selection of processed snacks and drinks, or to take ridiculously long bus rides to other parts of town just to get to a decent grocery store.
I think back to what – and how – I ate when I was a kid and how it has affected my eating habits as an adult. My mom and dad, who divorced when I was 4, both cooked wholesome meals on a regular basis, with meats, veggies, grains, etc. This is now something I try to do for myself and with friends at least a couple times a week. My mom was adamant that we didn’t drink a lot of soda, but always made sure we drank our daily glass of milk. Nowadays I mostly drink iced tea but enjoy the occasional classic Coke. Although we sometimes ate out with mom, and my dad often cooked quick, inexpensive, bacheloresque meals at home (e.g. spaghetti, mac n cheese), we generally ate from a variety of food groups and were taught to drink our milk and finish our meals. As I reflect, I think that convenience was very important for my dad, who raised us while working full-time and attending college. For instance, I fondly recall the times we would stop at the Dairy Hut after our little league baseball games for $1 hot dogs and ice cream cones. After reading an earlier version of this blog post, my dad reminded me that he also used to grill a lot – chicken, steaks, fish – and had a giant smoker in the back yard, the grills for which were made by my mom’s dad. In response, he wrote the following:
I think my idea of eating and cooking definitely came from my parents. They always bought the cheaper cuts of meat and made casseroles and spaghetti and stuff to feed a crowd. There were four of us kids then and my dad never made a lot of money. You made me think some about it while I was reading your blog. We also had a garden sometimes, and mostly ate green beans from it and radishes, lettuces, stuff like that- those were the things that the bugs didn’t get to- snow peas too- I remember, we grew them on the wire fence around the garden.
As a result of these different factors, I feel that I was instilled with a less than ideal concept of how to eat healthily, one that I have worked to refine throughout the years based on the results. My brother and I also consumed fast food probably once a week, the incentives of which were quite tempting: tasty, fatty, sugary foods and cheap, plastic toys from China. I remember visiting my grandma and convincing her to drive to every McDonald’s in Racine, Wisconsin so my brother and I could each get one of every Power Ranger action figure being offered at the time (this must have been sometime in the mid-1990s, which in my mind doesn’t seem so long ago). Of course, this involved buying Happy Meal after Happy Meal in order to complete our collection. I recall being very fond of those chicken nuggets, whatever they were made from (see this HuffPost photo of pre-chicken nugget meat paste, a.k.a. mechanically separated poultry). I think it’s telling that feeding children these days is such a struggle for many parents and that it often comes down to entertaining kids and “making kids happy” (hence the Happy Meal) rather than being about sustenance and health.

Getting back to the issue of kids’ nutrition in general, I have observed a wide range of eating habits being around various kids, including family members and kids I’ve babysat. Here are a few examples off the top of my head:

  • Family of four (white, upper income, urban). Parents include a physician (mom) and a political scientist (dad), children are a boy (age 9) and girl (age 11). Family sometimes eats out due to busy schedule, and snacks and treats are part of kids’ daily diets (ice cream, dinosaur chicken nuggets, pasta, cereal, etc.) Mom sometimes works late and dad will cook a meal at home. Mom also does not like to eat out very often. Kids are very good about eating appropriate portions and finishing their meals, as well as eating fruits and veggies when their parents ask them to. They are also extremely physically active, which may account for parents letting them eat what they want. Diet consists mainly of processed foods but kids are good about portion control and snacking. Mom has appropriate (not obsessive) concern for her son’s weight (he is barely overweight but she monitors his eating and tries to limit his intake of snacks; told me, as babysitter, to monitor as well).
  • Family of three (white, middle income, suburban). Parents include a stay-at-home mom and the dad works for a major corporation in the Midwest, child is a 5 year old girl who often eats candy and snacks throughout the day, which are given to her primarily by her mom and grandmother whenever she wants. Family often eats out and allows the girl to “decide” what she wants to eat from what’s on the menu rather than choosing for her or teaching her how to make healthy choices, which usually include fried or greasy foods (cheese burgers, chicken fingers, etc.) and soda or chocolate milk. Dad is overweight and has poor eating habits (eats at Taco Bell multiple times per week). Food is regularly used as an incentive for other treats. Daughter is chastised for not finishing her meals at lunch or dinner, which I have observed is a result of being full from all the day-time snacking as well as the freedom to choose what she wants. Large portion sizes are also a tradition in this family, so perhaps more is expected of her. It is not uncommon for family members (mom, dad, extended) to go back for seconds and thirds at dinner time. Mom does not believe that high fructose corn syrup is bad because it is made from corn. Mom (and grandma) also smoke in the vicinity of the child.
  • Family of four (white, middle income, urban), including dad (a businessman), mom (an interior decorator), son (6) and daughter (8). Food events I witnessed were dinner and snacks, as this was a family I babysat for. Kids would eat a hot dog and macaroni and cheese practically every time I babysat, and would eat candy and snack cakes for snacks in the evening. They obtained other nutrition from some sort of single serving, child-oriented milk drink (usually chocolate or strawberry flavored). Food is used as incentive, and the pantry is stocked with processed foods and snacks. Mom is strict about her own diet and eats lots of yogurt, fruit and small portions.
  • Family of four (white, lower income, urban). Dad manages a local bar, mom is a loan officer, boy is 12 and girl is 10. During family dinners and get-togethers, kids barely eat a thing, but are often observed drinking soda, juice and chocolate milk. Parents do not coerce their children into eating if they don’t want to. I’m not too familiar with their other eating habits so it’s hard to say anything about what they do actually eat for meals. When I babysat, dad would often come home from work and bring the kids meals from local fast food restaurants, which usually included cheeseburgers and fries.
This obviously isn’t a representative sample in terms of family size, race/ethnicity, etc., family types, etc., but just some examples of food habits amongst families I’ve encountered in the past couple years that I think will greatly impact the future eating habits of their youngest members.

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