The conundrum of kids and healthy eating

I got asked a great question the other day.

Are the lunches I pack healthy? Because they sure seem to contain a lot of meat and cheese, both of which are full of saturated fat. And then there’s all that bacon. Talk about sodium and fat overload, right? And what about produce? Shouldn’t there be more? A lot more?

I’ve always resisted telling people what to eat. First, there are people far more qualified than me to do that. Second, I want this site to be a source of ideas people can feel good about, not a source of guilt about making the “wrong” choices. As parents, we have plenty of sources of guilt; nobody needs me piling on.

Still, it seems only fair that if you are using my ideas, you should know a bit more about the back end, the thinking that goes into them.

We all know it’s important for our kids to eat healthy. We also all know that children can be willful demons hellbent on refusing to do anything we ask, particularly when it involves leafy greens. Combine that with the competing — and often crushing — stress of day-to-day life and suddenly knowing our kids should eat healthy and making that happen seem miles apart.

So I’ll offer my take on what it means to eat healthy in 2013. But first, a few caveats.

My perspective is just that — a perspective. Admittedly, it is informed by reading and talking to people much smarter than me. But it still is just my perspective, filtered through my life. Every family is different. Every body is different. My perspective is what works for me and my family and our bodies and our budget today. That might be different tomorrow. You must decide what works for you and your family and your bodies and your budget. For today. And again for tomorrow. And then again for the day after. And it may be different every time.

I’ll also add that my perspective is informed by a childhood spent obese. Not chubby. Obese. By the time I was in high school, I weighed 231.5 pounds. Yes, I remember the half. Anyone who ever has been overweight knows every fraction of a pound counts. Today I weigh 145 pounds. A battle fought hard and long. And not a day goes by when the battle doesn’t wage on.

So, about those kids…

I’m confident we all can safely agree that the standard American diet isn’t working out so well. The trouble is, the experts seem to change their minds every few years about what part of it isn’t working. Too much salt? Too much fat? Too much meat? Too many refined carbs? Not enough vegetables? The wrong vegetables?

Thing is, all of those questions assume a silver bullet answer. Which would be so convenient. But health and nutrition aren’t so easily reduced. For real answers, we need to think bigger picture. We need to think not just about the micronutrients we consume, but the overall quality (and quantity) of the food we eat.

I firmly believe that the root of unhealthy eating isn’t too much or too little of any particular food, including salt and saturated fats. It is that we don’t eat enough real food. It’s what Michael Pollan sums up as, “Eat food.” Real food. Food that is as minimally processed as possible. Food our great grandparents would recognize.

And I firmly believe that if you let that idea guide you broadly, you can eat most anything you like — including stuff you’re not supposed to — and still have a healthy diet. Our problem isn’t the occasional treat or convenience food or swing through the drive-thru or that we let the kids have juice or even soda and a candy bar. Our problem is when we allow our diets to be monopolized by processed foods.

In my home, we have plenty of treats, including plenty of stuff I would generously describe as junk. We have plenty of cans and jars and even some packages and boxes, all signs of processing. And I will admit to having a problem saying no to diet soda. We also eat a lot of meat. Red meat. And cheese. And eggs. And salt. I eat a ton of veggies, but my son is a work in progress. Our diets are hardly perfect.

Could we be healthier if we gave up most of those things? Perhaps. But I don’t think we need to.

Most of the meals we eat, I cook. I make them mostly from real food. I don’t labor for hours. It still has to be convenient and work with our crazy lives. But I’m in charge of what goes into them, not a corporation. And when that constitutes the bulk of what we eat, I think it’s OK to eat from the middle of the grocery store now and then, too.

We eat a lot of meat, but I try to buy good meat. When I can, I buy local. When I can, I buy meat raised without hormones and antibiotics. I take the same approach with my cheeses, eggs and other dairy products. We also are fond of salt. But most of the salt in the American diet comes from processed foods, not the salt added during cooking or at the table. So I’m not too worried about it.

Because what it really comes down to is this — As long as I control what goes into it, I’d always rather my son eat a fatty burger topped with gobs of cheese than one of those lunch “kits” sold at the grocery store. Even their so-called “healthy” versions. Any. Day.

The lunches I pack Parker pretty accurately reflect how I feed my family overall. And when feeding my family, I try to follow these guidelines.

  • Whole grains are where it’s at. That doesn’t mean white flour products don’t make appearances now and again. It just means that as much as possible, I opt for whole grains.
  • Lean meats are good, but I don’t get obsessive about it. I’d rather focus on the quality of the meat than on the fat content. Which is why bacon makes such regular appearances in our home. I’d rather Parker eat bacon than processed frozen chicken nuggets.
  • Dairy goes the same way as meat. I’d rather have good quality whole-fat yogurts and cheeses than low-fat versions, particularly in the case of yogurt. Often times, the lower the fat, the higher the sugar.
  • Produce is always a case of more-is-better. For a few years, my son wouldn’t touch a vegetable. So I made up for it by filling him with as many colors of fruit as possible. Last summer I told him it was time to suck it up. Now he eats whatever veggies I offer. Not gleefully. But he eats them and that’s all I need at the moment.
  • Convenience foods have a place at the table, too. I just try to make smart choices about them. I’ll buy deli meats because they are versatile and fast. But I go for organic varieties or those that are free of additives. And Parker couldn’t live without his phyllo pastry cups. Sure they’re white flour, but he doesn’t eat them daily and they make busy mornings bearable.

And bearable really is what it comes down to. Because as soon as any guideline becomes so burdensome, so troublesome, so guilt-inducing that it gets in the way of the rest of your life, it needs to be reevaluated. Or at least temporarily suspended. Last night Parker was in a snit and I was in a bad mood. I didn’t feel like making a nutritious dinner. So I heated up leftover white pasta mac and cheese. Tons of fat on refined carbs. He’ll live. Life will go on. Nothing would have been improved last night by me cooking up something healthier.

One final thought. And this often is one of the most overlooked aspects of a healthy diet. We and our children are best off when we eat broadly. I don’t just mean eating the rainbow, as the slogan to encourage fruit and veggie consumption goes. It means exploring new foods, new ingredients, new cuisines, new cooking techniques. It means trying things even when we don’t know what they are or how they are supposed to be prepared. Because exploring the world through food is one of the most important things we can do for ourselves and our children. It is a way to experience other cultures by quite literally bringing them into ourselves.

And a diet rich in such experiences is just about the healthiest I can imagine.

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54 Responses to “The conundrum of kids and healthy eating”

  1. Jason, what I love most about this is how much thought you have put into what you feed yourself and your family. If every person put 1/10th of the amount of thought into what goes into their kitchen and their mouths as you do, I’m convinced we would have a much healthier, and probably happier, population. What is dangerous is when people get so disconnected from the sources of their food that it no longer really resembles food we should be eating to fuel our bodies and sustain the planet. I love the way you approach it all without any hubris, too. Thank you for taking us on this journey with you.

    • J.M Hirsch says:

      Thank you so much. I figure parenting is hard enough. Parenting plus food worries…? Ugh!

  2. Monica Bhide says:

    What Aviva said! Well-done. I have always enjoyed your work and really loved this post.

    • J.M Hirsch says:

      Many thanks! It was a long journey to sort out how I feel about food. Didn’t expect to express it this way, but it kind of just came out.

  3. Erin Brenner says:

    Hear, hear! It’s about balance and moderation. The more you control the ingredients, the more you can maintain the balance and moderation that work for you. Everyone is different.

    We teach our kids to think about what their meals are made up of so that they can do it for themselves as they get older: Do you have protein and fiber on your plate? Do you have any grains or dairy?

    I make a lot of roasts and crockpot meals because it’s easier for me to quickly get a healthy on the table. We make choices about processed foods, trying to use whole foods as much as possible. This also helps make my husband’s no-flour, no-sugar diet easier for all of us. But the kids and I also bake cookies, brownies, and the like every week.

    And there absolutely are times where convenience wins out over nutrition. The trick is to monitor those times and keep them to a minimum.

    That’s what works for us.

    • J.M Hirsch says:

      Exactly! Agree with everything you said. Life is about compromise and figuring out not perfection, but good enough for today, with the goal of better tomorrow.

  4. Allison says:

    Thanks for sharing this. I think your perspective is “healthier” than most out there. I agree that food is healthiest when it’s fun and enriches your life.

    • J.M Hirsch says:

      Exactly. Food should make life better. Sadly, food has become more complicated. So as parents we are forced to think so much more about it than previous generations. We can’t change the state of the food world (at least not overnight), but we can try to make good decisions about how we navigate it.

  5. Becky Ralls says:

    I love your blog, it’s very thought provoking. I confess that I read it daily even though my daughter is in college. She fights the good fight daily in regards to eating healthy, & on a college campus it’s no easy task. I agree wholeheartedly w/your philisophy. I worked briefly in a school cafeteria & our kids were being fed processed crap every single day. I think back to my grandparents who ate fried chicken at many meals & cooked w/pork in most of their veggies, but they were veggies out of THEIR garden. They weren’t pencil thin, but they were active enough & lived to a ripe old age w/minimal angst over their food ‘choices’. Keep up the good work, Parker is a fortunate little boy.

    • J.M Hirsch says:

      Thanks so much!!! I think often about this incredibly fatty pate my great grandmother used to make. It was insanely rich (and delicious). And she made it her whole life. She lived until she was 93. The simple fact is that previous generations didn’t need to think about food choices because back then food was food and what you ate was determined more by finances and season than anything else. I think the closer we are to to way they ate — fat and all — the better off we will be.

  6. Gina Lindsay says:

    Very well written post! I think that you have a great approach. I love that you feed your son such a wide range of foods, I think that having a broad range of food choices is very important in any healthy eating plan.

    • J.M Hirsch says:

      Thanks! Food is such a great way to explore the world. And I truly believe the more we explore, the healthier our choices will be.

  7. Melvina Mitchell says:

    Very well put! I have been trying to change the way our family eats for the last few years. Its a struggle some days, especially with a 13,12 & 8 year old. But it makes me feel good when all the kids sitting around my 13 year old ask to have some of his lunch, instead of the unknown substance that is served in the school cafeteria. Because kids actually recognize the good food in his lunchbox. And yes sometimes he shares but he says usually to the one kid who isn’t eating anything.I love all the great ideas you have given me for my kids lunch! Thank you!

    • J.M Hirsch says:

      My pleasure. And that’s awesome that you son is a role model for the other kids. He’s setting a great example. And yes, making good food choices is a constant struggle. But it’s worth the struggle and and it’s the sort of struggle that it’s OK to not always win.

  8. Mai says:

    This is my favorite post ever! I agree with everything you said. Experts are always changing their minds about diets or telling us to embrace a new approach toward our food; it gets too much and I get so stressed that in the end, I end up eating food I’m not supposed to because eating healthy seems too difficult. But you’re right, in the end eating healthy should be easy too. And I love that you just microwaved mac and cheese and recognized there was nothing to gain that night by cooking. Sometimes it just happens.

    • J.M Hirsch says:

      Thanks so much! And you’re exactly right. Life happens. Life is complicated. The pieces don’t often fit neatly together. Yet somehow we have to make it all work. We have to make it work while feeding our kids, working, playing, paying bills, etc. We should always make the best choices we possibly can, but we should never feel bad when those choices aren’t perfect.

  9. Alison says:

    Amen.

  10. Patty says:

    Yes! Guilt and worry do not create good health, no matter what you put in your stomach. My belief is that the French can consume a lot of butter, meat, wine, etc. and still avoid high rates of heart disease, because they love the food they eat. They routinely make meals a pleasure and believe good food is neccessary for a good life. This makes a lot more sense to me than trying to control how many grams of something I eat each day. Thanks for this post.

    • J.M Hirsch says:

      Exactly!!! I’d so much rather focus on quality and pleasure and real food than on grams of this or calories of that.

  11. SinoSoul says:

    Thanks for the post. This issue occupies 1/4 of my day when it comes to my own lil monsters.

    You mentioned “cook” 4 times in the post. Pollan’s book which just released 2(?) days ago, devotes the entire enterprise to the same topic. Still, when it comes to childhood obesity, as well as childhood hunger (especially childhood hunger!), society (and star chefs – I’m looking at you Colicchio) seems to want to dish the responsibility off to everyone and anything except the parents. Mindful, cooking parents (and obviously mac & cheese + instant spaghetti-o’s don’t apply) means healthy kids. Until America can admit this and accept the duty wholly, we’ll continue to get fatter and sicker.

    • J.M Hirsch says:

      Totally agree. Schools have a part in this. Restaurants have a part. But the real responsibility is with us. We need to make the best decisions we can for our families. And we need to cook. It’s such a shame that we let corporations demonize and diminish the importance of cooking. Pollan’s book is really fascinating. I enjoyed it and its focus on this.

  12. Sara says:

    I would have adored home cooked lunches in my lunch box as a kid. We ate alot of prepackaged, processed foods and beverages including cafeteria lunches. Good eating habits start early and if a child is eating and enjoying real food young the habit will last a lifetime. Actually the photos of your lunches are what directed me to the blog, I felt a bit zealous because I never took lunches this good to school when I was little!
    I think you’re doing fine.

  13. Jennifer says:

    Thanks for addressing, J.M. I got the impression this was your attitude toward Parker’s food which is why I was so drawn to your blog.

    You inspired me to order humanely raised bacon from our local farm share – which is a big step for my pescetarian household – for exactly that reason. I did not want to rely on processed soy products for my son’s lunchbox.

    I look forward to your book coming out.

    Jen

    • J.M Hirsch says:

      Exactly! I’ll take a quality meat over a super processed soy something-or-other any day. I used to be vegan (quite a few years ago now). But I think I am much healthier (and I’m much thinner) today than I was then. I think I actually eat more whole grains and more veggies. I obviously eat more meat, but it’s good meat. And I think overall, my diet is much better.

  14. Daniela says:

    Cheers..standing up and clapping for you

  15. Andrea says:

    Bang on from beginning to end…bravo! You’ve just quantified the food/eating philosophy I embrace for my family and I’m grateful there are other rational believers in the world. Exquisitely written.

    • J.M Hirsch says:

      Thank you so much! I think it’s vital that parents remind one another that it’s OK to aspire for moderation rather than perfection.

  16. Meg Cronin says:

    This was such an excellent post. Thanks so much for the balanced perspective and clear, lively, honest prose. I think so many readers agree with you, and, you made us feel a lot better, too, I suspect.

    • J.M Hirsch says:

      Thank you! I think it’s vital that parents be honest and supportive about the realities of what works and doesn’t.

  17. Kerry says:

    Agreed, this was a terrific post. Parenting is hard enough without being made to feel guilty for and second-guess every decision!

    The summer after my freshman year in college, I worked as an intern at an eating disorders clinic, and I’ll never forget the nutritionist telling the clients/patients that there are no “bad” foods; everything in moderation.

    The summer after I graduated college, I moved to Japan for 2 years and spent quite a bit of time traveling around East and Southeast Asia, and hosts in Japan and the other countries I visited (from Thailand to Taiwan to Pakistan) always seemed impressed that I tried their traditional foods. For me, I never gave it a second thought — that’s how I was raised. But it really drove home how central to culture food is, and an openness to sharing food with others can go a surprisingly long way towards building good will and camaraderie.

    • J.M Hirsch says:

      What an amazing experience that must have been. Ive wanted to take Parker on a whirlwind tour of Asia for a long time. Talk about a wonderful region to explore via food.

  18. Beth L says:

    Love this. :-)

  19. Erin says:

    Awesome, awesome! I wish people knew how easy it could be to make a meal! And to make a lunch! No more prepackaged boxed lunches!!!!

    • J.M Hirsch says:

      That’s the amazing thing about real cooking with real food. It doesn’t have to be really difficult. But I think people are increasingly figuring that out.

  20. [...] Can a lunchbox meal ever really be healthy? [Lunch Box Blues] [...]

  21. Amanda says:

    AMEN!

  22. Wendy says:

    You are doing a wonderful thing for your son. we all struggle to do the best we can for our kids and their health and cooking at home is a huge gift we can give them. When I started my poor little sadly neglected blog, I used the term “healthier” not to be holier-than-thou but to indicated that I was making some choices that were healthier than I’d made before. I felt that “healthier”, which is not necessarily uber-healthy, was the step I needed to take for my family. My two kids are now 18 and 21 and after all these years of scrambling to make family dinner most nights and home made lunches every single day I can say that I do believe it was worth it. Not only are they healthy, they are healthy eaters with an adventurous outlook on food. My son, a junior in college doing a semester in Italy, is now cooking for himself and with his friends, and my vegetarian daughter, a senior in h.s. (she now makes her own lunches) helps with dinner and meal planning and has a very healthy and balanced, pro-active approach to her eating. I’ve just about put myself out of a job!

    • J.M Hirsch says:

      That is awesome. And so encouraging for those of us with little ones. All the hard work pays off! And I’m with you — healthier rather than healthy is the way to go.

  23. What a healthy, balanced way to look at both food and life!

  24. Jillian says:

    Well said.

  25. Lynn says:

    Bravo! We try to feed our kids healthy meals and give them occasional treats, but I have a hard time when their cousins are visiting and their parents (my brother & SIL) give their kids snacks like Cheetos, and suddenly, I become the uptight, controlling mother who won’t let her kids have it. *sigh* On the plus side, the other day at the salad bar’s dessert buffet, our toddler chose slices of oranges over chocolate pudding, blue (what flavor is THAT?) jello and tapioca. So, it all evens out eventually, I hope.

    • J.M Hirsch says:

      Ha! Yeah, I’m used to be being the bad guy. Not only do I feed my child healthy, I also deprive him of TV and video games. We have neither. When some people hear this I swear they want to reach for the phone to dial social services and report me for neglect.

      • Lynn says:

        Good for you! We still have our TV but only allow limited TV time (30min before nap time) and never turn it on otherwise. Not even for guests typically. In fact, it has become such an issue that our in-laws have made a comment to my Hubby that it’s a “turn-off” not to be able to watch TV when they come visit. Unbelievable. We think they should be playing/interacting with their grandkids, but I guess they see it differently.

        • J.M Hirsch says:

          Oh, I know that one. I’m always the bad guy about the TV stuff. Luckily, Parker doesn’t really care. He’s kind of clueless about pop culture, but oh well!

  26. Ann Vaseliades says:

    I love your blog and read it daily. I have 2 PICKY eaters, aged 2 and 4 and we are working on expanding their diets. My husband and I are foodies, and find it so frustrating that they eat such limited diets. The other day my 4-year-old and I were out to lunch and she ordered a chicken ceasar salad. I thought, yeh, whatever, I’ll eat it. She devoured it because she liked the dressing. Whatever vehicle gets her to eat chicken and lettuce works for me.

    • J.M Hirsch says:

      Exactly! I had the same success with Caesar dressing and lettuce with Parker. I used April Bloomfield’s recipe and he flipped out for it. For a while I was making it every day. Here’s a link to my version of her recipe.

  27. Kerry says:

    Thank you for this! Beautifully written. As a Canadian transplant (used to an array of food options from around the globe) living in the rural South, I struggle daily with the food choices others make around us and its comforting to know there are others out there who subscribe to similar philosophies. Our eldest, now in kindergarten, refused to eat the snacks provided in pre-school (pop tarts and fruit loops … the director could say with a straight face they were committed to providing a healthy snack for the kids!). We had to provide a doctor’s note so she could bring in edamame hummus and apple slices for her snack. Sigh. Thought you might appreciate that in our house we claim that “bacon is a magical food” Thank you for your wonderful blog, I read it daily. So excited for your success with the book! All the best to you.

    • J.M Hirsch says:

      Thanks so much! And I totally agree — bacon IS a magical food. How scary that you had to go to so much trouble to get healthy snacks for your daughter. Good nutrition should not be that hard!

  28. I know I’m late to the party but I just wanted to say how much I love this post. I’ve always felt that we can’t make the perfect the enemy of the good (or however that expression goes!). Parenting can be pretty stressful, and feeding is a big part of that. We need to remind ourselves of all we’re doing right and try not stress to much about the stuff on the margins. Thank you for writing this!

    • J.M Hirsch says:

      And thank you for the kind comment — and the awesome video (more on that Tuesday!). It’s so easy to beat ourselves up as parents. But the reality is that food can be easier, or easier than we are led to believe. Eat and cook real food and a lot of the rest will take care of itself.