Stop force-feeding your kids

How feeding our kids has changed over the years

My mom hated to cook. Whenever one of us kids asked her what was for dinner, she usually glared at us and said, “Food.” It wasn’t until I was an adult that I realized potatoes don’t come from a box and canned corn is supposed to be heated before serving.

As much as my mother resented having to feed us, she had some idea of supplying a boxed or canned representative of the basic food groups (vegetable, starch and protein) and prohibited sugar-coated cereals, cookies and soda.

“My mom only served desserts on holidays,” agrees Diane Harris, a registered nurse and mother of three grown children. “But for our meals she fixed only canned or frozen vegetables, almost no fruit, a lot of casseroles, meat and potatoes. My dad only liked corn, green beans, peas and lima beans, so I never tasted broccoli or other vegetables until I grew up.”

Both Harris and I were raised at a time when food was all about convenience and less about nutrition. There was little in the way of food education or experimentation. Ethnic food in my house was take-out Chop Suey or pizza. A special treat was Swanson’s Frozen TV dinners.

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Working mothers like mine needed to get something quickly and easily onto the table. That need hasn’t changed, but obesity rates and heart disease are skyrocketing. In addition, food allergies among children increased by 50 percent between 1997 and 2011, according to a 2013 study by the Center for Disease Control.

As a result there has been a focal shift from fast food to healthy food.

Fresh ingredients
As a registered nurse, Harris sees the effects of poor nutrition on the body every day, and as an agricultural biologist, plant pathologist and entomologist, her husband is aware of genetic altering and pesticide practices in the fruit and vegetable industry. Contrary to the way Harris was raised, she tries to feed her family using fresh ingredients.

“We grow our own organic vegetables, and I use butter and olive oil as opposed to my mother’s margarine.”

“I grew up in a real meat and potatoes family,” says Courtney Lueck, a mother of three. “We eat much less red meat and more fresh fruits and veggies. But my mom didn’t have to worry about genetically modified food or meat and dairy loaded with growth hormones and antibiotics. I never buy anything without reading the ingredient label. If it has things like high fructose corn syrup, aspartame, bleached flour, it’s out. I think having my children and wanting to make healthy food choices for them began it all. The documentary ‘Food, Inc.’ really opened my eyes.”

For Courtney Skeen cutting out dairy and eggs while breastfeeding her son cleared up his asthma and eczema and started her on a path to becoming vegan (consuming no animal products or byproducts).

“I started eating this way for Aiden, but I love the way I feel because of it,” she says. “I have also grown quite aware of food industry practices, which scare me, but it also makes me feel better about a lot of the decisions I make regarding the types of food I buy and where I buy it from.”

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Educating ourselves
Siobhan Roberts considers educating herself on the current food industry practices part of her job as a mother.

“Recent films like ‘Fast Food Nation’ should scare everyone,” she says. “I always read the package labels.” Roberts won’t by anything that contains more than five ingredients. “That’s an old rule from my ex-husband, who was a chef and former instructor at the Culinary Institute.”

But Roberts, owner of Arch and Curl Gyrotonic Studio in Beacon, also lives the reality of running a business with the desire to provide a healthy meal for her 3-year-old son.

“I wish I had more time to do it right,” she says. “My son is so picky. He would only eat pizza and peanut butter crackers if allowed. My mom was a housewife until I was 8 and dinner was on the table every night, period. My grandmother spent all day in the kitchen. But I would rather trade an hour of prepping food for an hour of playing with my kid.”

Local resources
So how do you ensure that your kids are getting a healthy balanced meal and developing good eating habits that will set them up for life? By taking advantage of all the resources available to you.

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All of the mothers I interviewed for this article were grateful to live in the Hudson Valley with its abundance of farmer’s markets and local food options. All made sure to read product labels and educate themselves about the food industry so they could make informed dietary decisions. And all were delighted to see more organic and sustainable products in supermarkets. In fact some supermarkets, like ShopRite, have gone so far as to employ registered dietitians to provide complimentary personal nutrition counseling.

“Many customers are surprised to see how many healthy food choices can be purchased on a budget,” says Tanya Lopez, a registered dietitian at ShopRite in Poughkeepsie. 

Food allergies
Having an informed advocate to help you navigate the food aisle is especially important for parents of children with food allergies or sensitivities.

“Parents often have concerns about identifying hidden sources of allergens in food,” says Lopez, “I provide education on label and ingredient reading to help them.”

“Lots of people think what they don’t know won’t kill them, but it’s just the opposite,” says Monica Meyle, a wellness consultant in Kingston. “There was a time in my life where I only ate packaged food and didn’t take care of myself and I got very sick. The food industry is in business to make a profit, not to make people healthy. It is simply not worth sacrificing your health for convenience. Yes, organic food is more expensive but my motto is: We pay now for health or pay later for doctor bills.”

Meyle’s two daughters, age 11 and 9, are vegetarians by choice. I first met them at a macrobiotic cooking class in Kingston where they accompanied their mother.

“My children have learned the importance of taking care of their bodies and making responsible choices for themselves in and out of the home,” Meyle says. “We educate them on nutrition and the effect food has on the body, and they take an active role in what they decide to eat.”

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Eleven-year-old Brooklyn chose to become vegetarian a year and a half ago because she found meat hard to digest and she didn’t like the thought of eating animals. Her sister joined her last summer because she realized she didn’t want to eat animals anymore either and was happy with all the things she can eat.

“I like to eat food that is good for my body so I can grow strong healthy bones and have nice skin and hair,” says 9-year-old Jaiden. “I also don’t get sick, hardly ever.”

Whether it be served fast or slow, raw or cooked, with animal or dairy products or without, with gluten or peanuts or without, parents not only care about what they are feeding their children, but how it is sourced. And even better, kids care, too.

Linda Freeman is a freelance writer living in Marlboro. She is also the president of the Celiac Disease Foundation Hudson Valley chapter.