When I was a kid, my mother didn’t keep junk food in the house. No chips, no cookies, and certainly no sugary cereal. She always had an abundance of fresh fruit, and two little dishes in the fridge– one with carrots and the other celery. In sharp contrast, our neighbors had every Hostess, Entenmann’s, and Frito Lay product on the market. While my mom made sandwiches on scant Pepperidge Farm Very Thin bread, Mrs. Shapiro laid their PB&J’s betwixt slices of pillowy soft Wonder bread. Our house was the Realm of Righteousness and Fiber; and the Shapiro’s were the Sultans of Snacks -their pantry a golden palace of processed deliciousness.
Obviously, our houses represented two vastly different approaches to teaching kids about food. One in which parents pushed healthy choices and offered very limited access to junk food in a well-meaning, albeit tightly controlled, way. The other, in which parents took a more hands-off approach and allowed their kids to decide for themselves what they wanted eat. Nowadays, it seems most people I know favor option 1 – the approach my mother took – with the thought that if we teach our kids to love the taste of healthy food while they are young and impressionable, they won’t want or need to eat junk food as they grow up.
Right. Because as kids get older, they always do what their parents say.
Deciding which approach to take may have less to do with the actual food choices, and more with human nature. People love forbidden fruit. More than actual fruit in most cases. So once something is off-limits, it becomes all the more desirable. You’d better believe that every chance we got, my sister and I were knee-deep in the Shapiro’s white flour, store-bought, deep-fried, sugar-laden pantry. And the payoff was not only the junk food, but also the rush that came from doing something rebellious. (This is what passed for rebellion among the elementary school set in Highland Park, circa 1985.)
On the other hand, the Shapiro kids, who had constant access to whatever food a kid could want, didn’t really abuse the privilege. They didn’t binge. They didn’t sit with their face in the powdered donuts all day or suck down pixie sticks like addicts. They’d eat when they were hungry and then stop. And while they didn’t exactly rush to our house for after school snacks, they’d often accept (and even solicit) invitations to dinner for one of my mom’s well-balanced meals.
This begs the question: which approach is better? Do I think my mom’s strict policies encouraged me to have a lifelong love of healthy food choices? No, not exactly. Did Mrs. Shapiro’s lax attitude lead her children down a path of hedonistic gluttony? Not as far as I can tell. In the end, I think people develop their own relationship with food based on personal levels of appetite, vanity, priorities, self-image and, of course, metabolism. But those things (aside from metabolism) are undoubtedly influenced by what our parents modeled for us during our childhood. Notice I said influenced. And influence can work for or against.
Our country obviously has a very serious problem with obesity, often beginning in childhood, and I don’t mean to minimize the importance of giving kids access to wholesome foods. But there are plenty of parents I know who micromanage their healthy kids’ intake of carbs, sugars, and fats every day. I think that sort of behavior can lead to its own brand of extremism and resultant health problems.
As is the case in most things, moderation is probably the path to salvation. It may not be sexy, but it makes good sense. Even Cookie Monster is on board with it now. He teaches kids that cookies are a “sometimes food.” I like that terminology. Maybe if I had grown up thinking of candy, chips, and cookies as “sometimes foods” as opposed to “forbidden foods,” I wouldn’t feel like I was getting away with something every time I eat them now. Because, let me tell you, for a rule-following gal like me, that feeling is almost more delicious than the food itself.