Wednesday, July 28, 2010

I would never eat that, so why should my kid?

I don't eat fried, processed garbage passed off as poultry, so why would I feed it to my kid?

Until recently, I've never paid much attention to kids' menus, but we traveled this month and ate in restaurants along the way. Every place that had a kids' menu listed multiple, wholly unimaginative, deep fried choices. Nearly all featured some version of chicken fingers, which I interpreted as shorthand for processed and pulverized surplus bird parts.

Last week, I caught a news item about children's menu choices at several national chains. Friendly's, Applebee's, Chevy's, Outback and the Olive Garden were among a long list of major offenders, each offering selections with several days' allotment of fat and sodium.

Adults can do what they want, but I'm sure most parents don't realize that the children's Fettucine Alfredo Meal or Grilled Cheese and Fries Platter are so calorie laden that I think they qualify as nearly toxic.

When a third of the minors in this country tip the scales as clinically overweight or obese, corporations that push meals with thousands of calories at kiddies seem almost criminally negligent. But it's not just the restaurants. I don't think, for most families at least, that chain eateries are the main culprit. Too many people simply buy into the idea that their kids won't eat "grown up food," so they don't offer it as an alternative.

Of course, kids go through phases. I know a major foodie who says she ate nothing but Cheerios for six months as a pre-schooler. But even if a child decides to boycott almost everything, it can't hurt to keep offering various foods. Sooner or later, even the most stubborn brat will tire of plain boiled elbow pasta.

I generally subscribe to the theory that The Grape should eat whatever we adults are eating, on the basis that it's usually pretty healthy. Equally important: I don't want to spend the next two decades as a short order cook. Too many parents prepare two, three, even four meals every night, or (equally bad) allow the kiddies to dictate whether and where the family dines out.

If R. and I are eating salmon and grilled vegetables, we offer them to The Grape. Same goes if we go out for pizza and ice cream. Maybe I'm a delusional rookie. (It's certainly possible, since I've been at this mom thing less than a year.) Maybe the other shoe will drop. But so far, The Grape seems to enjoy trying new flavors and he prefers his food with a generous amount of spice and kick. When people roll their eyes and tell me I'm creating a picky little gourmet, I say, Good!

A small market on Tremont Street sells amazing grass fed (and grass finished!) beef. The other day, I overhead a woman asking for steak for two. When her kid, who looked about six, piped up that he wanted some too, she said she'd make him a hot dog and explained to the guy behind the counter that the beef was "too good to waste on him."

I think that's such a shame for two reasons. First, all kids learn by example and I imagine eating habits are no exception. Second, if you're going to give your child red meat in the first place, there's no way that even the most politically correct hot dog on the planet makes a healthier dinner than grass fed beef.

(When cattle eat grain, as most do these days, their systems digest and metabolize it poorly, which is why farmers add antibiotics to animal feed. Need proof that's a bad thing? Consider this: Meat from cattle raised on grass and hay contains healthy omega 3 acids, yes, like those in salmon; grain fed beef lacks those healthy fats. Meanwhile, antibiotic resistant infections among otherwise healthy people are on the rise, largely due to the drugs' overuse in the food chain.)

It also makes me sad when people assume their children won't eat something. A friend recently remarked that her four-year-old loves lobster, but on a recent visit, she had to persuade the child's grandmother to offer her any. The granny in that case made the same basic argument as the lady at the market: Why waste good food on a child?

Why indeed? The Grape has developed a somewhat shocking love for crustaceans. He can polish off a respectable helping of crab cakes or lobster risotto. He also loves fresh mangoes, fresh bread with olive oil and grilled asparagus. Such food preferences can certainly strain the wallet, but I'm going to argue that, for those fortunate enough to have choices, diet isn't the best place to economize.

Chances are that someday he'll eat something nasty and deep fried. Odds are fair that he'll enjoy it. And that's (at least sort of) okay. As long as he learns to enjoy many healthy foods and willingly tries new things, I can't deprive him of the occasional greasy splurge. I think my job is just to make sure those kids' menu favorites don't become the cornerstone of his repertoire.

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