For the most part, my husband and I are mellow parents. We let our kids play in the dirt, climb trees, and watch too much TV some days. They’ve even heard us swear. But when it comes to food, we draw a hard line: Fast food, junk food, drive through — whatever you want to call it — is absolutely not allowed in our family. Our kids have never experienced driving up to a window and being handed a bag of food to be eaten in the car; and, as long as I’m in charge of what they eat, they won’t.
Because here’s the thing: In the United States, childhood obesity is at an all-time high and children as young as toddlers are being diagnosed with diabetes. In children ages 6 to 11, the rate of obesity has increased from 7 percent in 1980 to nearly 18 percent in 2012, according to data released by the Centers for Disease Control (the numbers have risen from 5 percent to nearly 21 percent in adolescents ages 12 to 19 years during the same time period).
Although I don’t want my kids to end up with the health problems reflected in these grim statistics, I do allow them to enjoy treats. In our family, indulgences are another opportunity to show our kids that there are smarter, healthier ways to splurge. For example, we bake confections at home; that way we can be sure that we know exactly what’s going into the cupcakes and cookies we enjoy. When we want to have a greasy hamburger and salty fries, we make those, too. Having the ability to choose organic ingredients, as well as including our children in the process of cooking, is a way to teach them that even splurges should still be as high quality and healthy as possible.
The idea that eating organic or local is a privilege for the affluent has always boggled my mind. Our family is hardly above the poverty line in terms of annual income, but we can still budget our money, create menus, and cook delicious foods that are healthy and nutritious without breaking the bank. It just took us some practice and a few hours of reading cookbooks and scrolling through Pinterest. We can grow our food in the backyard or sign up for a year-round CSA through a local farmer, which is cheap and yields up fresh, locally grown, organic produce, grass-fed beef, and free-range eggs. My totally weekly food cost for a family of four is around $125, and we eat very well.
Of course, there are occasions when we don’t have time to cook. When we are on the road or running late then we try our best to bring nuts and dried fruit, cheese and apples, or some other quick meal with us. In a pinch, we’ll hit up the grocery store on the way to soccer practice or in between errands to grab granola bars and bottles of water. Every Sunday afternoon, I plan the weekly meals and always include things like overnight oats or crockpot recipes to ensure that there is something to eat no matter how busy we get.
My kids do resist our healthy eating mantra sometimes. In fact, we’ve had to avoid most of the middle aisles at the grocery store because one cereal box featuring Yoda or Po the panda which inevitably brings out the cries of “Why not?!” and “You’re the worst mom ever!” as I explain, yet again, that they want the cool graphics on the box and not the junk food with the chemicals and empty calories on the inside. They’re kids so of course they DGAF about empty calories; they want that Yoda box, dammit. But my job as a mother is to make sure my kids get a balanced diet that can support their growing brains and bodies. If they want to kill that progress with junk food as adults when they live under their own roofs and buy their own groceries, then so be it. At least I gave them a solid foundation of health.
For a long time, I didn’t understand that food is medicine. Food is a need and shouldn’t be a want. But in the modern online world where even I stare longingly at fast-paced foodie videos showing how to make bread with pockets of herbs and melted French cheese, it becomes nearly impossible to separate the need from the want, which is where moderation, education, and an eye toward the goal of health comes into play.
My kids may think I am being unreasonable, and other parents may find our rules about food to be stubborn and unrealistic. The truth is, however, that as a mother I worry about my kids and take absolutely every single opportunity to get their health and safety as close to what I envision as right as possible. Even if it means having to explain for the umpteenth time that we don’t eat processed foods filled with brightly colored marshmallows.