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Feeding Kids is a Hard Job of Parenthood

This is Part 3 of the blog series: Looking at Childhood Obesity through a Different Lens. Here, I take a different look at child weight problems, uncovering some of the fundamental issues that need to be addressed. You can read Part 1 covering beliefs about childhood obesity, and Part 2 about parent-child feeding interactions.

Feeding Kids is a Hard Job of Parenting

Parenthood, and particularly the job of feeding kids, is hard. Many parents enter the job with great enthusiasm and optimism, only to find that the daily grind is overwhelming and difficult. Without preparation or training, parents may wing it, using trial and error. Feeding successes are super rewarding, making parents feel confident in their skills, but the mistakes can be defeating, confirming insecurities parents have about good parenting.

Why is the job of feeding kids more difficult today than in the past?

And how does it relate to childhood obesity?

Job Training is Missing

Most jobs allow a window of time for on-the-job training—showing the scope of the job, expectations of performance and consequences of mistakes. Not so for parenting, or nutrition and feeding. Home economics, a once required high school subject for many American teens, is now almost obsolete, on the sidelines as an elective course. Today’s parents miss the key elements of Home Economics: food and nutrition, home management, childcare and parenting, human development and family relations. And a lot more! (remember laundry and sewing?)

What was once a given source of nutrition, cooking and child development education, is now a gaping hole in the preparation of future parents. When parents lack information about what to feed, how to do it, and normal child development, the job of nourishing a family is more difficult. Good decisions are difficult to make when you don’t have all (or most of) the information.

The Fading (Extended) Family

Gone are the days of grandma being a resource for childcare, Sunday dinners and colic remedies—whether this was wanted (and good) advice, or not—the supportive nature of the extended family doesn’t exist for many modern-day parents. Today’s parents are on their own to figure out nutrition and feeding. This missing support may add to the stress, challenge and fatigue associated with parenting.

The Information Super Highway Leads to Super Confusion

Lack of nutrition knowledge and support are leading parents to seek other sources for information to help with feeding their kids. Google healthy eating, nutrition, or diet and you’ll get a slew of information—some accurate, some not. You can find celebrities and their quick weight loss diets, moms who put their daughters on a diet, and stories of what worked for other families seeking an action plan for helping their child lose weight, become more active or simply “get healthy.” While it would seem that this accessible information would bring comfort and confidence to parents, for many it simply adds to the confusion and fear. And the greater risk of making nutrition mistakes in the pursuit of popular trends or media hype.

Fear of Impending Disease

To compound the issues, childhood nutrition problems are on the rise—from childhood obesity and eating disorders to food allergies, learning and behavioral challenges, and picky eating. With these looming, parents are scrambling to make sure they feed their children right and avoid letting ‘bad’ food take over the family dinner table. The combination of fear of causing a nutrition problem and pressure to raise a healthy child may lead to feeding mistakes, such as restricting a child’s eating to prevent weight gain.

Food is Omnipresent

Food is everywhere! Not only are there more opportunities for children to eat, the food available is packaged and palatable, something easy for them to accept. When food is sweet and salty, and friends are eating, it’s easy for kids to join in, rather than pass up the opportunity. This makes the job of feeding and raising healthy kids harder.

Too Many Food Decisions

Meanwhile, our food supply offers up the good with the bad: seemingly healthy food with undesirable ingredients lurking in the background. The ‘health halo’ elevates many foods to an undeserving status, confusing consumers even more. With all these small details to pay attention to, it’s easy for parents to become overwhelmed and give up on trying to sort through the plethora of food variety, opting for the easy path: convenience food items, dining out and the same old grocery list.

Less Time, More Demands

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2011, 70.6% of mothers, and 93.5% of fathers, with children under 18 years, were in the labor force. While this bears good news for the economy and household finances, it presents a challenge for pulling off family meals and healthy eating. Even stay-at-home parents are busy, volunteering, transporting kids, and leading events that approximate the demands of a “real job.”

These demands may negatively impact meal planning, cooking and eating together; increase fatigue; and support a desire to make the most of available free time. A recipe for undesirable eating.

Feeding is Hard

Parents today don’t have it easier when it comes to feeding their kids and raising healthy children, despite the obvious conveniences. Today’s parents are up against a variety of barriers that stand in the way to getting a healthy meal on the table, raising a healthy child and preventing the growing incidence of a number of childhood nutrition problems.

While I don’t have a solution for all the challenges outlined above, I do believe we can do a better job with the following:

  • elevate the topics of nutrition and feeding in our educational curriculum;
  • transform childhood nutrition from a food-focused endeavor to a “feed the whole child” mission including food, feeding and child development;
  • change the food landscape at sporting events, schools and community organizations to promote natural, wholesome foods and less convenience items.

If you’re a parent, what challenges do you face in feeding your child? What ideas do you have to tackle some of these obstacles?

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  1. I agree. We live with an abundant and adulterated food supply. Even with all the skill of a dietitian, feeding my child (who has the same metabolic challenges that I have) was really challenging–and I know how to navigate everything you talk about. I found two intractable challenge: What other children were given to eat (influencing what my child wanted to eat) and what everyone else offered my child.

    First, there is a pervasive aura of indulgence in a child’s world. Holidays, birthdays and other special events inherently translate to cupcakes, cookies, and Koolaid every week, sometimes more than once a week at school and other activities. Snacks at preschool were graham crackers and juice; snacks at elementary school included popcorn, baked snack chips and other highly refined starch. Bake sales, candy sales, cookie dough sales and the like were the primary means of fundraising until another dietitian and I stepped in. Soon we were selling calendars and branded clothing gear.

    The formal food environment at school wasn’t any help. My son never ate school breakfast or lunch as the meals were dominated by cheap refined starches and sugars–all means to keep fat less than 30% of calories and within budget. The most popular breakfast served was cereal, milk, juice, chocolate milk and a pastry. All USDA approved. Too little protein and rarely a fresh fruit or vegetable.

    Second, there is a misguided notion in our indulgent world that thin people “get to eat whatever they want” Parents mostly give lip service to limiting sugar, especially if their children are within recommended percentiles or underweight. There are ubiquitous highly refined snacks foods and drinks offered in most homes, every venue and every time of day.

    I once planned a birthday party for my son at a local amusement park. When I asked to order off the adult menu to avoid the usual “kid’s food” and limited treats to cake and ice cream, the party director told me she understood why I was ordering sandwiches, a vegetable tray and a fruit plate for my son. In the same breath she wondered if I really wanted to “deprive” the other children.”

    The task of feeding children is enormous, especially for those of us parenting children who are more insulin resistant and prone to gain fat weight. I have a few suggestions for health care practitioners and parents everywhere:

    1. Metabolic fallout from children eating poorly impacts all of us. Every adult needs to take responsibility for feeding children.

    2. We bribe people with food and treats to shop, to work, to learn. Everyone–every school, kid’s program, sports teams, community organization, and business needs to stop using cheap food and treats to engage with the world.

    3. Weight should not be a litmus for what someone gets to eat. When we design efforts at improving a child’s health, focus on actual food and lifestyle behaviors.

    4. Stop pretending that weight is a good marker for health and fitness. It’s not. Adopt a “health at every size” (HAES) approach

    I challenge every person to figure out another way to address the metabolic challenges of today without further stigmatizing larger children. The thin ones will benefit too. After all, they are the ones who are even more difficult to help as adults. They are the patients struggling with the fact that they don’t get away with eating whatever they want anymore.