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Kids’ Nutrition: Food Obsession, Blame & Hiding Veggies

frozen veggies in the freezer; hiding veggies

My head is full of things I want to say to you, so bear with me, as I reflect, inform and challenge some thoughts. Today I am talking about food obsession, pointing the finger at the food industry, and hiding veggies.

Food Obsession

My co-author Maryann Jacobsen wrote a nice piece on food restriction and its relationship with food obsession. During the course of writing Fearless Feeding, the topic of food obsession came up quite a bit. Maryann was getting lots of questions about it on her blog and we worked through what it meant, how it evolves, and how best to address it with parents. Maryann’s post covers most of this quite nicely.

Personally, I have never felt comfortable with the term “food obsession” for kids. Maybe I am splitting hairs. But, “obsessed” seems strong. And, professionally, I have never encountered a “food obsessed” child, with the exception of a patient with an eating disorder. But I have dealt with many food-focused kids. And I often talk about this in my speaking engagements with parents and professionals.

I think with children, as Maryann points out, it’s important to remember that every child is different. Every parent is different, too. The perception they have of their child’s eating may be more a reflection of their own triggers and hangups with food. I believe most kids who focus on food excessively have two things going on:

  • a sensitized environment around food (parents talk about it all the time; follow diets; kids exposed to marketing; food is too controlled/ restricted; food is elevated to star status in the home, etc) and,
  •  a developmental transition or need that isn’t being addressed (peer pressure, lack of knowledge about food, boredom, etc).

I think we have to be careful with the term food obsession, as it is a label and can be damaging. If a child is food focused (or obsessed), then we need to help them find a way beyond this transient state.

Blaming the Food Industry

In a response article to the above post, KYHealthyKids asks, “What if the problem isn’t really the parents?”  The article goes on to discuss the role of the food industry and marketing in molding kids’ food choices and focus, and proposes that food and marketing are the lion share of the problem.

I don’t disagree that the food industry have their claws in the market–that’s a whole different topic. However, I think it’s everyone’s responsibility to make sure kids are raised to be healthy. Parent. School. Food company. Advertising. But, you are the food filter in the first decade of life (at least), even in the face of marketing, advertising and school. Parents decide what their child eats in the home, and they have the job of teaching their child what and how to eat outside the home. Yes, kids will feel more food pressure outside. And parents will worry about what their child eats without them. This is life.

I worry that my child will hurt someone on the road as a new driver. I educate her, remind her to be careful, and lay out the consequences of a careless mistake. Do I blame the car she’s driving? The one we chose? No. Do I blame the road that was wet? Maybe. The victim who pulled out in front of her? Maybe. Her? Maybe. The point is, there are many factors that contribute to children going out into the world and being successful, or not.

We have to prepare our children for the food world they will undoubtedly enter. Like driving a car, it starts with a value system at home they can carry into the world. But kids need support, reinforcement and reminders. And that part never ends. Activists and policy makers can help support parents in their very important job of raising healthy kids. We all have the responsibility to make it easier for parents. We all need to be in the boat together in solidarity. No one is off the hook, particularly parents.

Hiding Vegetables in Food

While you may feel good about being sneaky, your child has to also. Click To Tweet

I received a trial of those veggie pouches Michael Moss wrote about in his NYT article about stealth vegetables. They sat on my counter for a few days. Then I moved them to the refrigerator. They were there for a couple of weeks, and out of guilt, I moved them to the freezer. Why? It is not in my nature to add purees to my recipes. Just not in my wheelhouse–and I don’t feel bad or guilty about it.

I started my kids off with plain, identifiable food. A common dinner with the young tribe was grilled meat, plain rice, a vegetable (kid-friendly like raw carrots or sautéed broccoli), fresh fruit, and milk. No casseroles. No hidden veggies. No hidden agenda for getting them to eat. It took years for my kids to even like lasagna! It all came in time, as I knew it would.

It was interesting for me to read the perspectives of many of my colleagues in this article on The Scoop on Food. If you read, you’ll see that even dietitians have different views on sneaking veggies into recipes for kids to build up their nutrition.

Whether you agree or not with hiding veggies, I think there are two important questions to consider:

  • “What are my intentions in hiding these veggies?” and,
  • “Am I willing to come clean if asked?”

If you’re trying to improve nutrition without letting your child in on the secret, my bet is it will backfire at some point. I have seen it happen with client families.

While you may feel good about being sneaky, your child has to also.

What are your thoughts on these topics? Tell me in the comments below!

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  1. Well said! I love the analogy with the young driver – it’s so true! I’ve been against this practice from the get-go. My grempop raised me on his half-acre victory garden and I’ve been a veggie-lover ever since. Same thing with my husband, who was raised on an olive farm in the Middle East. Our 10yo son regularly gets pressured at school about his lunches, thank God we are blessed with an independent forward-thinker who regularly discusses nutrition with his classmates. That opportunity to exchange ideas would have been lost, using sneaky veggies.

    Keep up the great posts, I’m glad to see people out there pushing for our children’s future health!

    1. Thanks Emily! I’m sorry your boy gets pressured about what he eats. Middle school can be yucky! Glad he is confident to talk about why he enjoys eating food–so important to raise kids who feel able to speak up. You’ve obviously raised a confident young man!

    1. Casey–my apologies for the mis-quote–i have updated it. Thanks for being such a strong advocate for children’s health! We need you in this battle! 🙂

  2. Thanks for continuing the discussion and I like the idea of the parent as the food filter. Much of my frustration is when I feel that role is being deliberately undermined by companies. I see it when they use schools to bypass the parental gatekeeper in order to market to kids. Parents are also bypassed when food rewards are used at school. If parents are going to get all the blame for not being good enough food filters, then it’s time to change the practices that are undermining this important role.