Their choices as parents somehow extended to what the kids want at dinner time.
I was three years old when my parents took me out to dinner for their anniversary. They couldn’t afford a babysitter that evening, but due to the occasion, we went to a more upscale restaurant than usual. The waiter sat us near a window. This was a mistake, because I saw another restaurant down the street and shouted excitedly, “Look! We could’ve gone to McDonald’s!”
At least, that’s what my parents say. I have no memory of it. In my mind, it is a scene from the cinema of other people’s history. But it tells us that, as a kid, I liked McDonald’s food—and, possibly, that my parents thought this was kind of cute. I grew up into teen, and then a young adult, who continued to like fast food, and many other kinds of junk food.
Let’s skip ahead a generation. My 7-year-old daughter recently had an annual medical examination, and the nurse was going through her checklist. One question was, “How often do you eat fast food?”
My daughter was puzzled. “What’s fast food?”
The nurse cocked an eyebrow. “You know, like McDonald’s or Burger King or something. Maybe a drive-through.”
“Oh!” said my daughter. “We went to a drive through last summer and I got a fruit smoothie. Is that what you mean?”
The nurse said, “That’s it?”
My child thought about it. “I might have gone over Christmas and gotten a doughnut.”
The nurse was surprised. She looked at my wife and asked, “Only twice in a year?”
My wife nodded. “Sounds about right.” She went on to explain that we don’t eat fast food unless we are traveling and desperately hungry. In fact, fast food usually makes my daughter sick later that day. It’s true: if she eats a fast-food burger when we’re traveling, it is very likely that she will throw up that night. Believe me, we have seen the evidence.
Earlier in the year, my daughter couldn’t remember Starbucks. “Star bucks? Does it have stars in it? Does it have bucks?” she asked. My son, then age 10, explained, “You know it. They sell coffee. There’s one in the mall. It’s got that round green logo with the weird lady on it.” Then she remembered it.
The connection struck me recently. A kid (me!) who liked fast food grew up into a parent (me?!) whose kids eat healthfully and barely remember eating fast food. How did that happen? Keep reading, because I’m going to reveal—for completely free to you, dear reader—the super magical secret to raising children who like healthy food and don’t like McDonald’s. Are you ready? Here it is:
I don’t know.
I mean, I have some ideas. But I have no idea if they are really the reasons, or if we just lucked out. I don’t know if these ideas would work for anybody else, because other parents and kids are not us. The only guarantee I can make is that my kids already turned out this way, at least as of this writing, though tomorrow it might all break apart like a Lego spacecraft pushed off the table.
Here’s what I think happened to my kids:
- Their parents don’t eat fast food. We stopped eating fast food for health reasons before we had kids. So, they never saw that habit of ours, and they never picked it up.
- Their parents don’t talk about fast food as if it’s a special treat. Fast food is made more quickly, not more yummily. Eating faster is not a culinary treat. It’s a scheduling convenience.
- Their parents will try nearly any food at least once, and expect the same from the kids. I didn’t used to be this way. I had a pretty narrow palate for years. It was not until my 20s that I tried Thai food, for example, and I wondered where it had been all my life. I was in my 30s when I learned to use chopsticks. But my wife and I decided to be more culinarily adventurous—or maybe “food curious”—than we were as children. And we’re taking our kids along for the ride. Being curious about food is part of being curious about life.
- Their parents feed them the same food they eat, not kids menu stuff. I wouldn’t order a cheeseburger or chicken nuggets at a Chinese or Italian restaurant, so why would I order them for my kids? They can eat the “real food” which, in the real world, we just call “food.” A century ago, Americans invented the idea that kids needed a dumbed-down menu of poorly nutritious food, and it’s still a stupid idea.
- Meals made at home are what’s for eating. Even if they hate it, the kids have to try everything on their plate at least a couple of real bites before we’ll consider a backup meal option (and then it’s probably going to be something like vegetables). If you don’t eat what’s served, you might go hungry. Admittedly, this used to result in fits and crying, but we held steady. Nowadays my kids are eager, or willing, or at least morosely resigned to trying what we make. We try to choose food that everyone will like, but preferences are funny: for example, my wife and daughter hate fresh tomatoes, while my son and I love them; and my wife and son don’t like spicy food while my daughter and I do. Sometimes I want a GPS for recipe and meal navigation.
- Their parents are up front about how advertising and marketing work for food (and anything else). Have you ever been in a sunny, crisply clean fast-food restaurant that was full of young athletic people flashing their smiles and happiness, just like in the McDonald’s commercials? I haven’t. Not everybody is lovin’ it. Advertising tries to color your emotions around a purchase, but that’s a really poor reason to make that purchase (and it probably helps that I’m jaded after working for decades in marketing).
The common thread? My wife and I decided our attitudes toward food before we had children, not after. It’s hard enough to change your own eating habits, but changing your kids eating habits is even worse. Since I have never said “We could’ve gone to McDonald’s!” in front of them (except as a joke), they aren’t likely to say it either.
Now, you may love fast food, and have no interest in steering your kids away from it. I’m not going to argue with you. No matter what, though: your kid’s attitude and habits toward food is really about your attitude and habits toward food. The sooner you sort that out for yourself, the better it will be for your kids.
And thank you for sharing this.