Christopher Anderson took his son on a wild and perilous expedition, where they saw danger lurking everywhere. The grocery store.
He’s curious, so he asks. I’m curious, so I know a lot about it. But really, how much should I tell my son about the food we don’t eat?
My son Atticus recently asked me to take him to the grocery store. He didn’t want to buy anything, but rather he wanted to see all the weird food-like products I’ve told him about or he’s heard about from friends, or on the rare occasion he’s seen on commercial television (we’re a PBS family). So I took him down the “juice” aisle, and sure enough he was amazed by the colors. “This can’t be real, can it?” he asked regarding a bright orange liquid that came in a gallon jug. So I read the ingredients list, and no, it’s not real juice. On the cereal isle he was drawn to the colorful products, announcing, “These have to be totally processed!” And he’s right. GMOs, food colorings, preservatives, with a nice shellacking of vitamins.
How did we get here? That’s a loaded question, because it could mean how did America come to be the king of highly processed breakfast cereals, juices, and meats. Or it could mean how did I end up in a grocery store with my 7 year-old son trying to explain why I won’t let him eat such things. Both are big, necessary questions.
Recently my wife told me I needed to stop talking about the politics of food so much around the kids. “They’re going to have issues around food,” she said. But I’m not so sure this is true. We’ve both tried our best to be up front with our children regarding all manner of things—as long as they are ready for it. They know only vague details regarding the recent Boston Marathon bombings, and we waited until Atticus was six before showing him Star Wars (most of his friends saw it already). But with food I feel we are on a subject he can actually make sense of, even if what we’ve done to our food over the past 50+ years makes little to no sense at all.
We have a modest garden. We visit the farmer’s market every week without fail. And up until this season, we’ve been regular CSA members (I lost my job last year, and the farm is 25 minutes away, and our farmer’s market is stunningly good). Atticus and his sister live among a thriving culture of food. And so when on vacation in a shared beach house with my wife’s family, things came up. Like Froot Loops on the kitchen counter. Cheetos. Meals served in front of the blaring television (Sports Center!). Coke and Pepsi Zero. It was a minefield, and while our children know to steer clear of these things without our permission, we were inevitably cast as the weirdos who won’t let their kids have any fun.
Which is one reason I ended up in the supermarket, allowing Atticus to explore and seek out things considered highly processed. I feel as though the greatest thing I can pass on to Atticus and Meadow, his sister, is curiosity and knowledge. The ability to make good choices from the start. Is a product food? It’s pretty easy to tell. Foods generally aren’t rich in high fructose corn syrup or partially hydrogenated oils, aren’t made neon thanks to red #40, yellow #5, or Blue Lake #2. And they are generally made with ingredients a 7 year-old can pronounce.
And he gets it. Atticus knows highly processed food is not good for you, though not because we’ve told him so. Once, on the way back from a camping trip, my wife and kids stopped at McDonald’s because they were on the road and they didn’t feel like they had another option. Atticus kept it simple and ordered a hamburger. 20 minutes later he threw said hamburger up. This stuck with him and he avoids McDonald’s at all costs. And even later, when on another road trip we stopped for breakfast at another fast food joint, the egg sandwich made Atticus’s stomach upset. Now he balks at even the slightest suggestion of fast food. I know it’s probably not kosher to be excited about your child’s gastric-abdominal pain, but I have to admit that’s it’s not necessarily a bad thing either.
Sure, this could all come crumbling down once my son reaches adolescence and he starts hanging out with friends who have nothing but love for the golden arches (and Pokemon, pro football, and every other thing that freaks me out). But still, I believe arming him from the start with information regarding what is and isn’t food can only help in the long run. Would you eat something you know to not actually be food? I know I do on occasion, and I’m surprised by how I got here, in a world where food-like substances are okay to consume.
Which begs the question: If you know it’s bad for your child (and you), how come so many parents feed their kids such dubious products? I’m going to get a little radical here and shake the boat a little. I’ll say it has a lot to do with being a “weirdo.”
Back to the perception of us by our family members on that recent vacation. People want to fit in. This means allowing your kid to fit in. So yes, at Halloween we allow our children to roam the streets in search of candies chock full of questionable ingredients. And sure, we expect our children to have cakes on their birthdays—and the birthday of every kid they know. And it’s nothing to let them grab a lollipop at the bank (we trade those out for organic lollipops once we get home). And if a neighbor offers our kids Cheeze-Its, well, maybe that’s where we draw the line. Like my wife recently did.
“We don’t really let our kids eat those,” she told our neighbor, a well-intentioned grandmother. Surely this hurt our neighbor, but after so many instances of the kids coming home with bags of cookies, chips, and gummy worms, we felt we had to say something. Because we were being weirdos and taking these products away from them as soon as they came in the door. And the kids would be upset. And the whole thing just became too much for everyone.
Are we weird? I guess you could say we are. After all, what’s more American than a Twinkie? But my wife and I consider it weird that some people can’t watch a movie without an oversized barrel of GMO “buttered” popcorn and a 32-ounce caramel colored soda. We think it’s weird that people are always trying to push candy on our kids, as if this is the only way that our children will find happiness. We think that it’s weird that Americans consume more sugar today than ever before—by a wide margin.—and that no one can figure out where this diabetes epidemic is coming from. It’s all just so weird.
So for now, we’ll own that label. If it’s weird to feed our children “clean” foods—foods that are whole and wholesome, organic and real—well, then I’m a weirdo. Our whole family is. Ladies and gentlemen, meet the Weirdos.