Sunday, June 5, 2011

Am I a Food Fascist?

It's not often that I am called a "Food Nazi," but it happened last week - for the first time - after I published this post relating my decision to bake "Faux-reo cookies" for my daughter, rather than buy her a packet of mass-produced Oreos.

Apparently, some people get upset when you suggest that feeding children high-sugar confections is a bad idea. The vehemence of two commenters' reactions - accusing me of "food Nazism," and predicting that my daughter will develop an eating disorder because I limit her intake of junk food - prompted some reflection.

Returning briefly to the "Oreo episode:" I did not heavy-handedly overrule my daughter's wish for the branded article. I simply told her that I had gone to the supermarket to buy the cookies she had requested, saw that they contained lots of unhealthy ingredients and asked her how she would feel if we baked a batch of healthier cookies instead.

Her response was highly enthusiastic. Like many children, she loves to bake with mommy, an activity that is often curtailed by lack of time on my part. She was delighted at the prospect of not only getting a sweet treat closely resembling Oreo cookies, but also spending "quality time" with me.

Meanwhile, I would like to reassure the commenter who fears that a lack of junk food will turn my daughter food-phobic. The "no junk food" rule in our home means no sugary breakfast cereals, no pre-made meals, no candy, no factory-made cookies and cakes and no soft drinks.
This is because my kids - and most others - inevitably get regular doses of junk outside the home, at friends' houses and birthday parties, for example. On family outings, we will occasionally let them have an ice cream or a non-caffeinated soft drink as a rare treat. In restaurants, they are allowed dessert and any of the "kiddie treats" handed to them. A few years ago, even our dentist handed them candy after their first dental check-up, as a reward for having caries-free teeth! (Prompting confused head-shaking from my children.)

At home, however, we have learned that letting even occasional junk foods creep in simply opens the door to endless begging for more, and so we put a stop to it some years ago. For breakfast we eat home-made porridge with chopped nuts, Bircher muesli with fresh fruit and whole milk yogurt, fruit and nut smoothies, a variety of eggs served alongside mashed sweet potatoes, or whole grain toast topped with sardines, cheese or nut butter. The children drink water or herbal tea sweetened with honey. Lunch is eaten at school (and is generally moderately nutritious as best). On weekends, at home, lunch or dinner will feature fish, meat or pulses with salad and/or vegetables and water.

We do eat desserts at home (fruit cobblers, tarts and compotes, egg puddings, etc.), cakes (cheesecake, chocolate cake, apple cake, etc.) and cookies, but these are home-made (often together with the kids) and usually contain whole grain flour and half (or less) the sugar of their store-bought counterparts.

This blog isn't about feeding kids, it's about dietary cancer prevention. So why am I yammering on about what I feed my offspring?

Because teaching children about healthy food choices, and showing them how to prepare delicious home-made alternatives to unhealthy branded foods is one of the most important gifts we can offer them for a long life of good health. (That cancer prevention starts in the womb and that childhood eating patterns influence our chances of developing cancer later in life, was illustrated eloquently by Ricardo Uauy, Professor of Public Health Nutrition at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, in this fascinating presentation at the 2010 World Cancer Research Fund conference.)

As long as they are young and consume the majority of their meals at home, we can influence our children's taste buds and shape their metabolism in beneficial ways. It can only be hoped that that they will continue to eat this way once they fly the coop.

So to those of you who worry that I am raising a generation of orthorexics (i.e., people who obsess compulsively about eating only healthy foods), let me reassure you: I am anything but an austere food-fundamentalist. My children know that outside the home, they can make their own food choices. As my story above about the dentist confirms, junk food has an amazing power to find kids; you don't need to help them look for it.

Meanwhile, at home we revel in growing and gathering our food, preparing it and eating it. Ketchup and mayonnaise? French fries? Salad dressings? Oreo cookies? Hamburgers and hot dogs? We make ‘em all - and so can you!

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