Feed a baby something that doesn’t come from a jar? Serve broccoli to a toddler? Send your kid to school with a “brown bread sandwich?” These certainly aren’t today’s norms for feeding children.
The idea that children need different kinds of foods than adults do is entrenched in our culture, and the food industry has responded with a glut of ultra-processed foods that are nutrient-poor, high-calorie concoctions full of saturated fat, sodium and added sugars that, sadly and unsurprisingly, kids love. They are cheap, quick and easy for parents, too.
Learning to love a diet full of ultra-processed food only serves to reinforce unhealthy food habits that can, and likely will, last into adulthood, and ultimately increase the risks of adverse health outcomes such as obesity and chronic disease. This cycle needs to stop, a recent position paper by nutrition educators from Rutgers University warns.
The statement, by the Society for Nutrition Education and Behavior, argues that we need to change society’s beliefs about kids’ food and teach the adults in charge of feeding kids that kids can eat the same food as adults with only age-appropriate changes to texture and portion size.
Kids can eat the same food as adults with only age-appropriate changes to texture and portion size.
A food that is likely to be eaten by kids two to 14 years of age — chicken nuggets, macaroni and cheese, hot dogs) — at home or in restaurants and cafeterias is considered kids’ food. A diet that consists primarily of these foods can have a negative effect on kids’ food and taste preferences and may also increase their reluctance to try new foods, or encourage picky eating behaviors that are common problems for parents anyway.
The paper offers parents struggling to feed their children well some useful history. The idea that kids and adults need different types of foods seems to be have begun during alcohol prohibition in the early 20th century when the hospitality industry developed kids’ menus to recoup money lost from alcohol sales. Also around that time, a pediatrician wrote a popular book in which he (wrongly) recommended delaying the introduction of certain foods to children to give their chewing and digestive abilities time to mature.
Years later, pediatrician Benjamin Spock wrote a childcare book for parents, and his feeding recommendations were much more in line with today’s guidelines for feeding children. Yet the idea of feeding children differently from adults persisted.
Since then, kids’ food and kids’ menus offering ultra-processed chicken nuggets, hamburgers, grilled cheese, French fries, hot dogs and macaroni and cheese have become staples and social norms. These foods are readily available in restaurants and grocery stores, and to parents’ delight, they are cheap.
Making “kids’ food” a separate category from adult food implies that kids won’t or shouldn’t eat what adults eat. This is just not true, but when the bar is set low for kids, they probably aren’t going to exceed expectations. The more socially acceptable ultra-processed kids’ foods become, the authors write, the more the perceived risk of eating these foods lessens — to the point where parents and policy makers don’t even acknowledge — the need for change.
The task of shifting ideas about kids’ nutrition toward healthy food for both children and adults falls to nutrition educators, the authors write. The key lies in promoting the idea that children over the age of two can eat the same healthy foods that adults eat. Working with the restaurant industry, the media and policymakers, nutrition educators can improve health promotion messaging, marketing and menu labeling. Default menu options for children can be changed.
A diet full of ultra-processed food reinforces unhealthy food habits that can, and likely will, last into adulthood and ultimately increase the risks of health issues like obesity and diabetes.
The current food environment presents challenges, but nutrition education involving government, schools and industries can address these challenges and decrease the risk of unfavorable health outcomes due to diet and food choices for future generations. Work needs to be done at all levels of society, beginning with the family.
Big, systemic changes such as these take time, but feeding your little ones real food from the beginning and avoiding serving ultra-processed foods at home are easier changes to implement.
The Society for Nutrition Education and Behavior position paper is published in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior.