Kill the Kids’ Menu

The uphill battle to give children good food … and get them to eat it

The visitors from England were utterly charming except when the kids sat down to eat. The guests were a Sikh family, a couple and their three sons aged 16, 12 and 6. The parents, of course, preferred the savoury food of their ancestral Punjab: roti, dal, subgees, rounded off by pakoras and samosas. So their meals were spicy and sumptuous. The boys—who were otherwise bright eyed, inquisitive and eager to explore the sights and sounds of Canada—had a much more restricted diet. For breakfast they wanted nothing but Weetabix, for lunch grilled cheese sandwiches (and it had to be white bread and Kraft slices, definitely not any other species of fromage) and for dinner plain no-cheese pizza.

How did this family go in one generation from having one of the tastiest cuisines in the world to meals that are utterly bland and lacking in nutrition? Jeannie Marshall’s new book, Outside the Box: Why Our Children Need Real Food, Not Food Products, helps answer this question and also shows that this is a world-wide problem of traditional cuisines being replaced by processed food, a phenomenon that affects everyone and not just those immigrants who have the misfortune to assimilate into the culinary wasteland of the British Isles.

In the last decade, muckraking exposés such as Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal have amply demonstrated that the food industry, with its multitude of environmental and nutritional sins, is a fat and deserving target. Marshall brings a personal angle to the genre of the fast food investigative report by bringing to the debate her experiences living in Italy over the last ten years with her husband and son. She is looking at the dining room table with both the eyes of a mother eager to raise a healthy child and the taste buds of an expatriate who has steeped herself in the savoury delights of Italian cooking.

One need only to look at kids’ menus, an increasingly common phenomenon, to get a sense of the problem. These are universally awful, featuring terrible food choices, such as the dreaded grilled cheese sandwich and pizza with only cheese and tomato sauce. In traditional food cultures, such as Italy, at least before the advent of fast food, children were fed the same food as adults. As many a frustrated parent will recognize, this is easier said than done, especially when it comes to vegetables, but Marshall contends that children do eventually learn to enjoy good food if you offer it to them many times and do not give them alternatives.

It is much easier to sustain a good diet and eat real food if one eats within the confines of a sharply demarcated traditional food culture. A food culture is a traditional way of eating, including rules about when to eat what, and the different meanings associated with different foods. It also entails cooking at home and the presence of outdoor markets. Unlike industrial prepackaged food and fast food, a traditional food culture will supply one with all the nutrients one needs, because it has evolved over time to adapt a population to its environment. This is why moving away from a traditional food culture is a loss of knowledge, leading both to health problems such as obesity and diabetes and to environmental degradation.

Marshall makes a strong case for the idea of collective responsibility when it comes to improving diet: it is not just up to individuals to eat well and demand better food products. It is easy to label overweight individuals weak and immoral, but many of them have little choice about the food they eat, and losing weight permanently is an impossible task. The factors leading to weight gain are multiple and complex and poorly understood by nutritional science. Society needs to make a healthy diet a priority if there is to be real change. Thus collective solutions such as providing good school lunches, regulating the food industry and controlling advertising to children make a lot of sense.

Parents’ efforts to feed their kids well would pay off more quickly if it were not for those aggressive ads. It is not only overt commercials but also cartoons like SpongeBob SquarePants that promote fast food. Kids’ TV shows often contain images of fast food or take place in fast food restaurants. One of Marshall’s most shocking findings about advertising is the Girls Intelligence Agency, which recruits girls as young as eight to become agents for the organization and promote different products to their peers. In addition, the girls are asked to supply information about their friends’ habits and wants. This information is then sold to GIA’s clients such as Nestlé. Particularly creepy is the practice of an agent filming a sleepover and clients of GIA watching it, a proceeding that seems like a dismaying fusion of Nabokov’s Lolita with the TV program Mad Men. Marshall points out that an aggressively consumerist culture can make kids irritable and argumentative, and undermine the relationship between parents and kids, as ads bypass parents to target kids directly. Kids then constantly nag parents to purchase products and parents face the difficult choice of buying bad food or constantly saying no to their kids. Regulating such advertising would be a boon to both parents and kids.

A huge problem, however, with most anti–fast food polemics, including Outside the Box, is the issue of time. Marshall urges us to find out everything about the food we eat, buy it from the people who grow it, visit the farms where it is raised and grown, grow some of it ourselves—all activities that require a considerable investment of time. Marshall suggests that time is not a problem, that we have been duped by the processed food corporations into thinking we have no time. But there is no right and wrong position on this. When people say they have no time to shop and cook, some of them mean that they prefer to spend their leisure time on other pursuits. Others have jobs, both working class and highly paid professional jobs, such as lawyering, that allow very little time off. In order to persuade people to search for organic food and to cook it, the whole work culture, the values and the lifestyle surrounding it need to change.

The distinction between real and processed food can also be examined more closely. How real is real food? Can we be certain that an organic farmer did not use pesticides, or genetically engineered food? If ketchup can be organic, what does organic mean? Most of us have had the experience of buying fruit and vegetables labelled organic that taste awful, as well as regular, “inorganic” fruit and vegetables that taste great. Furthermore, all cooking is a form of processing to some extent, and it changes the food. Pancetta—a staple of Italian cooking—has undergone a number of rigorous processes before it reaches its current state. Why is pancetta good, but a hamburger bad?

Despite these problems—which are common to food activism—Outside the Box is a compelling read for any of us who want to have a healthy diet for ourselves and our families. The book rests on a wealth of research and tireless journalistic legwork, which are deployed with thoughtful passion. It is a pleasure to read, the descriptions of food in particular; one could learn how to prepare a number of delicious meals from perusing its pages. The personal angle works well: it is interesting to learn of Marshall’s own life in Italy and her experience as the mother of Nico. Her devotion to her family, expressed through finding good ingredients and cooking, is touching and inspiring. Meals, as Marshall’s book reminds us, are profoundly social events and the abstract individualistic logic of free market capitalism does a disservice to the healthy food cultures that we need to both preserve and develop.