In defense of a parent’s food choices for her kids

February 8, 2012

Scene from a Silver Spring Subway sandwich shop: A seemingly harried mother with daughter in tow places an order for a Fresh Fit for Kids Meal. A child-sized turkey sandwich on wheat bread.

“Can I have chips, Mom?”

The mom turns to the clerk and parrots her daughter’s request.

“I’m sorry, it’s a healthy meal; she can’t have chips,” the clerk responds.

Whoa! Had I heard right?

The mom who had dealt with Lord knows how many issues at work and at home that day shrugged, clearly deciding that she didn’t need a fight over chips.

All I can say is that it’s a good thing the Subway sandwich-maker didn’t try to tell me that I no longer had the final say over what my kids get to eat.

I understand. Childhood obesity is a serious issue in this country. Depending on how you define being overweight and obese, between 17 and 33 percent of this country’s kids fall into those categories. I’m all for healthy school lunch options. I applaud the consciousness-raising on healthy eating that Michelle Obama has done using the bully pulpit of being first lady. I think having low-fat milk, apple slices and those yummy yogurt parfaits as options at McDonald’s is a great idea.

But at the risk of sounding more like Michele Bachmann than Michelle Obama, we need to be careful that in our haste to embrace the noble idea of healthy eating, we don’t let the food police decide whether our kids can have fries with that.

When Hostess Brands filed for bankruptcy last month, there was tongue-clicking that the Twinkies-maker’s potential demise was attributable not to labor and pension costs but rather to its status as being “politically incorrect.” (In some circles, putting one of the packaged, processed treats in a lunchbox would be considered child abuse.)

Since my boys began eating solid foods, there have been two rules in our household: Milk and produce with every meal. And precisely because those are the rules, we bend on occasion. Soda is allowed at restaurants; and even when they were smaller, a small-size McDonald’s fries was granted as a special treat.

In fact, when McDonald’s revamped its Happy Meals last fall to include apple slices in every meal, the company opted against eliminating fries and soda as options because of consumer objections. “Ultimately, it’s a parent decision to make about their child’s well-being,” company spokeswoman Dayna Proud said at the time.

As for Subway, spokesman Kevin Kane told me that “technically, to keep it a Fresh Fit for Kids Meal there are no substitutions.” But he went on to say that the company hasn’t received complaints about the policy. “From the information we have from speaking with franchisees and various health and mom bloggers . . . the majority of parents like a meal for their children that is healthier,” he said.

I get that. I really do. Parents dealing with a child whining for chips can put the blame on the sandwichmaker behind the plexiglass. Sometimes, it’s nice not to have to be the heavy all the time.

Parents need to be educated about the importance of healthy eating for their children. Children need to be encouraged to develop healthy habits so that popping a few grapes in their mouths is as natural — and as satisfying — as popping a few M&Ms.

And I know that food shouldn’t be used as a treat, but the simple reality is that sometimes it is. Going out for ice cream on a warm summer night, feeling the bubbles of a carbonated soda tickle your nose, even — occasionally — a bag of chips with a turkey sandwich.

And I, as a parent, should get to make those calls. If we allow the pendulum to swing so far that parents can’t make the ultimate call on what their child eats, childhood obesity won’t be our biggest problem.

Tracy Grant, the editor of KidsPost, writes about parenting issues every other week.

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