A few months ago I wrote a blog post about how the more I learned about industrial agriculture and food processing, the more I felt like Neo in the movie The Matrix. Once Neo is exposed to the reality of his world (that humans are actually raised purely to create energy for machines, and a virtual reality has been created to placate the people in their “pods” so they never become aware of their predicament), he can’t go back to his previous existence — even though he probably really wants to.
The American food matrix
It’s kind of like that with food, especially in America, where so much of what we buy is not only processed beyond recognition, but is also laced with chemical preservatives; cheap, insulin-raising sweeteners; and unhealthy, unnatural fats. Not only is the typical “western” (i.e. American) diet linked to all kinds of health problems including type-II diabetes, obesity, and heart disease, it’s also very, very bad for the planet. Once I started reading books like Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma and Real Food by Nina Planck, I found that I was (and am now) — for better or worse — living a clear-eyed, if sometimes cranky, existence on the other side of the (food) matrix.
As a parent, this means keeping my kids away from the cereal aisle (Lucky Charms, what are those?) and instilling the hard and fast belief that McDonald’s is “gross.” Which all went swimmingly until my two young kids got into school, where they are surrounded every day by other, very nice children, whose lunches are packed with blue GoGurt, Pringles and Lunchables. (No, we don’t attend the most progressive school.) Trying to convince my kids that they really would rather have homemade yogurt and fresh peaches instead of super-fun-looking things with Scooby-Doo and Dora the Explorer on the packages has been a parenting challenge, to say the least.
I know plenty of moms who wave the white flag and surrender — to the pressure, the marketing, the junk. And who can blame them? When it comes to picking your battles, it’s understandable why we’d be glad just to get the kids off to school with a clean face and a lunch they’ll actually eat.
Still — even though I am certainly not above the occasional Nutter Butter or French fry — I am going to keep fighting the good fight for (generally) healthier, more sustainable (and yet hopefully not totally un-fun!) food at my family’s dinner table (and in their lunch boxes). To start, unbeknownst to the under-10 set, we have implemented a “Family Food Code,” which I cobbled together from a few different sources, including books like Michael Pollan’s Food Rules as well as some deep thoughts of my own. Every family’s code will be different, but here’s the basic outline of ours:
Our “Family Food Code”
Make food delicious
This is truly the heart of raising real-food-loving kids, I think. Simple, right? But not always easy, I know. But on this blog I plan to share ideas that I hope will inspire you and show you that making meals that are undeniably tasty (even to kindergartners) doesn’t have to be all that difficult.
Make food an adventure
Have a picnic in your back yard (or living room floor), go berry picking at a local farm, milk a cow, explore the aisles of an Asian supermarket. Make trying new things and eating healthy food something that is fun, cool and exciting, and it’s truly amazing what kids will eat.
Make meals special
In addition to more than occasionally making something that actually is kinda special, try to sanctify the meal and the ritual of sitting down to dinner. Even if you’re not religious, take a few moments at the start of a meal to give thanks — for the wonderful food in front of you, for your family, for your puppy being house trained, for your iPad, whatever.
Try to eat together as a family more often than not
Sharing meals as a family is the best way to model good eating habits, and it has about a million other benefits for kids, too. If you’re not doing this, take a look at what’s getting in the way. If it’s soccer practice, maybe you could bring a picnic to the park to eat afterward? If it’s Dad’s weekday travel, try Saturday-morning breakfasts.
Avoid foods that are advertised on TV
This is one of Michael Pollan’s rules, and I think it goes a long way toward avoiding processed, packaged foods in favor of real, whole ones. Have you ever seen a commercial for spinach? Plus, it’s easy for kids to grasp.
And another of Pollan’s rules:
Avoid foods containing ingredients a third-grader can’t pronounce
This rule works especially well in our house because I actually have a third-grader. When I show him a label that reads, “ethoxylated diglycerides, xanthan gum…,” he just rubs his head with his hands and sighs.