There are an awful lot of excuses out there for why poor people have bad diets and why poor kids tend to be more obese than middle class and affluent kids. What’s rarely mentioned is bad parenting.
Common excuses range from the dearth of grocery stores in urban areas (a myth—see here) and the prevalence of fast food restaurants in poor communities (a myth—studies show the poor eat in restaurants infrequently). First lady Michelle Obama likes to promote the idea that unhealthy school lunches are to blame for kids’ growing girth (another myth—school food was gross and unhealthy long before childhood obesity reached “crisis” levels).
And now we have a new excuse. According to Joe Pinsker at The Atlantic, it’s the fact that low income parents can’t afford to do what academics say is required to get kids to eat their peas and carrots—repetition, dedication to a cause, and lots and lots of money.
Pinsker writes about the accepted narrative in parenting circles that kids need to see “unknown foods” between eight and 15 times before they’ll eat them. He worries: “This, of course, doesn’t come cheap. Once rejected, a good number of those eight to 15 servings of broccoli (or carrots or whole grains or fish) are going to end up on the floor and then in the garbage. And on top of that, parents need to buy a dependable backup food to have on hand.”
Pinsker’s case relies on the idea that buying healthy food is too expensive for poor families, and that junk food is far more affordable. That might be true for writers at The Atlantic who shop at Whole Foods and buy organic and locally procured produce, meat, fish, dairy and other staples. But for budget shoppers, there’s a universe of other options out there that don’t break the bank—like canned and frozen food, pasta, rice, cornmeal, dried beans, canned meat, canned broth, and soups. Even in the produce aisle, a budget shopper can load up on the relatively inexpensive items like bananas, cabbage, potatoes, carrots, and onions.
While food snobs might turn their noses up at cheaper items sold in stores, moms will be happy to know that frozen vegetables are actually more nutritious than their fresh counterparts. Produce meant for the fresh aisle at the grocery store is often picked before being fully ripened, whereas produce marked for the freezing process are allowed to fully ripen, which means they have more vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. By freezing this produce at its ripest stage, those nutrients are locked in. That’s not to say fresh produce is unhealthy. It’s not. But people should know that saving money doesn’t always come at a cost to their health.
Of course, even if food is relatively affordable, it’s still a shame to see it end up in the trash. Yet parents don’t need to accept Pinsker’s presumption that it’s all going to end up on the floor. In bygone days, there was another tactic used to get kids to eat their peas and carrots—yelling at them or threatening them with some sort of punishment for noncompliance. Of course, these days, in parenting circles, yelling is tantamount to child abuse and punishment is an exotic bird rarely seen.
Even the foodie-in-chief Michelle Obama agreed that strong parenting is a necessary device to get kids to eat healthy. In a 2010 speech before the NAACP, the First Lady reflected on her own mother’s strong hand and why parents are critical in helping children form good eating habits. She said:
[I]n my house, Marian Robinson’s house, we ate what we were served. My mother never cared whether me or my brother liked what was on our plates. We either ate what was there or we didn’t eat. It was as simple as that. We never ate anything fancy, but the portion sizes were reasonable . . . And there was always a vegetable on the plate . .
No one wants to slam parents or accuse parents of being neglectful, but perhaps it’s time to start pointing fingers. Parents clearly need to be reminded that feeding a child is the most basic parental responsibility. And making kids sit at the table until they eat healthy meals shouldn’t be treated as something reserved for the rich. It’s a tradition in dire need of renewal at all economic levels.