I thought I was doing so well. I breastfed both my babies for as long as I could, and then when that went tits up (pardon the pun) I moved them onto infant formula. I weaned them onto vegetables and fruits as per the age-appropriate guidelines, and now that they are toddlers I try to offer them a varied diet of healthy foods I think they might actually eat, rather than throw unsampled onto the floor (not as easy as it sounds). So far so good? Nope. It turns out that pretty much everything I’m feeding my kids is bad for them. And it’s stuff you are feeding your kids too.
Don’t believe me? Let’s start from birth. We all know that breastmilk is the food of choice for babies, but did you know that infant formula is made from the souls of slaughtered unicorns, and that feeding it to your baby will turn them into a Satanic worshipper? Or that you’re not supposed to wean them onto solid foods by offering them puree any more? Instead, there’s a thing called baby-led weaning, which involves serving up a buffet of fifteen different raw fruits and gently steamed veggies, then placing bets with your significant other on which will be the last to be thrown onto the floor. And you are supposed to do that at every single meal. Because the housework, shopping, and using the toilet can wait, right?
And sugar. Sugar is the new fat, tobacco, alcohol, and a side order of crystal meth all rolled into one. Keen as any parent to limit my young children’s sugar intake, I jumped on the sugar-free bandwagon for a while. Now, just to clarify: I am a barely competent cook. In fact, I am the sort of person who will eat a block of cheese for lunch because even a sandwich seems like too much work. And yet, I began reading and recreating recipes for sugar-free snacks and treats for my youngsters to enjoy. Well, I’ll specify that these were not actually sugar-free, since cane sugar was merely being replaced by the sugars in fruit juice and dates and stuff like that. But it was a start. Can you guess what happened? After slaving away in the kitchen for half a day and coming out with about two hundred eggplant, quinoa and goji berry muffins, my kids – who, I’ll state right now, are far smarter than their mother – wouldn’t touch them. Disappointed, I tried one. It tasted like potting mix. Even the dog wouldn’t have a bar of it. The muffins ended up in the bin, and my kids had peanut butter sandwiches instead.
Which brings me neatly to the subject of bread. I thought I was doing the right thing by feeding my kids wholemeal, multigrain bread, as opposed to the white stuff that I grew up on, but which is now akin to unicorn on the list of “Oh, Hell No” foods. Multigrain bread has got seeds in it, so it must be good for you, right? Nope. Flour is out. Apparently (and I saw this on Facebook somewhere, so it must be true), eating flour (or any grains) is really, really bad for you. Instead, you can now bake bread that contains no grains at all. In case you are super-keen to give this a bash (maybe you have some toddlers coming round for a party), grain-free bread is made by mixing together coconut oil, flax seeds, and the dust collected from under your fridge, baking for thirty-five minutes, and then chucking in the bin. Because, guess what? Your Toddler Won’t Eat It. Nor will they sample the crab cakes-with-hidden-veggies you have made, or the wild rice risotto balls, or the ox tail terrine. You know what they will eat? Pasta. And bread. And the odd water cracker. Toddlers, it turns out, are really into grains.
Life was so much simpler in the old days. Twenty thousand years ago, humans fed their young a healthy, balanced diet of Whatever The F*ck They Could Find. It worked well. We had a life expectancy of twenty-four, which meant most cancers didn’t get a chance to develop (see? Healthy!), and as long as a sabre-toothed tiger didn’t maul you or a woolly mammoth sit on you, you would probably become a parent in your teens, so if you were a woman you didn’t have to worry about the ‘experts’ telling you off for postponing reproduction until you were financially solvent and mentally mature enough to handle the pressure. Because, evidently, it’s all up to the woman. I am convinced that, for every cruel, thoughtless, and ignorant woman out there defiantly waiting until her mid-thirties or later to have children, there is a thirty-something single man secretly dressing his dog in baby clothes and weeping into its fur because he wishes he could become a Daddy just like, right now, ok? But I digress.
Right. So, we have figured out that sugar and grains are bad. But now it turns out that fruit is kiddy poison too. Yup, according to the paleo diet, fruit contains high amounts of fructose, and should be consumed in tiny quantities only. Brilliant. The one healthy food group my daughter will devour happily and pretty much endlessly, and it turns out that all along I might as well have been feeding her ground up horses’ hooves. Oh, wait. McDonald’s are already doing that.
I would like to clarify that I eat a relatively healthy diet, and I like to encourage my children to do the same. I am not advocating feeding children unhealthy, quick-fix, sugary and fattening foods (or, at least, not at every meal), but I do object to what I believe is a First World obsession with finding the unhealthy in nearly all foods, in particular when the solution touted by so-called nutritional ‘experts’ is to feed healthy kids highly restrictive diets which limit their exposure to not only valuable nutrition, but also the pleasure to be gained from eating something delicious. I am also not trying to dismiss or ridicule genuine food allergies and intolerances, or the dietary restrictions necessitated by them. My own son has a mild dairy intolerance which means that if he consumes more than a very small amount of dairy, his poo comes out looking like chocolate milkshake (but not smelling like it, unfortunately). I understand that for some people, milk alternatives, grain-free bread, and vegan cheese are a compromise between enjoying their favourite foods and not being crippled by pain and sickness. But, for the rest of us – the vast majority of us – I don’t believe there is a need to restrict or ‘improve’ our diets beyond eating lots of fruit and vegetables, healthy fats, and only the occasional Mars Bar. And the same goes for our children.
Once I actually became a parent, I realised that what your children eat will be dictated as much by, erm, your children, as it is by yourself. Don’t get me wrong. What you offer your children to eat is entirely a parent’s responsibility and should be a matter of thoughtful consideration (the salad in a Whopper does not constitute one of their Five-A-Day); however, what your kids actually eat… well, you can’t ram healthy food down their throats, can you? (I checked with the Department for Child Protection: you can’t).
Case in point: yesterday, my fourteen-month-old son’s lunch consisted exclusively of Nuttelex. For those of you unfamiliar with the brand, Nuttelex is a dairy-free vegetable oil-based butter alternative. It labels itself as “The healthy alternative”, although I don’t think the manufacturers intended it to be an alternative to actual food. What I offered my toddler for lunch was a rice cracker smeared in Nuttelex (since he can’t have cream cheese and he had polished off the last of the hummus at breakfast) topped with cooked salmon, and a side serving of grape tomatoes. A perfectly adequate middle-of-the-day meal for a small child. Not Michelin star-worthy, but acceptable, I think. What my toddler actually ate, however, was solely the Nuttelex, licking it off the cracker which then got thrown at the dog, along with everything else. At least the dog gets a varied diet.
Now, if I were living in poverty in a Third World country I would probably be glad that my boy got some fat into him at all that day. However, I live in a modestly affluent suburb in a very affluent country, where healthy food is plentifully and cheaply available, and where the social welfare system ensures that everybody should have the means to sustain themselves and their family with a healthy diet. The problem doesn’t lie with my own circumstances, but with the obsession our society has in current times with healthy living. Or, rather, with unhealthy living. Because, as ‘expert’ opinion keeps telling us, it doesn’t matter what or how you are feeding your children, you Are Doing It Wrong.
Have we all lost the plot entirely? Whatever happened to just feeding our kids good, healthy, delicious, normal food because we all enjoyed it, not because it was ‘super’ or would make us live forever? Who wants to live forever anyway? We’ll all just end up looking like David Hasselhoff.
I for one, am going to stop feeling guilty every time my kids turn their noses up at the healthy food I serve them, and end up with a Vegemite sandwich as back up. I will allow them to go a little bit hungry if they refuse to eat the nutritious snacks I have packed for our outing, but if we’re at the shops and running late, they will be getting hot chips to keep them quiet while I race around the supermarket trying to locate the chia seeds. We live in a society of abundance, with an excellent free health service and shops where you can buy peaches all year round and tomatoes for a dollar a kilo. I refuse to believe that the odd slice of bread or – gasp! biscuit – is going to result in my kids getting rickets. If I’m wrong, you can all sing ‘Told You So’ at me to the tune of “Let It Go”. Because besides the topic of what my kids are (or aren’t) eating, that’s the only other constant in my head at the moment.